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Hail to the Cheek

Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini has a good old time with a bad old musical as he deconstructs Mr. President.

Michael West and Clif Thorn in Mr. President
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Can it be 39 short years ago that Irving Berlin could write a patriotic-finale lyric that unironically ran, "Take a look in your history book / And you'll see why you should be proud?" These days, if you took a look in your history book, you'd probably want to slash your wrists.

The song was called "This is a Great Country" and the show was Mr. President, a 1962 disaster ranking only slightly below the Cuban Missile Crisis. With music and lyrics by Berlin (his final score), a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (another swan song), and direction by Joshua Logan, Mr. President racked up a then-record $2.6 million advance but shuttered as soon as it ran out of theater-party bookings. Howard Taubman's New York Times review led with, "Has there ever been as dull a President as the man occupying the White House in Mr. President?" In the Journal-American, John McClain called the show "quite simply an old-fashioned dud" and harrumphingly concluded, "It is far below the potential of its creators and equally below the standard which should be required of a present-day $9.60 attraction."

We're not talking about an overlooked gem, then, but a juicy slab of meat to toss to a hungry parodist/satirist like Gerard Alessandrini. The Forbidden Broadway creator has been looking for modest ways to expand that franchise, especially since the long-running revue moved from a dingy diner basement to the relative luxury of the Douglas Fairbanks on Theater Row. "We'd been talking about doing stuff sort of adjacent to Forbidden Broadway," he says, "like maybe taking older musicals and revamping them or camping them up." The search for suitable properties led him to the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which licenses the Irving Berlin oeuvre. R&H president Ted Chapin ventured that the Berlin daughters and Crouse's widow, all of whom can be extremely protective about rights, might not be so fussy in regard to Mr. President.

Alessandrini read the libretto, which goes something like this. Act One: President Stephen Decatur Henderson is running for a third term. His wife, Nell, would rather retire to their hometown. On an around-the-world tour, the President is disinvited to Russia but lands in Moscow anyway, pleading for greater understanding between the superpowers. Act Two: Henderson loses the election and goes back home, where absolutely nothing happens. He refuses a Senate appointment when he learns that there are political favors attached. So he goes back home and sings "This is a Great Country." Curtain.

"There's very little that's political in it," concludes Alessandrini. "At first, I thought we could cut the script way down and just use the songs. But the script is so... it's not even camp. There's just a lot of the family sitting at home, especially in the second act. So I thought maybe we could update it, make it more of a political satire. I started working on that. Then I called [R&H] and said, 'Do you think we could use more Irving Berlin songs, so I don't have to be stuck with just this score?' The answer came back 'yes,' and then I became excited about it. I thought, 'This could be fun--to sort of create a new Irving Berlin musical.' "

So the new Mr. President is not so much a deconstruction of the old musical as a carpet-bombing of it. Out have gone several of Berlin's less felicitous songs (with titles like "Pigtails and Freckles" and "Meat and Potatoes"). In have come old Berlin standards, new Alessandrini lyrics, and an original book that owes more to recent history, Forbidden Broadway, and Mad magazine than to Lindsay and Crouse.

Now, instead of the '50s-sitcom-like Hendersons, we have ex-President Will Fenton and his politically ambitious wife, Chillary, who are succeeded in office by George Double-D Shrub, Jr., and his vapid spouse, Flora. Florida Governor Jeb Shrub helps George steal the election from Al Bore, while George's running mate, Dick Brainy, clutches his chest at frequent intervals and croons, "Be Careful, It's My Heart." Political players like Elizabeth Dolt and celebrities like Okrah Windbag make cameo appearances, but the central drama revolves around such issues as: Why is Chillary hiding out in the Oval Office? What strange power does Barbara Shrub have over her two sons? And what will happen when the libidinous Will Fenton meets George Shrub's nubile daughters, Jenna and Tonic? (Guess.) The lyrics emerge as rather edgier than Berlin's, as in "Only for Republicans" (modeled on Miss Liberty's "Only for Americans"), wherein the GOP cautions, "We never let in wacko groups / Unless they back tobacco groups." Or Will Fenton's lament, "Just when Lewinsky does a Minsky in her underpant / The Secret Service makes me nervous/ And I can't."

Whitney Allen, Clif Thorn,
and Amanda Naughton in Mr. President
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
All in good fun, insists Alessandrini, and not reflective of his own politics. "I just thought, 'I'll say all the mean things I can about both parties.' I'm not disgusted with either of them, really. I don't think there's that much difference between them. Americans just make up a difference because we like to polarize things."

With "He's Not My President" stickers adorning so many bumpers (if not of SUVs), are Americans ready to laugh at this stuff? In previews, says Alessandrini, reactions have varied: "Last night, you could tell that people did not want to laugh at the Democrats and they were really going along when we got mean with the Republicans. Conversely, we've had audiences where you can feel it swaying the other way. But I didn't want it to be one-sided; I thought, if you're going to do it, you've got to get 'em all. Like Forbidden Broadway. Also, I didn't want to make it just a political satire, I wanted a satire of some musicals, too." Hence the familiar FB touches: barbed references to Company, Side Show, Jekyll & Hyde, 1776, and Ragtime; Alvin Colt's impeccable, satirical costumes; and a Producers-style, audience-rousing finale that musically exhorts, "God bless America... now please go home!"

The whole thing, Alessandrini adds, was crafted in a few weeks and has been undergoing rewrites ever since previews began in late June. It's not intended as lasting art, just "a fun, summer thing, like summer stock in the city." Other Forbidden Broadway-adjunct projects are in the works, possibly including an all-Les Miz parody evening and a 21st-birthday party for FB next winter. Meanwhile, Mr. President is viewable in its unexpected and unrecognizable reincarnation. If Irving Berlin is rolling over in his grave, we presume he is rolling over with laughter.

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