Old Musicals Like New

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Yet the enterprise retains its blithe bite nearly three quarters of a century later. It has a smiling contempt for the electoral process and an acute ear for political B.S. Realizing that stump speechifying is the art of couching nonsense in stentorian cadences, they have a Southern Senator intone this bilgewater: "Not for us the entangling alliances of Europe, not for us the allying entanglances of Asia." Wintergreen, who gets high marks for oratory if not for geography, tells voters that he has campaigned "in the cornfields of Kansas, on the plains of Arizona, in the mountains of Nebraska…"

Once in a while, truth breaks through the truthiness. A political boss tells the voters, "We do not talk to you about war debts or wheat or immigration — we appeal to your hearts, not your intelligence." Confronted with Lincoln's quote about not being able to fool all of the people all of the time, the boss snorts, "It's different nowadays. People are bigger suckers." (That got a conspiratorial roar from the opening night Encores! crowd.) Toward the end, Wintergreen lapses into candor when he confides to Throttlebottom the basics of White House governance: "Of course the first four years are easy. You don't do anything except try to get re-elected. … The next four years you wonder why the hell you wanted to be re-elected." For our last two Presidents, that bit of wisdom might hit home.

The plot, lassoing the President into a sexual triangle that leads to his impeachment, needs no footnote from me for its relevance to recent White House history. True, the image of a Vice President with neither power nor notoriety may seem anachronistic, not to say utopian, these days (though at the end, Throttlebottom does say to Wintergreen, in a neat presentiment of Maureen Dowd, "You can be the President and I'll go back to Vice.") But the pertinence of the show's disdain for the motives of the President, the Congress and the press carried a wallop then, and retain a sting today.

Remember that, in 1931, the Wall Street crash had lately idled nearly a fifth of the work force and wonder that Ira Gershwin could have Wintergreen sing, in a perky love ballad, "Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers, / Long as you've got a kiss that conquers?" The Senators are less discreet: "If you think you've got depression, / Wait until we get in session, / And you'll find out what depression really means!" The reporters care not about The Issues; they pepper the Prez with questions only about his love life. "We don't want to know about the moratorium, / Or how near we are to beer, / Or about the League of Nations, / Or the seventeen vacations / You have had since you've been here." (In the 1952 revival, Ira tweaked the first lines into: "We don't want to know about your foreign policy / Or the latest Party smear, / Or the budget innovations / Or the seventeen vacations / You have had since you've been here."

However dismissive Kaufman the writer was to the political process, Kaufman the director knew how to put on a splendid show. Of Thee In Sing, then and now, begins with convention delegates bearing such placards as "Wintergreen — the Flavor Lasts," "Vote for Posterity and See What You Get" and the meta-cynical "Turn the Reformers Out." The first act climax, set in Madison Square Garden, intersperses the political rhetoric with a wrestling match; the combatants briefly pause in a double-scissors lock to applaud one of the speeches, which is interrupted by the announcement of a hockey or baseball score — Boston Bruins 3, Chicago White Sox 1 — voiced here by Bob Sheppard, the ageless (95) voice of the New York Yankees. A large screened is lowered onto the stage to highlight the election ("Wintergreen four votes short of winning!" ... "Wintergreen casts last four votes and wins!") It's all very, to use an innocent word from the show, gay.

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