History, Marx famously remarked, repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. But for the eight years beginning January 20, 1993, history, in the form of the Clinton White House, seemed to skip the repetition and go straight for farce. The cast, the clashes, and the crack-ups of those years are brought together in the ribald new musical, Clinton, which is appearing in New York City as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It is every bit as outrageous as you might think, but, then, an Eisenhower musical would not be nearly as much fun.
Clinton opens on January 20, 1993, with the president-elect taking the oath of office. “I, William Jefferson Clinton,” he begins — then, at his shoulder, “And I, Hillary Rodham Clinton . . . ” That gag sets the tone for the rest of the show, which is constantly inquiring, Who was in charge of this circus? To dramatize the question, there are actually two Bill Clintons: William Jefferson (Karl Kenzler), whose suit and slicked-back gray hair declare “Mr. President,” the scrupulous servant of the people; and Billy (Duke LaFoon), WJ’s caddish alter ego, an incorrigible skirt chaser with a touch for political showbiz. Whenever WJ’s starchy podium performances begin to bore, Billy Clinton is there, saxophone in hand, to give the crowds the old razzle-dazzle. Back and forth the show oscillates between their two approaches, parodying the schizophrenic feeling of many observers in the ’90s: that there was a Sunday-morning Bill and a very different Saturday-night Bill.
On the rare occasion when Bill is not his own worst enemy, he is the target of two antagonists: a megalomaniacal Newt Gingrich (Tom Souhrada), whose supervillain laugh is accompanied by a grand vision of making History by returning America to the golden days when everyone was “Christian, straight, and white.” To help him in his quest are several zombie-fied members of “the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.” It is because of Newt and his minions that the scoop-hungry press begins to ask questions about Whitewater and Paula Jones, and to coax them on is Kenneth Starr (Kevin Zak), an Igor-like investigator whose show-stopping number has him stripping down to combat boots, fishnet underwear, and a leather chest harness. Why Kenneth Starr is a male dominatrix here is a mystery, but in a show this bawdy, it somehow fits.
And bawdy it is. Once Monica Lewinsky (Natalie Gallo) makes her entrance, the innuendos are unceasing, and while the jokes are, like the women in Clinton’s orbit, sometimes too easy, there is plenty of cleverer fare. Yes, much of the show is puerile and sophomoric, but it’s a musical about Bill Clinton — you don’t expect Lear. That said, one song is a bit too blunt: Lewinsky’s postcoital girl-power solo, “I’m F***ing the F***ing President, Oh Yeah.” Even Sade knew to be subtle on occasion.
The show blasts through the Clinton administration’s eight years in two hours, with tributes to many of the era’s central moments: the 1994 midterm landslide, the 1995–1996 government shutdown (resolved here with a toe-to-toe boxing match between Gingrich and the two Bills), Hillarycare, and Clinton’s linguistically agile testimony before various congressional bodies. A beanbag dressed up in a suit — Bob Dole — makes a guest appearance, as does cardboard-cutout Al Gore. “Recyclable?” WJ asks. “Good, that’s what he would have wanted.”
The most entertaining performance in the show may belong to John Gregorio, who appears (among other roles) as Dick Morris, the wonder-working Clinton political strategist who can “turn s**tstorms into rainbows.” Using a pair of crystal balls, he divines a way for Clinton to outmaneuver Gingrich and the House Republicans: “the third way.” Dick Morris as an ADHD Carnac the Magnificent, in full iridescent Magi regalia, is a pitch-perfect send-up.
Ultimately, though, the show is about Bill and Hillary, and the degree of success with which each is caricatured is interesting. Kenzler and LaFoon, particularly the latter, bring off well the two sides of Bill: the feel-your-pain public persona and the Arkansas playboy who has mastered the innocent “Who, me?” smile. Bill Clinton is ripe for caricature, and without being cruel or scoring political points (in either direction), Clinton’s Bill(s) captures those aspects of the 42nd president that made Americans roll their eyes and shake their heads, then shrug and say, “Ah, but that’s Bill.”
Hillary, though, portrayed by Alet Taylor, does not come off. This Hillary is simultaneously too aggressive and too blonde. At times she is clearly pulling the strings in the White House, and at others she is the laughingstock of her husband and the public; sometimes she is preternaturally effective, at others she is misinterpreting letters she has found in the White House, left over from Eleanor Roosevelt, as cosmic signs.
The problem may not be Taylor’s, though. What one notices with the real-life Hillary is that, unlike her husband, she often seems essentially content-less. Her conduct, her words — everything seems poll-tested, constructed, artificial. The Hillary onstage in Clinton is too intimate; playwrights Paul and Michael Hodge try to imagine her thoughts, feelings, fears. But with the real-life Hillary, one never seems to know any of that. How to capture that negative quality, though, is a question. One wonders if it might be appropriate to have two Hillarys as well.
Clinton’s final number is a reprise of its opener: a grand, top-of-the-lungs paean to what Clinton will do for America — only at the end of the show, the Clinton we’re considering is Hillary. God forbid that the real-life American electorate decide that sequel is in order. Still, Clinton is a fun, rude, roller-coaster reminder that American politics is often a circus — and sometimes we ought to pause to enjoy the show.
[Clinton, which is appearing at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, runs through July 26, with the possibility of an extension.]
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.