How Often Are American Presidents Depicted on Stage?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Feb. 18, 2024
How Often Are American Presidents Depicted on Stage?
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Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This time, the reader question was: Oh, Mary! currently has so much buzz off-Broadway. What is the history of American presidents being depicted on stage?

At the Lucille Lortel Theatre downtown, Oh, Mary!, the subversive, hilarious new play written by and starring Cole Escola, has become one of the most talked-about shows of the season. The Mary in the title is Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of 16th president of the United States Abraham Lincoln. The play, marketed as “The Greatest Play of the Generation!” is a highly fictionalized, stylized, and anachronistic depiction of the time period right before Lincoln’s assassination. Opposite Escola is Conrad Ricamora as Abraham Lincoln (although the character is billed simply as “Mary’s Husband”). Oh, Mary! really must be seen to be believed, and its highly original, unexpected treatment of the Lincolns certainly sets it apart from other plays about American presidents and first ladies. That said, it is indeed part of the legacy of many shows that depict our country’s leaders and their partners and other family members.

Plays and musicals that include Abraham Lincoln as a character abound in theatre history. Some feature Mary Todd Lincoln as well. These include but are not limited to Abe Lincoln in Illinois (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Asylum (a musical about Mary Todd Lincoln’s time committed to an asylum), Honestly Abe (a recent off-Broadway entry), If Booth Had Missed (a play about what Lincoln would have done next had he lived), Prologue to Glory (a Federal Theatre Project hit), The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (about Mary Todd Lincoln’s years following the president’s assassination), and The Young Abe Lincoln (a 1960s family musical). There have been at least 40 other shows on Broadway alone that include Abraham Lincoln as a character.

There are also of course many examples of our first American president, George Washington, being portrayed on stage. In the 1925 Rodgers and Hart musical Dearest Enemy, audiences learned about unlikely war hero Mary Lindley Murray, who helped General George Washington and his troops win the American Revolutionary War. The 1950 musical Arms and the Girl also included depiction of future president Washington during his time as a general.

Just as Washington has been portrayed several times on stage in stories about the time before his presidency, other future presidents have received the same treatment. Newsies featured the character of Theodore Roosevelt during his gubernatorial reign, before becoming president. In the 1958 Tony Award winner for Best Play, Sunrise at Campobello, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s struggle with polio was chronicled.

How Often Are American Presidents Depicted on Stage?
Scene from 1776

Several well known shows feature multiple American presidents as characters, including the popular musicals 1776, Assassins, and Hamilton. 1776, the 1969 Tony Award winner for Best Musical which was recently revived on Broadway, tells the story of the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and thus includes a few future American presidents as characters: the ornery John Adams and the dashing Thomas Jefferson. Assassins, the subversive musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman that tackles the subject of those who have attempted to assassinate American presidents, has a few presidents briefly seen as part of the story: Gerald Ford and James Garfield. Of course, Hamilton has three presidents as main characters: Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.

Lincoln and Washington are the presidents most frequently depicted in American plays and musicals, but other presidents have had stage time as well. Richard Nixon was represented in Frost/Nixon, the 2006 play about the president’s televised interviews with David Frost. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the subject of All The Way; the play’s title is inspired by his campaign slogan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt makes a spirited appearance in one scene in Annie, reprising “Tomorrow” with its young heroine. Come From Away, which tells a story taking place on and just after September 11th, 2001, had a brief moment where George W. Bush’s address to the nation was heard. The voice of Ronald Reagan was heard in the musical Doonesbury, based on the cartoon which frequently commented on Reagan and his policies. (In fact, a sort-of sequel to Doonesbury, another musical comedy by the same team featuring the same characters, was titled Rap Master Ronnie, in reference to Reagan.) The epic 2010 play A Free Man of Color by John Guare featured both Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe as characters.  The 1997 play Jackie, about First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, featured many members of the Kennedy family, including president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, as characters. The rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was, like, Oh, Mary! an anachronistic representation of the president and those that surrounded him—with the tagline “History Just Got All Sexypants”. Broadway’s upcoming musical Suffs counts Woodrow Wilson among its characters.

Another interesting entry was The White House. The short-lived 1964 play counted Helen Hayes, Fritz Weaver, and Gene Wilder amongst its stars, with Hayes playing about a dozen first ladies including Abigail Adams and Mary Todd Lincoln, Weaver playing presidents including Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, and Wilder playing presidents including Van Buren, Tyler, and Hayes. The play was billed as “based upon letters, diaries, and documents written by the Presidents and their Ladies, or about them by their contemporaries”.

While the relationships of many presidents and first ladies have been shared on stage, it’s rarer for the relationship of a president and their offspring to be the topic of a show. The 1987 musical Teddy & Alice was such a case, a fictionalized tale of father president Theodore Roosevelt and his rebellious daughter Alice Roosevelt. The odd show had music adapted from John Philip Sousa, and starred Len Cariou as the president.

In Michael John LaChiusa’s musicals First Lady Suite and First Daughter Suite, the wives and daughters of American presidents get the spotlight. First Lady Suite, which premiered off-Broadway in 1993, focused on Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, and Jacqueline Kennedy. First Daughter Suite, a companion piece, premiered off-Broadway in 2015.

When they were in style, Broadway revues used to have incidences of presidents being satirized in song. For example, in Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook [1935], presidents Washington, Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt all had their moment in the spotlight. Senator Joe, one of the seven Broadway musicals in history to close during previews, was about Senator Joseph McCarthy, and also counted among its characters presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Harry Truman, and first ladies Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The 1943 play The Patriots, by Sidney S. Kingsley, won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for its depiction of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, including some of the same events told in Hamilton. An Evening with Richard Nixon and… might boast Nixon in the title, but also included as characters presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Eisenhower.

Since the presidency is so important to American culture, it’s no surprise that American presidents have also been mentioned in many musicals and plays in which they don’t actually appear as characters. President John F. Kennedy was the subject of many of these, from Grey Gardens, which was about relatives of President John F. Kennedy, to Caroline, or Change, which included a song called “JFK”, to Merrily We Roll Along, which cleverly told tales of the Kennedy family in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”. In Hair, both Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson are included in song lyrics.

It’s also a common theatrical trend for the American presidency to be written about in entirely imaginary terms. There are many musicals and plays that have told stories about the oval office with a fictional president in place, from Of Thee I Sing, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a misunderstood flop with music by Leonard Bernstein that intended to explore the White House throughout history, to Irving Berlin’s final Broadway musical, Mr. President, where a fictional president dealt with both his political and personal life. President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy actually saw the premiere of Mr. President in 1962! But presidents attending the theatre… that’s a whole other article.

Television has even gotten in on the action. Inspired by Hamilton, the characters Julie (Julie Klausner) and Billy (Billy Eichner) on the outrageously funny Difficult People put up Carter The Musical. Starring alongside Julie and Billy in the misguided musical is Matthew, played by Cole Escola— and we’ve come full circle!