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Barney Frank on Fiorello, The Tea Party, and the Similarities Between Actors and Politicians

The former congressman from Massachusetts discusses his upcoming, one-night-only role as a senator in the Encores! Production of Fiorello! logo

Barney Frank
© Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Barney Frank will make his off-Broadway debut this Saturday, playing an arrogant conservative senator in the New York City Center Encores! revival of Fiorello!, Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick's bio-musical about the legendary Depression-era and World War II-era Mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia. Frank had publicly expressed interest in filling John Kerry's Senate seat until the June 25th special election in Massachusetts to choose a new senator. Kerry was confirmed by the senate to be Secretary of State on Tuesday. Could Frank's cameo be a dress rehearsal of sorts?

As it turns out, no. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick tapped former Chief of Staff Mo Cowan to take Kerry's seat Wednesday morning. We spoke to Frank about his upcoming role a few hours after the news was announced. The following kiki ensued:

Tell me abut your role in Fiorello!

I'm going to play a senator, which is interesting because today the governor announced that he was not going to appoint me to be the interim senator, which means I can now deliver the famous line, "I'm not a senator; I just play one in the theater."

And it will be perfectly true. Do you have any comment on that appointment?


What do you think you can bring to this role with your three decades of congressional experience?

First of all, great enthusiasm. I love that show. I love the lyrics. I like clever lyrics. I know all the lyrics to "The Bum Won" and "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box." It's a fairly small part I'm playing: I'm supposed to play a pompous senator and I've had a lot of experience watching pompous senators. So I learned this part by osmosis.

Do you have any prior stage Experience?

Just a few similar script-in-hand gigs. The Arena Stage in Washington has, for years, put on political plays: Kaufman and Hart plays from the 1930s...Of Thee I Sing, etc. I've played small parts in those and also in Massachusetts as part of a theater benefit. One of the people with whom I became fairly close in Congress was Sonny Bono. Sonny was a Republican. When Sonny was elected in 1994, he and I became very friendly and we used to talk a lot about the similarities of being in politics and being in the theater: …the importance of being able to figure out an audience and pitch yourself to that audience and alter your performance as you gauge the audience's reaction. So I have little stage experience, but it's my political activity that's more relevant.

What is your connection to Fiorello LaGuardia?

I do have one kinship with Fiorello LaGuardia that I've always noted. If you take the Delta shuttle, it used to go out of the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport. And there was a picture of LaGuardia dedicating the Marine Air Terminal on the very day on which I was born: March 31st, 1940. The Marine Air Terminal and I are birthday twins.
Danny Rutigliano and the cast of Fiorello!
© Joan Marcus
Is there a part you've always wanted to play on the stage? A "dream role," if you will?

I guess it would have to be Fiorello. Or it would have to be one of those parts in which you can talk the songs. When I was in the second grade I was told to move my lips when the class sang "My Old Kentucky Home," which, thinking back on it, is an incredibly racist song. There's a lyric that goes something like, "It's summer and the darkies are gay." Wonderful implications in that one.

If congressmen had to sing their floor speeches, do you think more reps would show up for debate?

No. I think the house would look a lot more like the President's inauguration...a lot of lip-syncing.

Fiorello LaGuardia and President Franklin Roosevelt had a famously productive and congenial working relationship, even though they belonged to different parties. What was different about that era that allowed that relationship to happen?

The fact that the Republican Party was not in the grips of crazy people. I mean that quite seriously. I worked with George W. Bush in 2008. Then the Republican Party just fell in the hands of crazy people…The Tea Party. And I think that's the major difference. Also, there's less autonomy for politicians these days because of the way in which social media and financing arm the constituencies. The other thing was, LaGuardia and Roosevelt were pulled together by The Great Depression. They were not great allies before that.

What can their relationship teach us?

It teaches us the value of the public sector in dealing with significant problems and the importance of personal relationships built on shared values and trust.

For tickets to Fiorello!, click here.