Meet the Tony Nominees: Rachel Dratch Lives Her Broadway Comedy Dreams in POTUS
Dratch steals all of her scenes in this new comedy by Selina Fillinger.
After years of stealing scenes on the small screen, Rachel Dratch has transferred her comedy prowess to Broadway in Selina Fillinger's POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. Dratch plays Stephanie, a meek White House secretary who inadvertently takes an unnamed drug and goes tripping throughout the White House (and, in Dratch and director Susan Stroman's hilarious hands, the entire Shubert Theatre). For her completely alive and delightfully off-the-rails performance, Dratch earned her first Tony nomination. Not bad for a Broadway debut.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Did you choose POTUS or did POTUS choose you?
They came to me. I worked with Susan Stroman on a reading, and then I did the one-night Crazy For You concert at Lincoln Center, so this came up through her. As she said, the third time is the charm. The part just seemed really really fun. It's so funny, after Covid, I was really looking forward to the summer and spending time with my kid, so this came along and I was like "I don't know," but then I had a two-minute conversation with her, and I was like "Ok, I'm doing this." The part itself is a comedian's dream basically.
Did your improv background help you on the road to developing your character?
The idea of finding the funny in both improv and sketch, and how I can make it the funniest it can be while still being truthful to the material, mixes together for this role. When I was in high school, I played Snoopy in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, which is a very similar part because you make up all the little bits yourself. I thought of that doing this. That was the first time I realized, "If I move my arm like this, it gets a laugh." Doing Second City on the main stage, that give and take with the audience, and the fun of hearing people laughing, reminds me a lot of this, too.
And then also being in this ensemble where everyone brings their own energy. I have the goofiest part, but it's a real play with a full, two-hour journey and everyone has their own moment. It's like throwing the ball around on a basketball team. Suzy Nakamura has the straighter role, and she's so perfect at trying to keep things under control. That's a different vibe from what I'm doing, but I love that both energies are there. If everyone was running around like I was, it wouldn't work.
What impact did Selina Fillinger and Susan Stroman have in building the off the wall nature of your character's actions?
It's a combination. A lot of the stuff you think I make up is on the page. In the script it says "Post-It, Post-It, Post-It" or that I put on the tube and start doing ballet moves. That's Selina. The fun part for me is coming up with how I'm going to do that. What I love about Stro is that she has a vision in mind for every scene. It's carefully thought out. She's open to what you bring and she let me do my thing. It was very chill. Stro is like the quiet genius. She walks in very unassuming, and she always has positive energy. She's here to have fun, but the parts of the play that have more of a feminist message, we gave a lot of thought to those. She's open to people's opinions.
Did you make a firm decision about what drug your character is on, since it's never mentioned in the play?
No. I think it's acid, but I've never done acid. What I love about this unnamed drug is the way Selina sets it up: Here are the stages you're going to go through — Vision, Belligerence, Mania, Unquenchable Sexual Thirst, and, finally, Vomiting. My favorite part is when the drugs kick in, because it gets a big laugh from the audience. I spend most of the time in blissful mania, but I try to have a different vibe in each scene. I try to make it a different flavor of mania.
What does this whole experience, and the Tony nomination, mean to you?
Just being on Broadway in this rollicking comedy. I've always had Broadway on my list of things that would be really cool, but I don't have a Broadway singing voice, so I knew it would have to be comedy-related. I felt like I was already living the dream going to my Broadway show every night and hearing the audience laugh. The Tonys is beyond the dream, and such a surprise. Comedy doesn't always get honored in the same way that heavy drama does, so I was really surprised that a role like this got a Tony nomination. Even taking me out of it, it's just really cool that big comedy got honored.
How do you all keep it together on stage? Or do you all lose it mid-show?
The other night, Julie White did some line-reading in a way she never has before, and it almost got me. But in light of my Debbie Downer crackup, I do not want to laugh on Broadway. So far, I haven't.