'Caucus!' premieres in time for primaries

Brave, politically minded souls will be winging it to Des Moines in the coming week for the waning days of the Iowa campaign, and they may be surprised to know that they will be there in time for a premiere.

“Caucus! The Musical” will debut Dec. 27 at the State Historical Museum Theater. The tuner is a riff on everything that anyone ever thought about Iowa’s exalted status these days, what with the next president of the United States camped out there for the past six months or so. As playwright, composer and lyricist Robert John Ford notes, “Iowans have become accustomed to having future presidents of the United States serve them pancakes, plow their corn fields, and attend their children’s Little League games.”

In the irreverent production, the national media peg an Iowa farmer and his family as “typical caucus goers,” and campaigns soon realize that they must do anything to win their vote.

Even though the characters — played by a team largely comprising local performers — are all fictional, there are certainly shades of this year’s field: an African-American woman candidate; another candidate who seems to flip-flop through the issues. There’s also an instance of a question being planted in the audience at a campaign event. Going on through all of this is the spectacle of gay marriage in Iowa and an endless war overseas.

Ford says he conceived of the play before the previous caucus in 2004 (a premiere reading was performed at the Des Moines Playhouse that year), when he got an up-close-and-personal view of politics. Born and raised in the state, he moved to San Diego in the 1980s to work at the Old Globe Theater, but returned to Iowa five years ago to pursue theater in a smaller market.

He has since found success as the author of several plays, including “Six-on-Six,” a musical take on girls’ basketball in Iowa; and “The World’s Largest Aluminum Foil Ball,” about what happens when a Midwest roadside attraction is listed as a terrorist target.

What influenced his ideas for “Caucus” were the one-on-one interactions that residents have with the candidates. “Not only do we expect it, we demand it in many ways,” he says. “It does make a huge difference.”

He cites his own experience. In the lead-up to the 2004 caucus, he at first supported Howard Dean, but says when he met him he “had a very cold connection.” Then he was impressed by another candidate he saw in person, John Edwards.

(Ford says this year, he’s been leaning toward Hillary Clinton, but “If I voted idealistically, I’d vote for (Dennis) Kucinich.”)

Clearly Iowans enjoy being spoiled by all the attention. The Barack Obama campaign asked Ford’s cast members to perform before the big Oprah Winfrey event at Hy-Vee Hall, but they declined. After weeks of rehearsals, it was their only day off.

Although the show’s opening, two days after Christmas, would seem to be an odd time for a debut, but not in Des Moines: The city will be populated with political media, strategists, consultants, donors, campaign workers and politicians at that time.

And, knowing they’ll all clear out after the caucus is over, Ford has adapted his play for New Hampshire, in a production called “The Primary Primary!” that will open Jan. 4 at the New Hampshire Theater Project in Portsmouth. The state’s voters go to the polls Jan. 8.

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