Inside the satire of Clinton the Musical
If you ask ten people their opinion of Bill Clinton, then you're likely to get ten different answers. But that's not a problem for Clinton The Musical,
currently playing at New World Stages.
In the musical comedy he wrote with his brother Michael, writer/composer Paul Hodge seeks to embrace the duality that made the 42nd president so controversial. In the show, "the man from Hope"
is portrayed as two different characters: the stately "William Jefferson Clinton" (played by Tom Galantich) and the slick "Billy Clinton" (played by Duke Lafoon).
As Hillary (Kerry Butler) puts it in her opening monologue: "I'm married to two different men."
Australian-born Hodge saw Clinton as the perfect subject for political satire. "My brother and I had just seen this musical about a Prime Minister in Australia," he says. "On the way home we agreed that a politician just couldn't work as the subject of a musical. Unless, we joked, it was Bill Clinton.
"We got the idea for having two separate men play Clinton from reading his autobiography. There was this idea that he was Saturday night Bill, Sunday morning president."
Director/choreographer Dan Knechtges sees the concept of two Bills as well-suited to the show's theme. "It explains so much so fast, and it feels natural, very true to life," he says. "We all have two sides to us, and finding those little kernels of truth is what makes great satire."
But the fun of Clinton
isn't all at the expense of the title character. "We're equal-opportunity offenders," says Knechtges, referring to the show's portrayal of a conniving Kenneth Starr and a crybaby Newt Gingrich. "Our guiding principle was not to pick a side. The show is about how we bring two sides of something together. It's about learning how to 'go both ways.'" (That's a nod to one of the production's recurring numbers.)
The musical centers around the Monica Lewinsky affair, but it tries to create a complex portrait of the sensationalized characters from the scandal. "[Lewinski] wasn't a temptress" says Hodge. "She was young and starstruck." As for Starr, "On the one hand you have this guy who's obsessed with bringing Clinton down, but on the other you have this puritanically repressed minister's son who's just obsessed with sex."
This approach helps the partisan battles extend into the house
. "We can tell which way the audience leans based on what they laugh at," says Hodge. "One night we had a group of Democrats sitting next to a group of Republicans; they became aware of each other and it was like they had an agenda, the things they laughed at. And that's our goal."
But the humor of the play isn't entirely political. "It's also about the 24-Hour news cycle," says Hodge. "Politicians today are so concerned with saying something wrong, they sort of lose their humanity. But it was never that way with Clinton."
Plus, it's not like the Clinton family has stopped making news since Bill finished his second term. As Hodge says, "When it became clear Hillary was going to run again, we realized she needed a bigger arc."
Sander Gusinow is a freelance arts writer and playwright based in New York
Photos by Russ Rowland.
Top photo: Tom Galantich, Kerry Butler, and Dan Lafoon.