When it comes down to it, everything is political — including theater. With the United States election right around the corner, we decided to take a deep dive into the shows that feature politics in all of its messy, complicated, musical glory. From What the Constitution Means to Me to some little-known hip-hop musical about a Founding Father, here's the theater we'd vote for any day.
The Declaration of Independence is always a good place to start, right? 1776 is about John Adams trying his hardest to get his friends and foes to sign the document. A pop writer named Sherman Edwards conceived the idea for the show as well as the music and lyrics (a Lin-Manuel Miranda of his time, if you will) in an effort to portray the characters of the country's founding honestly, with all of their complicatedness and passion at the forefront.
The musical premiered on Broadway in 1969, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and has since become a favorite for many. In fact — once Broadway's lights turn on again — a revival of the show is set to be directed by Waitress and Jagged Little Pill's Diane Paulus. We love when a woman is in charge.
You know it wasn't going to take long for Stephen Sondheim's name to appear. He's basically the President of Musical Theater. The musical Assassins first came to be when Sondheim took the idea from playwright Charles Gilbert Jr. and then hired another writer to write the script for the musical version. Dramatic, just like politics!
The show, like the name suggests, is about all of the people who've tried and/or have assassinated different Presidents of the United States. The music throughout depicts the different eras of the stories, and the entire show is set in a fairground shooting gallery. Assassins first opened Off-Broadway in 1990 where it was not New York's fave candidate of the season and closed very quickly.
A 2004 Broadway production brought the show back to life (pun intended) and starred Neil Patrick Harris among others. After many productions outside NYC, the show will hopefully be back Off-Broadway when theater's back in a revival with Ethan Slater, Brandon Uranowitz, Steven Pasquale, and more.
The Best Man
Playwright Gore Vidal was likely not a time traveler, although the plot for The Best Man would lead you to believe otherwise. A critical hit that originally opened on Broadway in 1960, The Best Man follows a fictional-but-not-by-much presidential primary race. It was written as the 1960 Democratic Convention was looming and many say the Kennedys and others directly inspired the script.
Since the original Broadway production, The Best Man has been revived in New York in 2000 and 2012. Big names like James Earl Jones, Christine Ebersole, Angela Lansbury, and Michael McKean have taken the story to the stage — with Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, Vanessa Williams, and more joining the club soon. For 72 hours only, Spotlight on Plays from Broadway's Best Shows brings the Vidal classic to the virtual stage with a star-studded cast; you can get tix from $5 now only on TomorrowTix.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
A rock musical that's a comedy that's about the founding of the Democratic Party feels very apropos for these times. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is about (you guessed it) President Andrew Jackson — if he were an emo rock star. It tells Jackson's life story, covering everything from his early anti-government viewpoints to his racist removal of Native Americans from their homes (the show's depiction of this has been criticized by the Native American community) to the complicated, tumultuous legacy he left at the White House.
And it's all told via rock music. An experimental theater company first staged the Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge!, Beetlejuice) and Michael Friedman collab in 2006 before the show opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2009 and on Broadway in 2010.
We hope you're slowly raising both arms in the air right about now. Evita was inspired by a radio story about the First Lady of Argentine Eva Perón and — before it was ever staged — was released as a rock opera concept album. While the historical accuracy of the show's timeline and portrayals has been contested by some, the musical's success is clear.
The show first premiered on the West End in in 1978 where it played over 3,000 performances. Evita opened on Broadway in 1979 and was nominated for and won (basically) every Tony Award it could. And for no reason whatsover let's end this paragraph about Evita with a quote from Broadway's very own Eva Perón, Patti LuPone: "Evita was the worst experience of my life." Do with that what you will!
If Fiorello's not a musical you're super familiar with, that's why we're here. Let's start with this fact: it's one of only ten musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Pretty good start, if you ask us. Fiorello is about NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia (yes, that LaGuardia) and his takedown of political machine and organization Tammany Hall during and after World War I.
The musical was the brainchild of theater veterans like George Abbot (The Pajama Game, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, so much more) and the duo behind Fiddler on the Roof Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Fiorello opened on Broadway in 1959 where it won three Tony Awards and was nominated for four others. Since that initial bow, the musical's been staged at New York City Center and beyond.
First Lady Suite & First Daughter's Suite
Finally, some women! Both First Lady Suite and First Daughter's Suite were written by a man named Michael John LaChiusa but there are literally no men in either show so we'll give him a pass. First Lady Suite premiered Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 1993 and is about exactly what the title suggests.
It's four seemingly unrelated but inherently intertwined stories that feature Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Margaret Truman, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Amelia Earhart's in it too! Over 20 years after First Lady Suite's first performance, First Daughter's Suite premiered at The Public in 2015. LaChiusa employed the same concept with this one, telling fictionalized stories about the Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, and Bush families.
The Great Society / All the Way
We bet Lyndon B. Johnson never expected to have not one, but two Broadway plays written about him. Even better: we bet Johnson never thought both Bryan Cranston and Brian Cox would portray him onstage. This is most likely because he didn't know they existed but that's beside the point.
Playwright Robert Schenkkan first tackled Johnson's relationship with Congress and the Civil Rights Act in All the Way. That show premiered on Broadway in 2014 where the production as well as Bryan Cranston's performance won a Tony Award. Schenkkan continued Johnson's story in The Great Society, which continues the President's story through 1968. The sequel opened on Broadway in 2019 with Brian Cox (Succession) in the President's shoes.
At first look, you might be surprised to see Hairspray on this list. But this musical is filled to the brim with young activists working hard for what's right. There's Tracy fighting for equal screen time as a plus size girl on The Corny Collins Show, there's Seaweed and Penny and Tracey and Little Inez fighting for racial equality in their relationships and beyond, and there's Motormouth Maybelle leading everyone in the march. Before we got Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Zac Efron, and more to Baltimore in the 2007 movie-musical adaptation — Hairspray had quite the journey. It started as a non-musical movie in 1988, then it became a Broadway musical in 2002, then the 2007 film adaptation, and then an NBC Live production (hello Ariana Grande, Broadway's own Ephraim Sykes, Jennifer Hudson, and more). The world can't get enough Tracy Turnblad and we don't blame them.
What is there to say other than here's the link to watch it on Disney+.
Here Lies Love
What would it be like to be banished from your own country? David Byrne's concept album turned hit Off-Broadway musical follows the true story of former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, a controversial figure due to her and her husband stealing money from citizens and amassing a major fortune. The tale explores the depths of politics and public life all with a pop score full of dance hits.
Hillary and Clinton
It's history meets make believe. Hillary and Clinton is — in the words of the show's playwright Lucas Hnath — "a play about the Clintons that's not a play about the Clintons." The show's set in an alternate universe where a woman named Hillary Clinton is running for President of the United States. Yes you are right, real-life Hillary Clinton did run for President of the United States in 2008. But this is not that story. It's a different one. Or is it?
The show first was staged in Chicago in 2016 and then in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Dallas; in all of these productions, the character of Hillary Clinton was played by a Black woman. When Hillary and Clinton came to Broadway in 2019, Laurie Metcalf portrayed the fictional presidential candidate with John Lithgow as Bill Clinton. While the Broadway run closed rather quickly, at least we got Laurie in sweatpants and slippers on a Broadway stage for a bit.
It's Parks and Recreation meets the-most-unpredictable-ending-of-a-play-you-will-maybe-ever-see. Playwright and actor Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, the best dad in the world in Lady Bird) turns a small town city council meeting upside down in The Minutes. And while we're just alluding to a crazy ending as we write this, the actual foundation of the story — and the majority of the show — is an accurate, hilarious, and oftentimes frustrating account of local politics.
The Minutes first premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre and later came to Broadway in 2020 starring Tracy Letts, Jessie Mueller, Armie Hammer, and more. While the pandemic caused the show to close early, it hopes to be back on Broadway when the lights are on again.
What the Constitution Means to Me
In her play, Heidi Schreck reflects on her high school Constitution debates and how this country's governing document has shaped her life, decisions and the lives of so many other women and underrepresented populations. The story could not be more timely in the lead-up to this year's election, and you've just got to watch it for yourself.