The most ridiculously impossible ticket to get on Broadway right now is stamped “Hamilton,” because of course everyone has just been dying for a musical steeped in public finance and nation-building.
“You’re going to see policy,” admirer John Dempsey promises of this hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. “A huge stretch,” Dempsey says, “is about the Federalist Papers.”
Dempsey’s own politically set musical, “The Fix,” about an underhanded American dynasty eying the White House, returns to Signature Theatre this week. It’s an energetic tabloid tale of very, very bad political sex-and-drugs scandals, with a zippy rock score. (Dempsey wrote the book and lyrics, Dana P. Rowe penned the tunes.)
Do politically savvy musicals now have mojo in the polls? “Hamilton” — which had a smash run earlier this year at Manhattan’s Public Theater and officially opened on Broadway on Thursday as the Republican candidates opened their debate season — is already such a monster hit that imitators are sure to follow. It may be one-of-a-kind, though, in part because “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda (the show’s writer, composer and star) comes from strong political stock: His father is a strategist.
“The Fix” isn’t new: The musical’s U.S. debut came at Signature in 1998 just weeks after the Clinton-Lewinsky news broke and a few months before the Starr report became the most lurid read in town. Reviewing “The Fix” for The Washington Post, Lloyd Rose called it a cross between “The Manchurian Candidate” and a Busby Berkeley musical. You could argue that “The Fix” was a precursor of the increasingly salacious political sagas that have since gone mainstream, starting with noble “The West Wing” and cresting with the wild “Scandal” and “House of Cards.”
“Those are our people,” Rowe says, laughing about the raunchy, power-mad “House of Cards” gang.
So maybe the soil is growing more fertile for actual political song-and-dance acts after all. (A real-life spy musical called “Code Name: CYNTHIA” is even playing now at the Anacostia Arts Center.) To witness the unanimous enthusiasm for “Hamilton” and its $30 million-plus in advance sales, you’d think policymakers were suddenly hotter on stage than showgirls in July — and that used to be true.
As the American musical found its footing in the 1930s, the Depression made topical entertainments commonplace and even acclaimed. “Of Thee I Sing” won the drama Pulitzer in 1931, which is remarkable to imagine now, considering it’s about a president with a one-word upbeat campaign slogan — not “hope,” but “love.” From Ira Gershwin’s lyrics:
A dream I sought, both night and day
For years through all the U.S.A.
The star I hitched my wagon to
Is very obviously you.
Of thee I sing, baby . . .
Politics were tuned up in everything from larks like “As Thousands Cheer” to serious working-class crusades like “The Cradle Will Rock.” The genre faded during World War II because, as musical theater historian and former Arena Stage associate artistic director Laurence Maslon says, “you couldn’t criticize anything.”
Still, Rodgers and Hammerstein projects rippled (gently) with conscience, and Maslon notes that the patriotic Irving Berlin often turned to national themes. The 1960s spawned what Maslon calls “stealth” shows that used historical subjects to treat current issues: “Cabaret,” for example, spoke to the rising civil rights movement through its Weimar frame. “1776” was attuned to the widespread discomfort with Vietnam when it premiered in 1969 — a dying soldier’s “Momma, Look Sharp” is an aching indictment of war — and the show took the Tony over the far more rebellious “Hair.”
“1776” was the first full musical to play the White House in 1970, and for the film version Richard Nixon may have pressed producer Jack L. Warner to cut the number “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” (The song was indeed cut, but restored in the 2007 DVD version. According to a 2001 Los Angeles Times story, Nixon pal Warner had been inclined to shred the negative.) The song was a minuet, casting conservatives as obstacles to progress as they sang:
To the right, ever to the right
Never to the left, forever to the right.
The 1980s and 1990s yielded whopping, sententious megamusicals with political overtones, but “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon” were not American made; they came from the French pens of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Stephen Sondheim chronicled the West’s 19th-century incursion into Japan with “Pacific Overtures” (1976) and presidential assassins in “Assassins” (1990).
But the modern field is hardly crowded with musicals, even though politics is a glitzier part of the entertainment-celebrity matrix than ever. A couple of things that seem to make the genre run:
That was the brand in the 1930s because, as Maslon points out, Broadway was free of censors and sponsor pressure, and shows could be put up fast. It’s still the first thing a lot of people think of whenever you say “political theater,” period.
“People expected ‘The Fix’ to be satire,” Dempsey says. “Except in D.C. Perhaps because in Washington, people in the audience know real politicians.”
Is “Hamilton” satire, with its ultra-hip Thomas Jefferson and crooning King George III? “It’s beyond political satire, with a vengeance,” Maslon says. “The language is anarchic, more like ‘Hair.’ And you’d have to be a fool to sit there and tick off what’s inaccurate, because it’s not about that.” Even so, Ron Chernow, who wrote the 800-page biography “Alexander Hamilton” that is the source material for the musical, is on record as an admirer of the show.
“Politics has a theatrical bent automatically,” Dempsey says. “Dramatically speaking, you’re always looking for a world where the stakes are high.”
That’s what made Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” an unexpected hit even as it inspected the grinding gears of legislation. “1776” found high drama in the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and “Hamilton” relishes the Founding Fathers’ philosophical (and personal) duels.
What Rowe particularly loves, though, is the dynamism of “Hamilton’s” historical figures. “It’s a delivery system for really interesting character studies,” he says. “What is it that drives the person?”
Outsize drives lead naturally to high theatrics, he suggests. “What works so beautifully about ‘Hamilton,’ ” he says, “is there are no apologies” — for the hip-hop score or the multiethnic casting. “That’s sort of what we did, too. That’s why I felt the rock made it work. It certainly gave me some juicy stuff to go for musically. Everything has to be on steroids.”
And now who’s most theatrical of all? “Everything is wall-to-wall Donald Trump,” Dempsey observes. “And he’s not a TV star by accident.”
The emo-rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” made its New York splash in 2009-10. It was a youthful show about a shoot-from-the-hip maverick, and it came along during the jolting rise and fall of shoot-from-the-hip maverick Sarah Palin. Populism, yea, yea! went the adrenaline-fueled, unthinking opening anthem:
But it’s the early 19th century
And we’re gonna take this country back
For people like us who don’t just think about things
People who make things happen
Sometimes with guns
Sometimes with speeches too
And also other things.
The timing was off in 1962 for Irving Berlin’s “Mr. President,” at least for John F. Kennedy — the intended object of Berlin’s tribute. JFK skipped the first act of the opening at the National Theatre, hanging back at the White House to watch the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight.
After “Camelot” came to be seen as a celebration of JFK, a string of vague shows featuring national leaders emerged, such as “Goodtime Charley” (about Joan of Arc and the Dauphin of France, with Ann Reinking and Joel Grey) and “Rex” (about Henry VIII, with Nicol Williamson). Maslon says the prevailing attitude in the 1960s and ’70s was “Let’s do a musical about anything. That’s where ‘Springtime for Hitler’ comes from.”
The “now” factor is plainly driving the success of “Hamilton”: It’s a historical musical that’s totally in this moment. “Immigrants: We get the job done,” the Caribbean-born Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette agree as they high-five.
Timing may smile again on the soap opera cynicism of “The Fix.” It hit in the thick of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in 1998, and though most of the reviews were terrific, in some cases, Rowe says, “we were taken to task for being a little harsh and painting a dark picture.”
That utterly contemporary musical was inspired a little by Kennedy gossip and a lot by the gripping chicanery of ancient Rome in “I, Claudius.” (For Signature’s production, “The Fix” will be set in the 1960s.) Rowe has since grinned with each juicy new scandal that smacks of “The Fix,” from sexts and sex rings to officials whacked on drugs.
“My contention is we were really kind,” Rowe says. “And now it comes off that way. We weren’t that far off.”
The Fix by John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe. Aug. 11 through Sept. 20 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets: $40 to $96, subject to change. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.