Hillary Clinton leans forward from her desk at the Oval Office. “Good evening,” says the former first lady. “I’d like to tell you the story of my first presidency.”
The line might sound like a lukewarm zinger out of “Saturday Night Live,” but it sets the tone for sharper jabs that will be flung throughout “Clinton: The Musical.” In this case, the title character isn’t Hillary — it’s Bill, whose eight years as commander-in-chief serve as the backdrop for a buzzy new Off Broadway musical production that opens Thursday night.
The 42nd president is played by two actors, Tom Galantich and Duke Lafoon, to represent his dual personalities as a serious politician and a philandering womanizer. Hillary (Kerry Butler) comes across as a scheming Tracy Flick from the Alexander Payne movie “Election.”
It’s safe to say that the Clintons won’t be among those attending the show, now playing at New World Stage in midtown Manhattan. With Hillary on the verge of announcing her presidential bid for 2016, this production reopens a closet of skeletons the Clintons would like for America to forget: Whitewater, Paula Jones, the botched bid for universal health care, etc. These scandals unfold through a score of tongue-in-cheek ditties worthy of “Avenue Q.”
And then there’s Monica Lewinsky. History’s most notorious intern isn’t just a footnote, she’s a full-fledged co-star (Veronica J. Kuehn) in the farce. She appears on the poster nuzzling Bill’s leg and belts out a melody with the lyrics, “I’m f—ing the f—ing president.” By the show’s finale, Monica tap dances on stage like Ginger Rogers, except she’s donning a tutu and a top with shimmering stars and stripes.
The show’s co-writer, Paul Hodge, tells Variety that his musical is nonpartisan. “We’re neither Democrats nor Republicans,” says Hodge, who is Australian and first staged a version of the musical at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. “I’ll be honest. We weren’t sure how Americans would react to it.” (Judging from the peals of laughter at a recent preview, “Clinton: The Musical” could be a sleeper hit).
This isn’t the first time audiences have flocked to a stage show anchored by politics — see “Frost/Nixon,” “All the Way” (with Bryan Cranston recently playing LBJ), “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Hamilton,” the upcoming musical about Alexander Hamilton — but “Clinton: the Musical” is banking on renewed interest in Hillary to sell seats and revisit the political couple’s rise (and many stumbles) during their two terms in the White House.
“We wanted to do it now when Hillary is running,” says Kari Lynn Hearn, the musical’s producer. After a workshop in New York last year, she pushed the writers to develop more narrative between the songs. There’s now an emotional scene where Hillary learns that her husband has been cheating on her. “It’s very pro-woman,” Hearn says.
Despite appearances from Socks the cat (as a hand puppet) and Al Gore (played by a cardboard cutout), the only figure absent from this political reunion is first daughter Chelsea. And while the portrait of the Clintons is far from flattering, the villain of the musical is special prosecutor Kenneth Starr (Kevin Zak), who hisses like Dr. Evil from “Austin Powers” when belting out his opening number, “When You Wish for Kenneth Starr/A Star Is Born.” In this semi-fictional rendering, Starr plots with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (John Treacy Egan) and Linda Tripp (Judy Gold) to overthrow the Clintons. But when this Starr lets his guard down, he sheds his clothes in a strip routine worthy of “Magic Mike” — complete with a harness and lace thong.
That’s one chapter from the Clinton years you won’t read in the history books.