New York came out in force for the premiere of “All The Way,” a new play about the early years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, starring Bryan Cranston at the Neil Simon Theatre. The play marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and revolves heavily around the efforts to get the law passed.
Cranston, fresh off of a successful awards season and making his Broadway and live theater debut, played LBJ with such conviction and skill that there was nary a hint of Heisenberg, his “Breaking Bad” character’s alter ego, anywhere in the theater.
Cranston told Variety he did feel some pressure in shouldering the legacy of the president, especially given how many people in the audience still remember the era — and the man himself.
“When you play a fictional character, whatever you do is who he is,” Cranston said, who portrayed the president as a man at times fatherly, at times terrifying. “But LBJ left such an iconic picture, and a lot of people here remember him. He had so many idiosyncrasies, and such wide mood swings. He’s such a mercurial character, almost Lear-like, isn’t he?”
Cranston said he had gotten feedback from playwright Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Dick, both of whom knew LBJ, and who told Cranston that they felt like they could close their eyes and be taken back to that time. Cranston also emphasized that “I don’t want to do an impersonation. I want to absorb him and really get a sense of him.”
In switching from screen to stage, Cranston said he felt a big difference having a live audience right in front of him.
“The audience will really tell you what they’re thinking and feeling at any given moment,” he said. “If they don’t like you, they’ll tell you!”
Despite playing such a towering figure in American history, Cranston said he wasn’t trying to conform to anyone’s expectations.
“I’m doing this for me, not to please other people,” he said. “I have a high regard for the legacy and a real responsibility.”
One of Cranston’s former “Breaking Bad” castmates, Jonathan Banks, expressed amazement at Cranston’s transformation.
“Who let him do that?!” he joked, adding “I love him. I came all the way to New York to see him. I’m freezing my [expletive] off. I’d say that’s friendship!”
Banks reflected on LBJ and Civil Rights era, remembering that he got his equity card doing the musical “Hair.”
“It was a pretty amazing time,” Banks said. “It was a very sad era. A lot of my friends were in Vietnam, and a lot of my friends didn’t come back from Vietnam.”
Banks also remembered LBJ’s legacy, saying “I think some of the things Johnson did were heroic. I think some of the things he did were tragic,” and added that he got his buddy a unique opening night gift: a 12-pound ham.
“I think that says it all,” he joked.
Other notables in attendance were journalists Charlie Rose and Dan Rather, who was the chief CBS White House correspondent for the entire Johnson presidency and covered him as vice president and a Texas senator.
“This is something worthy of the big stage,” Rather said. “It has a King Lear quality. He’s a 20th century Lear. Whatever you think of Johnson, this is one of the most important presidencies of the 20th century, perhaps in the history of the country. I may be the only person in the cosmos who hasn’t seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ but I have been looking forward to this play.”
Rose remarked that the real Johnson “had an extraordinary number of things for poor people, but he was very scarred by Vietnam.”
“Johnson had a certain quality, a dominating presence, and Bryan has that presence,” added Rose, a self-professed “Breaking Bad” fan.
Congresswoman and minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who lived through the Johnson era and met the president when she was in school, told Variety at intermission that she thought the play “is so beautifully written. And the acting is sensational.”
Pelosi also said the play accurately captured the tense tenor of the time and the fight around Civil Rights, a fight that “we’re still not free of.”
Ronan Farrow, who was seated next to Pelosi in the audience, agreed with her.
Farrow said he had recently accompanied Senator Wendy Davies to Texas for his new MSNBC show, where he saw how voter ID laws caused her some problems. “She still had trouble getting to the polls with the new laws.”
The play didn’t not shy away from some testy political points, but the audience seemed to be responding positively.
“This is a very New York audience,” Farrow said. “It’ll be interesting to see how a tourist audience responds.”