On Sunday, First Daughters Malia and Sasha Obama took in their first show on Broadway, the new musical “Memphis,” and brought along their mom, First Lady Michelle Obama, and an entourage of about eight aides, secret servicemen and friends.
Except for the presence of police cars and secret service agents along West 44th Street, the matinee date at the famed Shubert Theater had been kept hush-hush, with the White House being careful not to turn the event into the kind of media circus that greeted the first couple when they came to town to see the Broadway production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in May 2009.
The Obamas’ date to see the August Wilson play marked the first time in 36 years that a sitting president and first lady had attended a Broadway show. In recent history, only Richard and Pat Nixon (“Much Ado About Nothing in 1973) and John and Jacqueline Kennedy (“The Best Man” in 1961) had made the trek north to see theater in Gotham.
Sans their husbands, sitting first ladies have been more frequent visitors to Broadway. Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush made the legit scene once or twice. But the three Obama women are of extra interest because their theater date involves children, ages 11 and 8.
Even for such hip kids, what Broadway show is age appropriate? For Michelle Obama, a Disney tuner might have been the safe choice. But she’d already taken the girls to see “The Lion King” in London last spring, and perhaps she’d heard that “Mary Poppins” is a real snooze, and besides, it’s British.
Revivals this season are a problem: there’s the full-frontal nudity in “Hair” and “West Side Story” has scenes of premarital sex, gang warfare and gang rape.
Last spring, the Obamas sent something of a message to the arts community with their choice of “Joe Turner,” which happened to be the only African-American-themed play running on Broadway at that time. ( The show featured actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who together with husband Samuel L., had hosted a Big O fundraiser at their Beverly Hills home the previous September.)
“Memphis,” based loosely on “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips,” tells the story of a white DJ who helped break the color barrier on radio by playing rhythm-and-blues in the 1950s. Phillips was a hard-drinking, pill-popping music man who couldn’t marry his African-American girlfriend due to Tennessee’s miscegeny law.
Its producers couldn’t be more delighted with the visit.
The Obamas’ “Joe Turner” date made for an immediate spike of 30% in that show’s box office. When Bill and Hillary Clinton, no longer in the White House, visited “Avenue Q” in autumn 2003, the publicity pushed the B.O. into SR0 territory for the first time, and the show went on to win the Tony for best musical.
“Memphis,” written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, has been doing about breakeven biz this winter, and faces a challenge from other new tuners — “Fela!,” “Come Fly Away” and the soon-to-open “Addams Family,” “American Idiot” and “Million Dollar Quartet” — to lock down one of those precious four Tony noms for best musical.
Perhaps the imprimatur of the first lady and her kids will be almost as good as the Tony itself. Maybe even better.