“Of Thee I Sing, Baby!” The Gershwin brothers parody modern American politics in a Pulitzer Prize-winning satire. After collaborating with George S. Kaufman on 1927’s “Strike Up the Band!”, George and Ira Gershwin were approached by Kaufman to write the music for another satirical show, this one focused on American presidential politics. The harsh tone of “Strike Up the Band” (a musical about a war with Switzerland) hadn’t played will with audiences; for “Of Thee I Sing”, the collaborators took a lighter comedic approach. The musical tells the story of John P. Wintergreen, whose supporters devise a presidential campaign around the platform of “love” – Wintergreen will marry the most beautiful girl in the United States as part of his election campaign. However, Wintergreen opts to wed Mary Turner instead, based on her sterling, personal qualities and baking skills. The spurned winner of the beauty content soon upends the marriage and election, and various hijinks ensue. All’s well that ends well, as Wintergreen’s continually forgettable Vice President marries the beauty queen to save the day. When “Of Thee I Sing” hit the stage in 1931, America was in the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in its history. National politics swung between extremes, with Marxism, Laissez Faire Economics, and Socialism all vying for control int he public eye. Through its creators sought to make fun of politics regardless of party, “Of Thee I Sing” does so affectionately, emphasizing an underlying faith in America even as its institutions seemed to be falling apart. The title song of the musical is sung by Wintergreen to his love, its lyric pulled from the well-known patriotic anthem “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.'” In adding the slang endearment, “Baby,” Ira Gershwin suggests that America is also an object of casual affection. This comic send-up of American politics won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first musical ever to do so. “Strike Up the Band” was a harsh satire of American protectionism and warmongering; after quickly closing in previews it was extensively re-written for Broadway to remove its darker tone. “Of Thee I Sing,” several years later, was gentler, with a wink toward back-room politics and clownishness. Question: Does the use of comedy strengthen a political musical’s message?
“One Brief Shining Moment.” The politicization of “Camelot” in the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination. “Camelot” was a difficult show to get off the ground. Plagued by pacing problems, constant revisions, and health issues, the show opened to mixed reviews on Broadway despite the star casting of Richard Burton and Julie Andrews as Arthur and Guinevere. Librettist Alan Jay Lerner saw “Camelot” as a story of hope in difficult times: “For me, the raison d’etre of ‘Camelot’ was the end of the journey when Arthur has lost his love, his friend, and his Round Table and believes his life has been a failure. Then a small boy appears from behind a tent who doesn’t know the round table is dead and who wishes to become a knight. Arthur realizes that as long as his vision is alive in one small heart he has not failed. (Alan Jay Lerner, “The Street Where I Live) This proved to be a metaphor for the show itself. After extensive rewrites, “Camelot” reached a nationwide TV audience on the Ed Sullivan Show on March 19, 1961; suddenly ticket lines were around the block. The vision of “Camelot” became a reality, with a best-selling cast album and 4 Tony Awards. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 forever changed the American political and social landscape. Jacqueline Kennedy invited “Life” magazine to interview her about her husband’s legacy after his death. She reminisced about listening to the cast album of “Camelot” with JFK, and quoted a lyrics now irrevocably tied to the memory of the Kennedy administration: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot.” By comparing Kennedy’s time in office to the fictional ideal of King Arthur and his Round Table, Jackie Kennedy reinforced the idea of JFK’s reign as uniquely perfect, setting an unachievable bar for all presidents to come. “There’ll be great presidents again . . . but there’ll never be another Camelot,” she said. Heading into the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, the idea of the Kennedy administration as Camelot became cemented into the American mindset. Jackie Kennedy’s framing of “Camelot” as a parallel for pre-1963 America tied her husband’s legacy to an idealistic fairy tale. This was certainly something “Camelot’s” Authors, actors, and director never envisioned. Question: Is it appropriate for a public figure to use a popular Broadway musical to advance their political legacy?