03 March 2009

Political Productions Pave the Way: A New Genre is Inspired by Current Events

With the state of Illinois taking center stage in a significant portion of the political news recently, I chose this week to explore the state’s influence on the theatrical community, both within the state as well as around the world. Chicago is said to be the “most vibrant dramatic capital after New York.” Nevertheless it has seen its fair share of off stage political drama and scandals as well, and the current champions of the spotlight are related to each other in more ways than one. Not only is President Obama linked to former Governor Rod Blagojevich (see left) through the on-going scandal involving the vacant Senate seat, but the two political figures now share a new genre of theatre: the biographical political musical. While other presidents, like Nixon, have already made their way to the Broadway stage, and famous figures are working toward getting their life story in marquee lights, there has yet to be a musical based on political triumph or scandal. However, the two pieces of theatre differ as significantly as the men they are written about. Whether the performance is about the beloved new president bringing change to the people of the United States, or the power hungry ex-governor bringing shame to his state, each story continues to emphasize the views already presented by the media about their situations.

According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, the musically comedic musings of the former governor of Illinois titled Rod Blagojevich Superstar! has found itself one of the most well-received, last minute productions to date. Written in less than a month, the main goal is that the play “is connecting with Illinoisans [who are] amused yet appalled” at the governor’s actions. Having completely sold out all of the performances since the grand opening February 10th, Second City is looking to expand the original six-week production to a theatre available for weekend shows elsewhere in the city. The cast, however, believes that some of the success of the play is “people[s] need to laugh at this thing.” Because of the nature of the current event-based show, the improv-trained actors are willing to be extremely flexible with the script. Not only have they added to the play as the Blagojevich saga changes, but many of the characters have also taken cues from former staffers who, despite being parodied in the performance, have still attended and been more than willing to comment on the realistic mannerisms of Blagojevich, portrayed by Joey Bland. In spite of the accurate depiction, the production simply highlights and reinforces the negative views surrounding the scandal of the vacant Senate seat left by Obama in a comical way. While this is innovative for the performing arts, in that the cast is constantly changing and updating the script, the fact that Illinoisan audiences are letting the character get away with so much may attribute to the length of the Blagojevich scandal. Many reviews on the production suggest that this performance was the perfect way to spoof the outrageous musings of the former governor, bringing light to a somewhat somber and pathetic situation. However, I truly believe that, though innovative in its construction, the potential of the production was lost in the comedy. As the cast had the ability to shed new light on the situation, they instead chose to rely on Saturday Night Live! antics to spoof the state politics, as well as classic show tune songs.

On the other end of the spectrum, two musicals have found their way into existence due to the popularity of the new President of the United States, Barack Obama (see right). The first of these was created in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where Obama is considered a national hero, and premiered just days before the elections in November. In an article from BBC news about the performance, simply titled Obama, The Musical, the sympathies of the people involved in the production are very much out in the open. Even the actor playing the “chief villain” Senator John McCain was quoted saying “Obama is more fun to portray… I hope he will win [the election].” While this play used the life and rise to political fame of the famous figure as an example for people learn about “the virtues or hard work, selflessness, democracy and public service,” it was also widely viewed as an important message to the feuding country. Having dealt with post-election violence sparked by opposing views of various communities on Kenyan leadership, it is clearly one sided in its views, casting major Republican figures as enemies whose sole purpose is to stand in Obama’s way. The use of such classic "vice and virtue" stock characters originated during the medieval cycle plays, and often inspired many Shakespearean plots. Though these types of characters and plots worked for creating many timeless classics we know today, I believe that the empahsis on the ever-changing political sphere will limit reproductions in the future. The second musical in the works, Obama on my Mind, set to being its preview performances today at Islington’s Hen and Chickens theatre in London, uses a variety of types of music to take “a look at the weird and wonderful world behind the scenes of a small Obama campaign office, and the larger than life characters who make the wheels turn” according to press materials on the musical. However, based on the vague and limited press coverage, I agree with Lyn Gardner's review from the Guardian that this production has perhaps "by jumping on the Obama bandwagon, has guaranteed itself more attention than it deserves or is good for it."

Though all three of these productions work toward opening yet another genre of theatre to the public, I cannot help but question the motives behind each of the playwrights. While many beloved stories have inherently evil villains that the audience loves to hate, perhaps dehumanizing certain popular figures to create an antagonist is not the most creative decision for a playwright. Despite the fact that many people believe entertaining story lines cannot exists without opposition to the protagonist, placing all the blame on a few sources seems like an outdated and simplistic method of creating one’s characters. Instead, I believe that these plays may have done an even better job creating realistic characters had they taken a cue from Partick Marber's Closer (While I understand Wikipedia is not a reputable source, this is the best summary available.) Regardless of the lack of "happy ending," the play is full of real characters, who are all flawed in their own ways, but each have a redeaming quality as well. Even as I look into the potential that plays like the ones I have mentioned have created in the theatrical world, I can only hope that the future of the genre does not depend on the divisions created when the fictional world becomes black and white. Sometimes, the stories with a majority of grey area are the most interesting.


  1. I must say, I didn’t see the genre of the biographical political musical coming. Your fascinating discussion on the recent and relevant topic really supports the unexpected connections between theatre and life that you have thus far brought to light. In reading about the two very different takes on bringing high-profile politicians to the stage, I immediately question their individual purposes. It seems to me that the Second City production of “Rod Blagojevich Superstar!” exists only as a comical parody, much along the lines of Saturday Night Live. Though I have not seen the production and thus cannot comment on its merit without any real credibility, I would guess that the purpose of the musical is to simply make the audience laugh at the absurdities of politics. Considering the production’s success, and also the success of Saturday Night Live political sketches, this seems this is an important mode of entertainment.

    “Obama: The Musical” seems to be more rooted in artistic creation. As you have written in your post, there is a clear philosophical purpose driving the production, namely that it seeks to inspire hard work, selflessness, democracy and public service. Though I commend the production for attempting to communicate these themes through recent and popular events, I agree that creating a villain out of a current nominee in a presidential election is a bit cheap. It seems to uncomfortably straddle the line between theatre and propaganda and is a bit too closely associated with a political agenda since it is dealing with current and developing issues. A final note of constructive criticism, I feel you could strengthen this post with the implementation of a little background information. As someone who is not entirely versed in the specific details, I would have loved to see more information on the Blagojvich scandal to preface the context of the emerging musical, perhaps a brief summary of the events to avoid having to read the entire linked article. I would also have loved to hear more regarding Obama’s “national hero” identity in Kenya as I find his international persona fascinating. Overall, I commend you on a very successful argument and I look forward to continue reading future posts.

  2. Thank you for this interesting post. It is very interesting to learn about the new genre based on U.S politics. One of the first things I notice about your post is that there is not a clear thesis in your opening statements. While the reader comes to understand that the topic of this post is based on the opinion that is wrongful to portray antagonist in political genre playwrights for political issues are much more than black and white, protagonist and antagonist, the reader does not come across this view until the very last sentence. In your points about “Rod Blagojevich Superstar!” you make it clear that this play has been a success due to its Saturday Night Live! Antics, but you dock this play by saying “the potential of the production was lost in the comedy.” Would you rather this play be more serious by shedding more insight on the situation and potentially be less successful? I feel that every playwright has their own goals to accomplish with the plays that they create, and according to the article that you linked, the goal of “Rod Blagojevich Superstar!” was to connect to Illinoisans who were amused yet appalled about the whole scandal situation.
    Regarding your points on the playwrights based on President Obama, I agree that proclaiming McCann as the antagonist is the easy way out, and can be seen as propaganda. When reading the last paragraph and your conclusion, I was confused about the “Closer” reference for I have never seen “Closer.” I feel a brief explanation of how “Closer” does a better job creating realistic characters would be very beneficial for your post.


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