The country lies mired in a painful economic downturn. One party has held a 12-year lock on the White House. The fall election campaign is stuttering forward, looking for a defining issue. Strenuously avoiding anything resembling a position, one of the candidates sweeps to victory on the “Love” platform, marrying a wholesome girl (who can really bake corn muffins) and winning over the voters by showing them the very model of a modern American couple.
Suddenly a scandal erupts involving a broken promise to a beauty queen by the new President–rotten timing, too, because the First Lady has just struck a blow for family values by delivering newborn twins. An international incident is averted when the heretofore ineffectual Vice President marries the beauty queen, and the Union is saved.
This tabloid account of a misbegotten political season (“ripped from today’s headlines!”) explains why that landmark American musical Of Thee I Sing is once again sweeping the country. The 1931 collaboration of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (music and lyrics), which opened on the day after Christmas in a year that found Americans’ confidence in their elected government at an unprecedented low, seems eerily prescient this year. No wonder four regional theatre companies have scheduled campaign-season productions: Washington’s Arena Stage, Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, the Cleveland Play House and Chicago’s Remains Theatre.
Of Thee I Sing helped shape the still-forming American musical by its emphasis on integrating musical numbers into the forward movement of the plot, but its primary interest today lies in the free-wheeling, unrestrained satire of Kaufman and Ryskind’s book and Ira Gershwin’s lyrics. Taking a page from Gilbert and Sullivan (especially Gilbert, whose gift for political satire sometimes doesn’t translate transatlantically), the collaborators paint a portrait of a political world bereft of ideals, ideas or integrity.
In an early scene set in the archetypal smoke-filled hotel room, a political operative declares that “the people of this country demand John P. Wintergreen for President, and they’re going to get him whether they like it or not. And, between you and me, gentlemen, I don’t think they like it.” A moment later another opines that the party might have made one bad mistake–they “never should have sold Rhode Island.” But the candidate himself knows how to handle that little problem: “I’ll tell you what! We’ll leave it out of the campaign–not mention it!” When Throttlebottom, the nearly invisible candidate for V.P., wonders what to do if an opponent should happen to bring it up, Wintergreen knows the drill for that situation too: “Don’t answer ’em! It takes two to make an argument.”
THAT THESE SNIPPETS OF POLITICAL strategy would probably ring true in the mouths of the likes of Ailes, Carville, Matalin and Baker–or the gentlemen they profess to serve–helps create the uncanny sensation that Of Thee I Sing has somehow been surreptitiously adapted to present circumstances. But Kaufman and Ryskind’s satirical venom, for the most part, doesn’t require updating–two or three politically incorrect moments notwithstanding–because the level of political discourse in America has so manifestly not progressed in the 61 years since Of Thee I Sing premiered.
And the satire (“what closes on Saturday night,” as Kaufman referred to it) is blended with the confectionery materials of the musical comedy form and wrapped in Gershwin’s witty, essentially cheerful score (imagine, for contrast, a Weill or Blitzstein setting of the same materials), creating a piece with complexities of tone and style that defy formulaic interpretation. Oklahoma! is Oklahoma! is Oklahoma! (at least until a Western Revisionist Historian gets hold of it), but Of Thee I Sing sparks divergent responses in the four directors who are grappling with it across this land of ours.
For Arena Stage’s Douglas C. Wager and Remains Theatre’s Larry Sloan, there is a fundamental edginess at the heart of the piece. According to Wager, the play is “deeply angry and deeply cynical on a number of fronts. That’s the very contemporary thing about it. There’s absolutely no ray of light for the democratic process.” Sloan finds it “highly cynical–written at a time when public cynicism toward its leaders was as high as it is today.” He notes that “you didn’t see this surge of interest in the piece during the Reagan era,” when it was morning in America all day long for eight long years.
And yet for David Moreland, directing the play with a cast of 13 augmented by puppets, cardboard cutouts and plenty of a vista costume changes at the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, there is “nothing bitter or cynical or angry about it; it pokes fun at everybody without offending anybody.” Moreland finds the “whimsical spirit of the Jazz Age, tempered by the economic problems of the Depression” to be the guiding tone of the work. And Peter mark Schifter is determined that his Cleveland Play House production will be “funny and bright–I don’t want it to get bitter. That was territory that Kaufman and Gershwin explored in Let ‘Em Eat Cake, where they went over the edge.” Schifter recalls a conversation with Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts in which Frank characterized politicians as “simultaneously tough, cynical and optimistic about America,” and the director hopes that this same union of seeming opposites will ensure that on his stage “the tone that emerges is a belief in our country.”
Bitter or optimistic, cynical or whimsical? Perhaps the mark of a substantial work of art is its capacity to stimulate–and tolerate–a variety of responses.
WHETHER PITCHED IN A MAJOR or minor key, however, there is one inescapable fact about Of Thee I Sing: it’s big. The original cast numbered some 60 actors, singers and dancers, as well as a featured band. Even in its palmiest days, all LORT would have collectively quailed at the weekly payroll of such a behemoth.
Not surprisingly, each of the four current productions has found ways to realize the energy and style of the piece with substantially reduced forces. Necessity being the mother of convention, both Wager and Moreland are employing actor-manipulated puppet heads to fill out the nine Supreme Court justices. Wager, inspired perhaps by the success of the two-piano Most Happy Fella, and seeing the piece as belonging to the tradition of political cabaret (“I started to think,” he notes, “that it should be something like a cross between ‘That Was the Week That Was’ and Gilbert and Sullivan”), commissioned such an arrangement from Russell Warner, supporting an ensemble of 24 actors. Larry Sloan will fill his 250-seat thrust-stage space with a cast of 25, using two pianos assisted by percussion. The Bloomsburg group’s cast of 13 will sing to music director Bill Decker’s piano/sampler/percussion accompaniment. Schifter’s Cleveland production is probably the closest to a revivalist mounting, both in scale and aesthetic approach. “I’m not a particularly conceptual director,” Schifter comments, “but anyway why would you do that with this show?” He has at his disposal the seemingly standard 25 actors, but he adds a pit orchestra of two pianos and eight to ten other players. “We couldn’t really get any more people on stage,” he says. “Of course I kept offering to cut some stuff and they kept saying no, no, no… so I guess this had better be a hit.”
The Roman satirist Juvenal–whose name is remembered in an adjective describing a particularly bitter strain of the genre–once said, “Difficile est saturam non scribere”–it is hard not to write satire. The form flourishes in those ages that see commonsensical realities drowned in an inflationary tide of rhetoric–when the Emperor’s nakedness becomes visible to most and strenuously denied by some. It is a genre that Americans have not traditionally embraced or excelled at, perhaps because of the innate (though embattled) optimism of our national project. Imperial Rome, France from Louis XIV to the Revolution, the England of Walpole (and incidentally Pope and Swift and Fielding)–these decadent societies inspired satirists in every literary form. There is an antisatiric strain in America, an attitude that almost seems to say “don’t make fun.” Our collective national parents have taught us that if we don’t have anything nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all.
But the satiric impulse will not be silenced, and in times of crisis or torpor, when pomposities need pricking or lies unmasking, Juvenal’s words ring true again. In 1992, as in 1931, we contemplate our destiny through the medium of our politics. It is hard not to write satire. And it is hard to imagine a more engaging or timely theatrical essay in the form than Of Thee I Sing.