Obama, the Musical: Germany's Stage Love Letter

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alex Grimm / Getty

Della Miles, acting as Michelle Obama, and Jimmie Wilson, as Barack Obama, perform during a rehearsal of Hope — The Obama Musical Story

If only every U.S. presidential campaign could be relived in song and dance. As a new musical in Germany about Barack Obama's rise to the top demonstrates, politics takes on a whole new comical meaning when set to music. In one scene, for instance, a Sarah Palin look-alike belts, "I'm a pit bull!" while surrounded by scantily clad go-go dancers. In another, John McCain performs a rock song called "See You in November" with an ever-so-slight German accent. The Obama character, meanwhile, sings excerpts from the candidate's actual speeches while backed by the "Yes we can!" shouts of a gospel choir.

At its premiere earlier this month in Frankfurt, Hope — The Obama Musical Story received a standing ovation from a crowd of 2,000 mostly adoring Obama fans, proving that while the President's popularity may have waned in the U.S. during his difficult first year in office, he remains a larger-than-life figure in Europe. "Germans have a certain connection to Obama, which proved to be beneficial," American co-creator Randall Hutchins told TIME after the debut on Jan. 17.

The musical, which is unabashedly politically correct and at times unbearably sappy, tells Obama's story from two different perspectives — that of his family and that of the residents of a middle-class suburban Chicago neighborhood. Barack and Michelle have their first date against a backdrop of red roses, and later he mourns the death of his beloved grandmother Toot. Meanwhile, in the Chicago suburbs, the conservative German-American widow Mrs. Schultz and the Obama-supporting Johnson family bond over their worries (the Johnsons' son is missing in Iraq; Mrs. Schultz has lost her house) and their excitement about the 2008 presidential election. Mrs. Schultz, a McCain supporter at first, is eventually wooed to the Obama side.

The actors speak mostly English, but there is also a German-speaking narrator to ensure that non-English-speaking members of the audience can keep up with the plot. He explains what terms like soccer mom mean and describes cultural differences, such as Americans' tendency to speak more openly than Germans about their political preferences and affiliations. But there are still a few misunderstandings. When the audience is prompted by the actors to sing, "Rock the vote," the response is hesitant. "What do they want us to say?" a confused young woman whispers.

Although its makers insist that the musical's purpose isn't to glorify Obama (played by the American actor Jimmie Wilson), there's no doubt who the audience is supposed to be rooting for. There are some laughs when McCain, who is presented as a slightly awkward, Machiavellian character, enters the stage. Hillary Clinton is annoyingly self-confident, bragging endlessly about the experience she gained as the wife of a former President. ("I'll know what to do / I'm a Clinton too," she sings in one scene.) Even a dance-off between the Obama and McCain camps goes Barack's way: his team has by far the better moves.

The overly pro-Obama feel of the musical — as well as the support he obviously still enjoys among those in the audience — was not lost on the critics. "Had Obama been running for President in Germany, he would certainly have gained more that just 53% of the vote. Among the crowd at the musical, he would easily have gotten 99.9% — a result that even East Germany's Communist Party would have been proud of," a reviewer for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted. "The audience kept finding reasons to cheer on the black Messiah."

This shouldn't come as a surprise in Germany, where Obama has been immensely popular since he announced his candidacy. In July 2008, just after Obama locked up the Democratic nomination, he gave a speech in Berlin that drew 200,000 cheering supporters — an event that was later mocked by the McCain campaign, which called him the "biggest celebrity in the world" in a TV ad. And because Obama's first-year problems have been largely domestic — such as the drawn-out fight with conservatives over health care reform — his reputation hasn't been tarnished much abroad since that defining speech.

Still, the producers of the musical, the Michigan-born Hutchins and Italian-German director Roberto Emmanuele, say they didn't want to create a tribute to Obama or pander to the crowd by playing up his star appeal. Instead, they aimed to tell the story of the people who were inspired by his message of change — themselves included. "This musical is not about politics but about the effect Obama has on people," Hutchins says. "Making the musical resembled Obama's story in a way. We had very little in the beginning, meager means, a meager budget ... Obama inspired me to reach higher." Their plan is to take Hope on tour across Germany and then the rest of Europe. Hutchins acknowledges that it may be commercially difficult to take the show to the U.S., however, given the current gloom surrounding the Obama presidency.

Even the few Germans who disagree with Obama's decisions as President seemed to enjoy the show and connect with his vision of the future. "I'm not an Obama fan in terms of his politics," Marnie Verhoven said after the show. "But he's a shining light. He gives people hope." Or, as another audience member, Uwe Dragon, put it: "Try to make a musical about [German Foreign Minister] Guido Westerwelle, and then see who shows up."