It was sad to hear of the death, from cancer, of beloved actor Tom Bosley. Bosley was famous for appearing as the dad in the long-running TV series “Happy Days”, but his reputation as a stage actor on Broadway was sealed by his portrayal of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 musical, “Fiorello”.
“Fiorello” is one of 8 musicals to win the Pulitzer for drama. (The others are “Of Thee I Sing”, “South Pacific”, “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”, “A Chorus Line”, “Sunday in the Park With George”, “Rent” and “Next To Normal”. Only two of these are about politics – “Fiorello” and “Of Thee I Sing.” That got me thinking about our discussion yesterday on politics and cynicism.
“Of Thee I Sing” debuted in 1932, written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with music and lyrics from George and Ira Gershwin. Act one describes a political campaign where the candidate runs on the “love” platform, promising voters that if they elect him, he’ll marry the woman of his dreams, thereby making the biggest campaign issue whether or not people want a happy ending to a romantic story. No need to hire a pollster to figure how that one will turn out.
That’s what you get when you let politics and musical theater collide.
“Fiorello” has a similar romantic storyline, but for lovers of musical cynicism the standouts are two songs sung by corrupt politicians – “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box”. Bosley didn’t appear in either one of these songs – he was the hero and these are numbers for the villains – but they represent America’s best effort at distilling political corruption into a cheerful little ditty.
Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t offer videos of the original Broadway cast doing these songs (I’m shocked, scandalized), but Farmingdale High School on Long Island did a nice job with “Little Tin Box”. Kudos to the guy in the greenish vest.
It’s hard to imagine what sort of musical would reflect the political times we live in today, or if such a show could even exist. After all, you have to have a sympathetic protagonist, and as soon as you put someone from our current cast of characters up on a pedestal, half the audience will write you off as partisan. You could try to go entirely in the other direction and built the show around an anti-hero (Michele Bachmann, the Musical) with the same disappointing result.
Maybe the political musical for our times is really about our concurrent but weirdly separate realities. Act one tells the story from a red politics perspective. Act two brings in the same characters and re-tells the same tale, blue. But where does that leave us at the end? Ready to run from the theater and go have a drink somewhere.
What’s your favorite political drama on stage or screen?