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They're Up to Old Political Tricks

A burlesque on presidential elections gets a second professional shot after its 1968 premiere.

August 06, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

Brent Hinkley was only 6 years old when he saw his first theatrical production, the 1968 off-Broadway musical "How to Steal an Election."

"It was the first play I ever went to," he says. "I still remember these amazing, exciting visuals happening onstage--people coming into the audience and involving them in it--and thinking, 'Wow! This is the greatest thing ever. I want to do it!' "

The burlesque political comedy created by William F. Brown and Oscar Brand has President Calvin Coolidge sharing the realpolitik of elections with two young innocents--all the buying and trading of votes, the making and breaking of promises, the mistresses and the misanthropy.

If it seems strange that a 6-year-old was attending a bitingly sardonic musical about political shenanigans through the ages, it may help to know that Hinkley's father, Del, was one of the actors in the production. But content wasn't what dazzled young Brent, it was context--the lights and music, the singing and dancing, all the razzmatazz that is musical theater.

Today, Hinkley is directing the very musical that inspired his own career in theater for the Actors' Gang, the Hollywood-based theater group of which he is a key member. The updated version of "How to Steal an Election" opens its six-week run on Saturday, just in time for the Democratic National Convention.

Since its debut in New York in October 1968, "How to Steal an Election" has never been revived beyond a high school production. So Brand and Brown were all too happy to have their musical restaged and to update it to 2000.

"Maybe it was too specific to its time," Hinkley conjectures. And maybe too few people got to see it the first time around, suggests Brand, who lives on Long Island.

Brand recalls how in 1968--the year of Richard M. Nixon versus then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and third-party candidate George C. Wallace--theater producer Steve Mellow asked him to conjure a musical about "stealing elections." Long a chronicler and collector of popular song--Brand still hosts the longest-running show on public radio, "Folksong Festival" for WNYC--Brand dug up 20 to 30 songs from every presidential campaign. From these he culled the more lively ones with clear references, then made up some ditties himself.

Brown, author of several revues and the Broadway comedy "The Girl in the Freudian Slip," was brought in to shape the material into a story.

"I wanted it to be a revue set against a story line," Brown recalls. For that he felt they needed a central character, a voice that would carry the piece through. They came up with a least likely spokesman: Calvin Coolidge, the say-nothing, do-nothing 30th president of the United States.

"In the original version I'd written," Brand says, "he was Satan, who had decided that the electoral process was the most interesting thing he could join in on since he got kicked out of heaven."

"How to Steal an Election" opened to favorable reviews and was packed nightly. After 50 performances, the show was set to move to Broadway. But there was a glitch. Turns out, says Brand, the $80,000 lined up for the move was mob money, and it would only be delivered after someone on the production helped with some securities laundering. The producer ducked out, and Brand refused to cooperate. End of deal, end of production.


The new "Election" follows the general construct of the original in which two young idealists encounter the avatar of Coolidge, the man known popularly as "Silent Cal." (As he says in the play, "If you don't say anything, you won't be called on to repeat it.")

In this show, Cal is a chatty fellow, charming enough to calm the two young upstarts, who are furious after being pepper-sprayed at a demonstration. He persuades them to start thinking in his terms. By showing them a pageant of past presidents and their shenanigans, Cal (played by Gary Kelley) demonstrates that politics is a dirty business and always has been.

Perhaps it's easy enough for them to laugh at Nixon (played by Don Luce) singing about the 18 1/2 minutes missing from a tape subpoenaed during the Watergate hearings, but it's painful for the youths to hear about how John F. Kennedy's father bought his son a political ward in the presidential race against Nixon.

While the character of Cal remained relatively intact, the two youths, Jerry and April, needed updating. In the original, they were demonstrators--a black militant and an idealistic, recent college graduate--outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Jerry is still black, but Ken Elliott, who plays Jerry, says his character "represents the blue-collar worker as opposed to being sooo militant."

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