Bill and Hillary Clinton's attendance at Ford's Theatre for ABC's "An American Celebration" turned out to be an apolitical event, for which they may have been grateful.
The performance, a fund-raiser for the historic theater, was taped June 13, during NATO's involvement in Kosovo, but no one on stage alludes to war or politics.
Host Nathan Lane's one little tweak comparing life in Washington with life in show business draws little response from the genteel black-tie audience. In fact, almost none of his small, scripted efforts at humor elicits much more than polite chuckles. Blame writer Stephen Pauliot, who doesn't understand Washington's funny bone as well as local political pundit Mark Russell, or perhaps chose to ignore it.
Instead, the president and first lady -- he in a tux, she in a pale aqua caftan -- joined cabinet officers, congressional representatives, business executives and others who paid as much as $5,000 each for the show, receptions at the Capitol and White House and a dinner at the Organization of American States. Funds raised by this 20th televised gala (airing Thursday at 8 on ABC) support the theater's shows and discounted tickets.
Ford's Theater was dark for 103 years following Abraham Lincoln's assassination, then reopened in 1968. In 1975, Gerald Ford became the first president to attend a gala at the theater since it was closed in 1865. All presidents since then have attend the gala and, since Jimmy Carter's administration, have hosted a reception at the White House.
For the ABC audience, the smorgasbord of performances has been trimmed to an hour (closer to 45 minutes without commercials). Some selections seem complete, but for others, the editing seems a little too tight, offering only a portion of what was surely a fuller performance. Such are the contraints of converting a live show to advertiser-supported television.
Although the production is nominally "An American Celebration," two of the artists are not Americans. Thirteen-year-old Charlotte Church is from Cardiff, Wales, and jazz pianist Diana Krall is Canadian. But no matter. The show rolls from one musical act to another, stitched together with introductions by Lane and fellow actors Adam Arkin, James McDaniel and Beau Bridges.
First up is a vaudeville-style rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Lane, who sings the line "yesterday they told you you would not go far" and adds: "Perhaps you saw my series." (NBC killed Lane's series, "Encore, Encore," early in the season.)
He's followed by Church, whose first album, "Voice of an Angel," has sold more than
1.5 million copies since its release in November. The young operatic soprano sings "Amazing Grace," a selection that doesn't showcase her unusually mature voice as well as another she offered that night, and for which she has become known, Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Pie Jesu."
Arkin ("Chicago Hope") introduces lanky country singer Alan Jackson, a Grammy Award-winner who shows up in white hat and jeans to sing "Little Man" with his seven-member band, the Strayhorns. Clinton, who went on to tour economically deprived areas of the country, nods appreciatively to Jackson's story of a local businessman pushed out by "big money" corporations.
The musical buffet continues with Queen Esther Marrow and the Harlem Gospel Singers, who offer "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and then pump it up for "Higher and Higher," with Anthony Evans at the keyboard. Evans said the New York group does not often perform away from the East Coast and will make its first trip west this summer for a performance in San Francisco.
Conductor Bill Conti leads the stage orchestra in the theme from the movie "Rocky," followed by Cartier Anthony Williams's tap dance to "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The 9-year-old is a native of the District.
Then, in a switch from high energy to subdued cool, McDaniel introduces Krall for her rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train." She calls the composition her tribute to Washington's Duke Ellington, who made the song famous.
There's one non-musical performance, Debbie Allen's dramatic monologue honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Allen ends with the line, "Freedom, this is the hardest thing I ever do," then seems to nod toward the box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 while attending a play.
Bridges, reminding the audience that the Great Emancipator often told friends that the theater and music "renew me," introduces lyric soprano Kathleen Battle. Resplendent in a red-orange and gold gown, Battle rocks the room with her soaring rendition of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" backed by members of the Washington Choral Arts Society in dark blue gowns and tuxes.
As the show ends, Clinton notes that "Battle Hymn" was played by bands along the route of the train carrying Lincoln's body to burial in Springfield, Ill.
One of Clinton's references bears explaining for the television audience: When he thanks "Frankie, Peatsey and Tricia," the president is talking about Hewitt, artistic director of Ford's Theatre, who is seated on his left during the performance; and the wives of Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Both of the senate wives have worked on behalf of the theater.
Earlier in the show, but not included on the TV tape, Hewitt presented Tricia Lott with the Ford's Theatre Lincoln Medal. Hillary Rodham Clinton received the medal last year.