By Peter Filichia
Spent Presidents’ Day thinking about presidents who’ve shown up in musicals.
Recall that Lola sang, “You’ve seen the sign that says, ‘George Washington once slept here’? Well, though nobody spied him, guess who was beside him?” in “A Little Brains – A Little Talent” in Damn Yankees. Gwen Verdon said she got plenty of hate mail for that one. The line was changed for the film version, which many more people would see, lest Verdon get an ever larger avalanche of mail.
Charley in How Now, Dow Jones sings that “I hear those trumpets begin to blare. And now I’m Washington upon the Delaware” during the show’s big production “Step to the Rear.” Granted, at that point, Washington wasn’t president yet, but that river trip certainly helped him get there.
The “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” of 1776 are pleased that “For the first time in a year, Adams isn’t here.” When he is, however, he can be found harassing our future third president: “Mr. Jefferson, dear Mr. Jefferson,” he says before making impossible demands in “But, Mr. Adams.”
Presidents come and go so quickly in Pacific Overtures. No sooner has the American Admiral noted that “Commodore Perry say hello! Also come memorial plaque President Fillmore wish bestow” than he’s saying “Commodore Perry very fierce. Disregard confusion below. President Fillmore now named Pierce.”
Lincoln is mentioned as the “emancipator of the slaves” in “Abie Baby” in Hair. (Well, at least the first time around. The word “emancipator” picks up four extra syllables plunked right into the middle of the word. I’d repeat them here, but this is a family blog.)
A more benign, albeit more grisly, Lincolnian image comes courtesy of the theatergoers who have just seen Max Bialystock’s new production of Funny Boy: “What he did to Shakespeare, Booth did to Lincoln” (in The Producers, of course).
Washington, Lincoln and Jackson are mentioned in “Yankee Dollar” in Jamaica as Savannah (Lena Horne) celebrates those presidents for being pictured on currency: respectively the $1, $5 and $20 bills. Hey, how come Jefferson doesn’t get in there via the $2 bill? Or Grant by way of the $50? Guess that people – and that includes lyricist E.Y. Harburg – don’t much think about the relatively rare $2 bill. As for the $50, Jamaica was written in 1957, when very few Americans or Jamaicans ran into one during their daily lives.
I’ll grant you that Grant was not considered that good a president, but he was good enough to make at least two musicals that come to my mind. He even was listed ahead of Lincoln in “Uncle Sam Rag” in the 1959 hit Redhead: “Frankfurters, Boston beans, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Popcorn, Sitting Bull, Ragtime Baby.” Five years later, he reappeared in “Lights! Camera! Platitude!” in What Makes Sammy Run?: “President Grant on campaign, making speeches from a train.” There he meets the young Alexander Graham Bell, who’s played by Sally Ann Howes. (Don’t ask. But do listen.)
Of course we’re going to run into presidents in Assassins; there wouldn’t be much of a show if we didn’t. “The Ballad of Guiteau” mentions that that killer “Drew a crowd to his trial, led them in prayer, said, ‘I killed Garfield, I’ll make no denial.’” A happier scenario is displayed by each of those who could brag “How I Saved Roosevelt”: “We might have been left bereft of FDR.” (Is that a great rhyme, or what? It’s not just that “left” and “bereft” are perfect rhymes; the way we start “FDR” had an “eft” feel to it, too. But that’s our Stephen Sondheim!
The song that’s actually called “President” in Ragtime mentions one of these heinous crimes: “The Secret Service was at the ready. The recent assassination of President McKinley had been a lesson well-learned.” But on a much happier note, future Tony-winner Victoria Clark only shot off her mouth and not a gun when, in “The 1st Class Roster” in Titanic, she gushed “He was close advisor to President Grover Cleveland and served in the House of Representatives two full terms!” Equally excited was the chorus in “Who’s the Greatest?” in Let ‘Em Eat Cake: “Who is ready to keep the foe at bay? Fight like Teddy, and speak like Henry Clay?” Not a whit behind was reporter Britt Craig, who told us the “Big News” in Parade: “Look! Now that Wilson is in, and old Taft didn’t win, hell, they’re comin’ to blows!”
Less respect was given to a chief executive that historians often rank at the bottom of the presidential barrel: “Search for Warren Harding. Who’s he?” is sung in “Throw It Out” in A New Brain. And while Calvin Coolidge was known for being silent, Cole Porter cited him (“You’re a Coolidge dollar” in “You’re the Top” in Anything Goes) as did Leo Robin in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; there the nation’s thirtieth president gets an entire song: “Keeping Cool with Coolidge” in which the excited cast insists “He’s our pal! We’re keeping cool with Cal!”
The nation’s next president eventually got his own song, too: “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” sang the disenfranchised in Annie. In the Depression, were they depressed! And speaking of “I’m Still Here” from Follies, Sondheim mentions both “Herbert and J. Edgar Hoo-ooo-ooo-ver.”
Cole Porter acknowledged not only a president but also a first lady when citing “Truman’s Bess” in “Cherry Pies Ought To Be You” from Out of This World. Oscar Hammerstein II limited himself to the president when he wrote “Dr. Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor, Harry Truman, Truman Capote, and Dewey” in “Chop Suey” for Flower Drum Song)
We’re up to Eisenhower now, who obliquely gets mentioned in the aforementioned Jamaica when Savannah says that “Ike, he got a puttin’ button” in Harburg’s “Push De Button.” But Harburg had already been much more fanciful in “Something Sort of Grandish” in Finian’s Rainbow: “I might be mannish-ish or mouse-ish … but with thee, I’m Eisenhows-ish.”
John F. Kennedy is cited by his initials “JFK to U.S. Steel” in the title song from Here’s Love!. The show opened on Oct. 3, 1963, when the president was alive and well. Only 51 days later, the lyric had to be changed to “CIA to U.S. Steel.”
Initials were also used for the song known as “Initials” in Hair: “LBJ took the IRT down to Fourth Street, U.S.A.” Carolyn Leigh gave us the entire name in “The A-B-C Song” in How Now, Dow Jones: “From here to Saud Araby, if Johnson blows his nose, run and hock the baby.”
“Khrushchev stopped screaming, and Librium came in, and Nixon didn’t win,” sang Beth, Frank and Charley in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” in Merrily We Roll Along The show only ran two weeks, but the song has lasted – which is more than we can say for George W. Bush. The statement made by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez in Avenue Q eventually happened: “George Bush is only for now.”
What isn’t only “For Now” are these recordings. They’re now and forever, thanks to other presidents – the presidents of recording companies — who made them happen.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.