Full of highly listenable rock with funny lyrics, played by a tight band (Esther Covington, Brett Abelman and the excellent Josh Speerstra), beautifully sung and, best of all, funny because it’s true – who wouldn’t like President Harding is a Rock Star? And when I say “it’s true” I don’t mean that our 29th President (Andrew Lloyd Baughman) was a burly, bearded keytar-wielding jumpsuited cokehead, or that his wife Florence (Richelle Howie) was an African-American woman with a voice which could make the very songbirds droop their heads in shame and envy; or that Alexander Hamilton (Covington) and Napoleon (Jen Tonon) visited the White House periodically and did coke with the President. I mean that electing Warren G. Harding President of the United States, which we did in 1920, is the functional equivalent of electing Brittany Spears today, and, boy, did we ever pay the price.
As bizarre and surreal as President Harding is, the real President Harding, and his times, were more bizarre and surreal, and to fully appreciate the musical you have to know what really happened. After the presidency of the dyspeptic intellectual Woodrow Wilson, America was ready for something completely different. We got it in Harding, a sweet, dignified-looking fellow straight out of Central Casting, and dumber than a toaster. He knew it, too. He frequently confessed to friends that he was not up to the Presidency. Indeed, he may not have been up to any job. He had been hospitalized five times over his life for nervous exhaustion by the time he was nominated. When he was not overtaxed by thinking, though, he was a genuinely swell guy.
He supplemented his dimness with a manic need to please people. His father, who survived him, noted that had he been a woman he would have been “in a family way all the time” because of his inability to say no. Harding’s father, a country doctor, would have been a better President than Harding. Harding’s dog would have been a better President. Harding’s insatiable desire to please had predictable results: his friends betrayed it. Interior Secretary Albert Fall (Covington) gave a no-bid oil lease to somebody who loaned Fall money at no interest; Attorney General Harry Daugherty (Dave Bobb) presided over a kickback scam with bootleggers; and there were a half-dozen other scandals involving high government officials. In the meantime, Harding vigorously and enthusiastically indulged his taste for young women, impregnating the lovely Nan Britton (Katie Molinaro) in a White House closet (here transported to the Oval Office desk). He hosted boozy poker parties in the White House, flaunting the prohibition laws he was sworn to defend. He was a mess.
President Harding gets some of the details wrong – well, frankly, it gets nearly all the details wrong – but it doesn’t matter; Jarrow neatly explodes the myth that a citizen with no special qualities – one of us – can lead the country, or even manage it for a couple years. Landless does a bang-up job with his show. Baughman has a terrific voice and backup singers Molinaro and Karissa Swanigan harmonize beautifully with him. As for Howie, who plays Harding’s überambitious wife, her voice is to die for: sweet, powerful, and lucid. (Lucid singing, which allows us to enjoy Jarrow’s clever lyrics, is one of the great pleasures of this show). The characters are cartoonish but the actors have fun with them; Abelman plays Herbert Hoover (then Secretary of Commerce) as a sort of nerd, trying to spoil all of President Harding’s fun, and Bobb is very effective as the hard-bitten Daugherty. Jarrow slips little bits of history – the 1921 and 1922 Tariff Acts, the institution of a budget system, the night Harding gambled away the White House china – into the dialogue unselfconsciously, and the actors handle it beautifully. (I particularly liked Baughman’s alarmed look when Daugherty suggests that he throw china into the poker pot. Harding obviously thinks Daugherty means the country.)
The dramatic approximations of President Harding’s life and times are played out on the DC Arts Center’s tiny stage while grainy films of the real Harding and his times are played on a screen on the stage-right wall. Thus, as we watch the ridiculous antics of the actors we are eventually compelled to appreciate how earnest and difficult those times really were. We see the giant World War I cannons go off, making a slaughter of young men everywhere, and we can appreciate the heart behind the clueless Harding’s agreement to a treaty which made war illegal. In real life, Harding undertook a nationwide train trip designed to protect his reputation just as the first of the scandals broke. He apparently ate some bad crab in Alaska; by the time they got to San Francisco, he was dead (there was no autopsy). Seven years later the amateur historian Gaston Means wrote a book accusing Florence Harding of poisoning her husband; at that point, though, Florence herself was dead and there was no direct way of resolving the question. In the play, Harding dreams he is being pursued by a giant crab (we see one projected onto the screen); at the end the crab catches up with him, and we discover that it is Florence. The scene is very funny but it’s hard not to have sympathy for this bewildered man, who only wanted to make people happy, so badly betrayed at the end of his calamitous life.
Running Time: 1:10. No intermission.
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 7.30. Additional 3.00 matinees on Saturday, November 23 and Saturday, November 30.
Where: DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC
Tickets: $18. Go to the website.
You can hear the cool music from this show in our podcast with Andrew Baughman. Listen here.