Interview: Tom Galantich and Duke Lafoon Talk CLINTON: THE MUSICAL, Comedy and Politics

By: Apr. 13, 2015
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Tom Galantich.

After getting mostly positive reviews in July 2014 at New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), Clinton: The Musical landed at New World Stages. As they ramped up for their Off-Broadway opening night, BroadwayWorld chatted about the musical and politics with the two men, Tom Galantich (WJ Clinton) and Duke Lafoon (Billy Clinton), that bring the charismatic 42nd President of the Untied States to life in the uproarious musical comedy.


The show splits Bill Clinton into two people. You have gregarious, crazy Billy Clinton-the Bill that we read about in the newspapers. For example, recently the New York Times ran an article titled "To Avert Repeat of 2008, Clinton Team Hopes to Keep Bill at His Best." Then, there is WJ Clinton-the more straight-laced politician. How did you guys prepare and research these roles?

Tom Galantich: For me, I was a voter at the time he was president. I had a lot of memories to draw on and a sense of who he was or how he acted as president, his history, and stuff like that. That was all prominent and all out on the table at that time. So, I just drew a lot on memory. And, he is still so active. It's easy to get a sense of who he is now, but I try and be careful of not using the now WJ Clinton for the past WJ Clinton. There are slight differences.

Duke Lafoon.

Duke Lafoon: Unfortunately, I was a voter at that time too. I would like to say I am younger than that. Yeah. I don't know. I think because we're splitting him in half, it gives us license to have broad interpretations of either side.

TG: Agreed.

DL: I think of WJ as just being a brilliant politician, and I'm the part of his personality that we all have that likes indulging. And, we all try and keep that under wrap and professionalized. But, I think we can all point to moments in our lives where it has reared its head. Unfortunately, for Bill Clinton, it was very public.

TG: I think you can also say that I'm the Washington D.C. Bill Clinton and he's the Arkansas Bill Clinton to a certain degree.

DL: Yeah. But, I think it's funny that you mentioned that article because he is super charming. He loves people; he loves to get out and shake hands and to just have this open dialogue. Which is great, but on the other hand, he doesn't always stay on the talking points and things that they've planned on him saying. So, I think that last election-as helpful as he was to her [Hillary]-I think, he outshone her too. I don't think she wants this time around. And, I wonder about Al Gore. Was that also his worry? I think he distanced himself when he ran because of the Monica thing. But, I also wonder if he was like "No way I'm having Bill out there stomping for me. They'll just want to elect him again." [Laughs]

TG: "Two terms. Or three!" as I say in the show. [Laughs]

Hillary (Kerry Butler) and her two loves
WJ (Tom Galantich) and Billy (Duke Lafoon).
Photo by Russ Rowland.

[Laughing] I also like that Kerry Butler gets a line in which she says "In my first presidency..."

TG: Oh yeah!

That's fantastic.

DL: Absolutely.

Everyone, of course, says that. But, in the musical, we see Bill as a powerful decision maker. What is like getting to have the power in a comedy, especially one where planned and unplanned small bits may change from show to show? The attention is definitely on you two.

DL: Yeah. I feel it.

TG: That's the fun of it. With the type of show that we're doing, the more fun we have out there, the more fun the audience is going to have. It works both ways. The more fun the audience is having, the more fun we're going to have. When we're rehearsing, or even when we're out there, if another actor comes up with something spur of the moment, I'm never against them trying it.

DL: Yeah.

TG: Never ever ever. Go ahead. If it throws me off for a second, it throws me off for a second.

DL: Yeah.

TG: It would probably be in a good way.

DL: I think you're right.

TG: The key obviously is not to destroy something that's important, to cover up something important that's coming up, or to steal a laugh, perhaps.

DL: Right.

TG: But, if it furthers the goal of everybody having a good time, I'm all for it.

DL: Loose is best.

TG: I mean, we're structured, but there are places where we can do that. But, a lot of that was taken care of in rehearsal.

DL: I think there is pressure, and there's also an added pressure of playing characters that are real people. We were super sensitive to that fact. I was. I don't want to hurt anybody, damage anybody, or to defame anybody. We're just having fun poking fun. So, I think we were all sensitive to the fact that we didn't want to be mean spirited.

TG: Agreed.

Has the first family seen the show? Do you know if they plan to?

TG: No. They have not.

DL: I can imagine. My guess is because we're getting so much attention that I would think they may send somebody...

TG: They might.

DL: ...to go and look at it. But, I'm sure she's [Hillary] going to try and ignore it as much as possible. Actually, I would be terrified if any of them showed up. [Laughs]

TG: Not in a million years could I imagine any of them showing up.

It's not like them showing up to HAMILTON.

DL: Exactly.

TG: We are not doing a drama. This is not a recreation of their lives. The story is a springboard for us to examine life, foibles, personalities, and things like that in a much broader, grand way. We're just using this story as a background. I suppose we're doing imitations. But we're not playing the actual individuals.

DL: It's broad.

TG: It's very broad.

DL: They won't come. [Laughs]

TG: No.

Broad is a good word. The comedy in this show is very broad. I think, maybe, because the writers are Australian, they can be sensibly removed to ensure that everyone is equally skewered throughout the whole show.

DL: Yeah.

Linda Tripp (Judy Gold) with
Monica Lewinsky (Veronica J. Kuehn).
Photo by Russ Rowland.

What is it about this equal skewering that makes it more fun for you as actors in the show?

TG: It's a loving roast of these people.

DL: Because the show does not have a strong political point of view-I mean our politics are so divided now that there's enough of that going on with the various talk shows or whatever-our thought was "Let's just have fun. Let's just make the audience forget all the devise politics and just have a good time."

TG: Bipartisan satire.

DL: Yeah yeah yeah. I'm sure you can sit in the play, and if you're a diehard Republican, you can find plenty to laugh at. And, if you're a liberal Democrat, you can find plenty to laugh at.

TG: Yeah. I think we're pretty middle of the aisle.

DL: And I think you're right. Because Paul Hodge is Australian, he cannot vote in this country-I mean, they have their own left and right in his country-but he came ready to poke fun wherever he could find a laugh. He was looking for that. And, I find it fascinating that I couldn't tell you who the Prime Minister of Australia was in the 90s, but this story was so huge and that this president was so huge that all the way on the other side of the world, people were planning musicals about it. [Laughs]

TG: He said that. He said while their politics in Australia probably have just as many crazy things going on as our politics-left and right, and nobody agreeing on anything-the difference for him was rather than write a musical about an Australian PM, the world knows who Bill Clinton was. It's just de facto that the world knows who the President of the United States is, and they don't necessarily know the Prime Minister of Canada. We would know the Prime Minister of England, for the most part as well, because they're the super powers. So, yeah, they're almost more familiar with the Bill Clinton story than their own Prime Minister story for that time period.

Of all things, this show also incorporates Eleanor Roosevelt into this story. A running joke is the character of Hillary Clinton ruining great quotes by Eleanor Roosevelt by taking them...

DL: Completely out of context.

And taking them in the wrong direction. The show smartly mixes in political thoughts from outside of this story, which makes it all the more fun.

DL: Yeah. I think Paul Hodge did his research for the things like the Eleanor thing. I was unaware of how big a fan Hillary Clinton is in real life of Eleanor Roosevelt. Just in his research he found that and was like, "Why don't we put the two together?" So, there are little details like that that he highlights. Some people may know about those connections. Some may not. But, I think that they are smart none-the-less.

Tonally, Clinton: The Musical is like a Saturday Night Live sketch in a lot of ways. With its brainier moments, it still feels like a comedy for all.

DL: Yeah.

TG: Absolutely. It's exaggerated characters. Very exaggerated characters. That's a staple of comedy. There are places for strict imitations, like when you're doing a drama. But, anybody who impersonates people on something like SNL always tells you that they always focus on certain aspects of an individual and balloon those up to make it funny. We do the same. None of the characters are strict interpretations or imitations at all. They are all exaggerations.

DL: It's funny that you talk about Saturday Night Live because, I think, in our pop culture when these people talk about working on a character, they talk about working on that hook. Whether it is his voice, his rhythms, or whatever. I remember Dana Carvey doing Ross Perot. Nobody had done Ross Perot until he came along. Then, he did it, and any time anyone would do it after, they were doing Dana Carvey doing Ross Perot.

TG: That's what it becomes, yeah.

DL: Or, when he used to do Bush Senior. You know, [appropriates hand gestures] "a thousand points of light."

TG: [Imitating Dana Carvey as Bush Senior] "Not gonna do it."

DL: "Not gonna do it. Not gonna do it."

TG: [Putting space between each word] "Not gonna do it."

DL: So, it's funny to do that. But I think Saturday Night Light, like we've talked about, is loose. It's exciting because you know they've put this show together in a week. They're had one rehearsal, and then boom, there it is. So you always feel like anything can happen. They try their hardest to do what they rehearsed, but you always know it can off the rails at any second. There's excitement in that. There's fun in that. I think that's our play right now, but I think even as it gets going that looseness, that feeling of freedom that we'll have within it, will give us that energy of anything can happen at any moment. That's fun. That energy.

I felt it watching it. I never really knew what to expect next.

John Treacy Egan as Newt Gingrich
and Kevin Zak as Kenneth Starr.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

DL: Then you get Kevin Zak and John Tracy Egan playing Kenneth and Newt. They're improv geniuses anyway, both of them, and they just bounce off each other.

TG: They make us laugh.

DL: Yeah. Back stage it's just non-stop laughter. And, they bring that out on stage. You're like, "Uh-oh. Here we go."

TG: You deal with that more than I do.

DL: [Laughs] You're just like, "Alright. I gotta roll with whatever comes." It's fun. It's fun to be around. And, the more we get comfortable with it, it'll just be really fun. If we're lucky enough to run for a while, I think that'll be the joy of coming to work every day. You've got this fun play and this cool music, this is exciting, and now "Uh-oh, he's got a twinkle in his eye. What's he going to do?"

For sure. And, you two have a great chemistry on stage.

TG: That's great to know, considering I don't like him at all.

DL: Damn it. [We all laugh] I thought I was doing so well.

The chemistry is great since the plot only allows Hillary to see you both at the same time. This is especially hysterical when you two talk to each other, but not everyone on the stage can see the conversation, which makes Clinton look insane to everyone else.

TG: That was something that Dan Knechtges, our director, was very specific about when we started rehearsal. He talked about our rules. "What are the rules when these two are on stage? Who can see whom? When can they see them?"

DL: The NYMF [New York Musical Theatre Festival] production didn't care about it. Whoever was talking was talking. But, to Dan, he was like, "No. I need to know."

TG: Right. We'd be in rehearsal and characters would look at me when I wasn't supposed to be seen. I'd have to say, "You can't look at me. You cannot look at me. I'm not here." And, it was the same for Duke. So, I'm glad that comes off because that was one of the main things Dan wanted to focus on, establishing those sort of boundaries.

DL: For me, putting all of this together, the relationship that feels the most right to me is a love-hate brother relationship. You're like, "I love him, but God does he annoy the crap out of me." That's what I feel like. So, the little "Get out. What are you doing? Shut up!" is just right. My brother, Scott, I used to annoy the crap out of him. He's just a couple years older than I am. He used to put a padlock on his door or whatever, but now we're the best of friends. We came out of that. Somehow, I feel like, especially to WJ, yeah, he loves me, but if he could he'd just be rid of me because I make him crazy.

Billy (Duke Lafoon) and WJ (Tom Galantich)
argue about the right move to make.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

TG: He makes me crazy.

DL: Yeah. That's the way I've been having fun thinking about the roles.

TG: [In character as WJ Clinton] If you could just stop eating the fries. I've been going to the gym. You're killing me.

DL: [In character as Billy] But I like fries! I can't help it! [We all laugh]

I didn't know what to expect, but having two people play Bill Clinton is just so smart.

DL: Paul Hodge talks about that because his idea was "Let's do a musical about Clinton." He'd gotten it from his father. Then his brother, who helped co-write it, Michael Hodge, went to him and said, "You know what would be great. Two Bill Clintons." Paul was like, "That's insane. No way." But, it turns out that was the way in. I talked to somebody recently. They had thought about writing a Clinton musical, but they couldn't figure out a vehicle to tell the story. That was a genius idea, I think-to leap on that idea. It was much talked about, I think, when he was president. He was a great president, but there was this part of him that he could not control, which has now made him infamous. Probably never more loved than he is now. I think people love Bill Clinton. So, yeah, it was really smart.

Pull out your Skip-It, rock a scrunchie, and go back to a time when neon colors and grungy clothes cohabitated popular culture with Clinton: The Musical. The delightful one-act romp is currently playing an open-ended run at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues). Tickets, currently on sale through Sunday, Spetember 6, 2015, can be purchased by visiting http://clintonthemusical.com or calling (212) 239-6200.




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