How to Steal an Election, with a score by Oscar Brand, known as the “Dean of American Folk Music,” has not been seen since its Off Broadway premiere in 1968. As the opening production of the first York Theatre Company Musicals in Mufti in four years, this reconstruction version proves to be a timely if thin show with the subtitle of “A Dirty Politics Musical.” While the book by William F. Brown (best known for the libretto to The Wiz) seems rather confusing and scattershot, it has been given a terrific production by director Joseph Hayward and a high powered cast led by Jason Graae.
Graae plays narrator and host, a resurrected President Calvin Coolidge at age 97, who ran in the presidential election of 1924 which will soon be exactly 100 years ago. (Why he was chosen for a 1968 show is of a bit of a mystery that won’t be solved as the creators – who are both deceased – left no explanation.) He is confronted by a pair of young liberals April (Emma Degerstedt) and Jerry (Alex Joseph Grayson) who have just attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago about which they angrily complain that they felt their voices were not heard or taken into consideration.
Coolidge then proceeds to instruct them in the ways of politics and the history of American political campaigns from 1840 to the 1970’s. He is aided by a three-person back-up group, a sort of Greek chorus played by Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman and Drew Tanabe, a tremendously talented trio who sing and dance up a storm.
Starting with the campaigns of William Henry Harrison against Martin Van Buren, Coolidge takes them (and us) through the Samuel Tilden vs. Rutherford B. Hayes race which may be a stolen election, Grover Cleveland, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. In the 20th century, he gives us a crash course in presidential politics with Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as well some losing candidates (Adlai Stevenson, George Wallace and Eugene McCarthy.) Brown’s book is a combination of almost too much to take in at one time and not enough information to fully understand these complicated events.
The message seems to be that outsiders can’t win but if you play by the rules of the game on the inside you have a good chance of capturing an election. On the other hand, Coolidge reveals dirty tricks that were used to win as well as tactics that did not work. Brand’s score cleverly includes the actual campaign songs of a great many presidents but they are not credited in the program or the script. While his lyrics are too often repetitious, several songs like “Nobody’s Listening,” “Down Among the Grass Roots,” and “Get Out the Vote” have very clever and witty words. The score played entirely by the intrepid Miles Plant at the piano is very varied including many genres such as jazz ballad, march, anthem, hymn, blues song, etc.
The inimitable Jason Graae once again demonstrates his charm as Coolidge a man who was famous for his silence but who was actually a very fine orator. As his back-up group (Arango, Berman and Tanabe) are not only talented singers but are superb at Victoria Casillo’s difficult choreography which includes very fast tap dancing, time steps, pirouettes and pliés among other combinations. Degerstedt and Grayson make a great deal out of their contemporary activists in both their acting and their singing particularly in the late duet, “Mr. Might’ve Been.”
While the characters wear the uncredited costumes throughout the show, it is Peter Brucker’s projections that create the atmosphere. The back wall, which initially shows a podium surrounded by pillars and red, white and blue bunting, becomes a screen on which are projected historical portraits of the former presidents, scenes from past political gatherings, and actual video footage of related events like the 1969 Chicago convention. The stage floor is painted blue with white stars which gives it the feeling of a political debate or rally while the actors make use of three chairs as well as three music stands in this concert staging which in Hayward’s direction goes beyond a simple reading.
While the misnamed How to Steal an Election: A Dirty Politics Musical is no lost masterpiece and at times seems long, it is a diverting political revue which offers an interesting take on the political campaigns of the last 180 years. With the charming Jason Graae at the helm, the rest of the talented cast keeps the show rolling merrily along. New faces Emma Degerstedt, Alex Joseph Grayson, Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman and Drew Tanabe demonstrate that they should have very successful and acclaimed careers before them from their work here. Next up in the Musicals in Mufti series is another political show, the 1975 Broadway musical The Lieutenant, about the court martial of William Calley during the Vietnam War, not seen locally since 1994.
How to Steal an Election: A Dirty Politics Musical (August 26 – September 3, 2023)
Musicals in Mufti – Fall 2023 Series
The York Theatre Company
The Theatre at St. Jean’s, St. Jean Baptiste Church, 150 E. 76th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.YorkTheatre.org
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission