Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL

Eli Bauman’s 44 - THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL re-opens October 13th at The Bourbon Room

By: Sep. 30, 2023
Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL

Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL

Eli Bauman’s 44 - THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL re-opens October 13, 2023 at The Bourbon Room (with previews beginning October 11th). Eli himself directs his reimagined satire of the Obama campaign with the cast led by T.J. Wilkins as Barack and Shanice as Michelle , with Kevin Bailey, Larry Cedar, Chad Doreck, Kelley DorneySummer Nicole Greer, Jane Papageorge, Dino Shorté , Jeff Sumner and Michael Uribes. Understudies include Marqell Edward Clayton and Herman Cain, Scott Kruse as Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Eli!

How many years were you working on Obama’s campaign?

I worked on the Obama campaign from early 2008 up through the Inauguration in 2009. I worked in Las Vegas through election day and then moved to Washington D.C. through January. So, from 115-degree Vegas summer to can't-feel-your-feet D.C. winter.

Was there a particular lightbulb moment when you said to yourself, “I have to make a musical about this!”

It wasn't necessarily a singular lightbulb moment, but more of a confluence of two different light bulbs slowly illuminating at the same time. In the summer of 2016, I wrote for a variety show called "Maya & Marty," starring Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. I was hired to be both a comedy writer and a musical writer for the show, which was great except for the fact that I hadn't written a song of any sort since high school, and those songs were... not great. 

But I actually wrote "White House Love," which appears in "44," as my audition sample, intending it for Maya Rudolph to do on the show. It didn't end up on the show, but writing that song in less than 48 hours with zero experience or know-how gave me a little confidence that I could churn out decent material under extreme pressure. So, when I got the job, I ended up writing close to 20 songs, about half of which made the air. Not a bad percentage in Lorne Michael's land. 

Cut to November 2016 and lightbulb moment #2 - the show got canceled and Trump got elected. I was alone in a hotel room in Charlotte, North Carolina after a week volunteering for Hillary's campaign. And like many people I'm sure, I had this, "How the hell did we get here?" moment. Being a comedy writer and a Jewish person, I tend to view inexplicable horror through the lens of humor, so I immediately tried to find the comedy in the moment. But instead of writing about Trump - a person I find wholly uninteresting and who I knew would take up a lot of oxygen - I went backwards to Obama to try to make sense of the non-sensical. So that's when 44 became a kernel of a something.

Who were in the primary run-off of politicians before you chose to tell 44 through the eyes of Joe Biden?

Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL It was always Biden, and this decision was long before he became President. I knew I wanted to tell the story of Obama in a wild, bizarre and factually flexible manner, and it seemed like a fun and useful narrative device to tell the story from Biden's hazy recollection. It gave me just enough anchor to reality while also allowing my imagination to run wild. I never had any interest in doing an earnest biographical piece and making 44 the story of Obama from Biden's memory was a clever way around that. 

44 is truly your baby - you wrote the lyrics, the music, the book and you’re directing this production yourself. When did your father Jon “Bowzer” Bauman start co-writing some of the songs with you?

I leaned on my dad at the beginning. As I said earlier, I really truly had no idea what I was doing, but I knew exactly what I wanted, and I could hear pretty much the whole show in my head. But I had to literally teach myself piano at 35 to get my hands to play what my ear was hearing. My dad, among other things, is a Julliard-trained pianist, so on a few songs toward the beginning of the process, I was literally just singing melodies at him while he played along. As I gained confidence in my own abilities, I relied on him more as an advisor. But he was invaluable in the beginning. 

From a collaboration standpoint, it wasn't until I met our music director, Anthony Brewster, or "Brew" as he's known around town, that the music of 44 really became what it is today. Brew produced every demo, co-wrote some of the music, and heads our band House of Vibe, which is more than just the house band, they are part of the unique fabric of the show. 

Would it be safe to guess that 44 covers the Obama’s pre-election years?

44 almost entirely takes place during Obama's first term. I deal with the run-up to 2008 during the first 20 minutes of the show, but the rest is 2009-2012. That span encompassed this wild cultural and political moment where Obama's Idealism collided with the Old Order, and I believe that period set the temperature for everything that's happened since. I am also probably the only person on planet earth who finds Mitch McConnell fascinating, so making him Obama's foil - and dare I say fiendishly likable foil - really got my creative inspiration going.

Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL How many hats did you wear in the campaign?

I worked primarily in the field overseeing our volunteer canvasses, but also specialized in preparing remarks for campaign surrogates when they swept into Las Vegas and needed to speak to local issues. It was hard work, especially in the Las Vegas summer, but amazingly gratifying. So, my job(s) included both being chased down a street by a man waiving a gun and writing prepared remarks for Bill Clinton to deliver about Las Vegas' dwindling water supply. 

In your creation of Barack and Michelle, what would you list as qualities of each?

I think of both of them as exceptional and exceedingly normal. They are very comfortable in their own skin, which is rare for politics. There's not a lot of pretense. I was most interested in portraying their marriage, and in many ways 44 is a marriage story with a political backdrop. I had just gotten married when I first started writing this, and when I really picked up writing it in earnest over the pandemic, I was thinking a lot about partnership and sacrifice. I was interested in how a marriage survives and thrives under the greatest pressure, stakes & microscope imaginable. 

What flaws does your Barack and Michelle have?

The ones we all have: selfishness, ego, self-doubt. They're just people, and people contain multitudes. 

This will be your third term back at the Bourbon Room. What aspects of the Bourbon Room keeps you coming back?

It's a fun, lively and intimate, which is what I hope 44 is as well. I knew I didn't want a stuffy environment for what is a decidedly unstuffy musical, so having a place where people can eat, drink, and feel close to the stage was important to me. As we grow, that feeling, if not that seating capacity, is still a priority. 

Will audiences who have seen 44 in its first and second alliterations, see the same show this time? Or have you tweaked it with new jokes and songs?

I am always tweaking. Interestingly, or at least to me, a lot of 44 is the very same as the first draft. But I'd say anything that was new in Draft 2 has been rewritten many times over. This go around there is one new song, and who the hell knows how many new jokes. Mainly I trimmed stuff, since nobody has ever complained about a show being shorter. This version feels pretty much right, but I reserve the right to tweak in perpetuity.

Will most our your eleven-member cast be reprising their roles from earlier versions?

Yup. Nearly our entire cast has returned, and the two new principals were previously understudies. We've had a near perfect retention rate.

Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL Casting the Obamas must have been a challenge as they’re still living and recognizable. How did you luck out with T.J. Wilkins and Shanice?

Well, T.J. did my original vocal demo as Obama, and when it came time to cast the role, he was my first thought. I looked at a bunch of people who had more theater experience, but I always came back around to T.J. He just has that thing, that "it," that whatever the hell you want to call it, where you know it when you see it. Plus, he can sing his ass off. T.J. was always my first and only choice. 

Shanice was an amazingly fortunate set of bounces. Our drummer, Phil "Fish" Fisher, the legendary drummer of "Fishbone," was high school friends with a member of Shanice's management team. Fish mentioned Shanice as a possible Michelle, to which I said, "Do you think she would actually do this?" But you got to shoot your shot. So I got in touch with Shanice's management, Ashley Garrett and Kerry Gordy, who is Barry Gordy's son and one of the nicest human beings on the planet, and they were willing to take a chance on me and recommend to Shanice that she take the part. Shanice also happens to be T.J.'s girlfriend's cousin (I think I have that right), so T.J. was able to convince her that doing this show wasn't a horrible career mistake. 

Does your 44 have any other agenda than entertaining your audiences?

Well, yes, but entertaining is always priority #1. I'm trying to say a lot of things with this musical - about politics, about race, about history, about marriage, and about music itself - but mainly I want people to have fun and leave with something. I think one of the strongest things about 44 is that you'll leave humming the songs, which people both celebrate and complain about almost to a person. I always get people saying, "I cannot get the music out of my head?! So thank you and curse you!"

Have you polled any responses from any Republicans who attended 44?

Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL I haven't polled them, but I know and know of a bunch of Republicans who have seen the show, and to a person, our conservative friends have loved it. It's obviously a political show, but it's not preachy, and I think the show is objectively fun, so no matter your political leanings, I think you can get lost in the adventure. Oddly, the only people I know for a fact have disliked the show are very, very liberal people. They didn't like that our hunky charming dancing Joe Biden, played by the wonderful Chad Doreck, was also portrayed as forgetful and scatterbrained. Oh, well...

Can you share some fond memories of touring with your father and Sha Na Na?

By the time I was a sentient human being, my father had already left Sha Na Na, so I have no memory of that. But I certainly have formative memories of watching my father perform. One thing I always admired was that no matter the venue, the crowd size, or his level of fatigue, he gave every single show every single ounce of energy he could muster. He really honors the fact that the audience has chosen to spend their time and money on seeing his show. I have carried that with me with 44. I think sometimes creative people like to view themselves as artistes (said in the fancy french way) and that entertaining the audience is somewhat secondary to the the art itself. I have always viewed the audience experience and the art as inseparable. 

Whose idea was it for you to sing with the band? Yours? Or your father’s?

I honestly don't remember whose idea it was. What's interesting about that whole experience is that it actually came at a very turbulent time in our relationship. I was in college in New York, and he was in L.A., and there was a lot of healing to be done. So that summer touring together became somewhat of a long, strange therapy session. Immersion therapy, I suppose. It was a way to literally and figuratively close the distance between us, and what better way to repair a father/son relationship than singing doo wop songs at state fairs and random casinos... 

When did you realize your father was a famous performer?

Very young. We spent a summer when I was probably five or six in Atlantic City, when my dad was performing at the Tropicana hotel. I pretty much gathered that his being the "Bowzer" of "Bowzer's Rock & Roll Party" indicated some level of fame. I would say his fame hit closer to home for me when Adam Sandler's Hannukah song came out and my father was one of the lyrics. I loved Adam Sandler, as did all of my friends, so that held a lot of currency in teenage Jewish land. 

Quick footnote on the Atlantic City Tropicana experience - the room where we lived for three months had mirrors on the ceilings. My sister and I both found this extremely fun and not remotely creepy. In hindsight, however... 

Interview: Eli Bauman Discusses Return of 44 – THE unOFFICIAL, unSANCTIONED OBAMA MUSICAL What are you ultimately electing to do with 44? To bring it to Broadway?

Broadway is the ultimate destination, but my vision for this show has always been to bring this musical to people where they live without them having to buy a ticket to New York or wait around for it to tour. I think 44 is uniquely suited to play well in pretty much every American city, not just New York. And it's always mattered to me to build this show to be inclusive and accessible to a wide and diverse audience - racially, generationally, geographically and economically. This show is designed to work on a Broadway stage and a backyard barbecue, and I want to do both. 

Besides 44, what are your plans for the near future for Eli Bauman?

As a father of two young kids, my future plans rarely go further than the next meal or bedtime. My dad was always on tour when I was growing up, and I want to be with my kids for every moment I possibly can while they still like me. But I will say I already have the idea for my next musical and wrote about six songs for it in my head during a two-hour solo trip to the Farmer's market two Sundays ago, so I plan to go back into writing mode and create a whole new world of madness as soon as this run ends.

Thank you again, Eli! I look forward to seeing your 44 opening night.

For tickets to the live performance of 44 through November 18, 2023; click on the button below:

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