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Clintons inspire not one but two NY stage musicals

By AMY CHOZICK The New York Times

This article was published July 17, 2014 at 1:58 a.m.

Hillary Clinton: Musical theater muse.

As Hillary Rodham Clinton contemplates another run for the presidency in 2016, she has written a book (Hard Choices), delivered upbeat paid speeches to trade groups ("Leadership is a team sport") and pitched in at her family's foundation. Now she can add another line to her resume: musical theater muse.

Like Eva Peron in Evita and Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love (not to mention the Founding Fathers who crowd 1776), Clinton is a larger-than-life political leader whose career cries out for music. Or so believe the creators of A Woman on Top and Clinton: The Musical, two shows currently testing the waters in New York.

Depending on whom you ask, Clinton is either one of the world's most admired women or a political animal who attracts scandal. The more positive view mostly wins out in these stage depictions.

A Woman on Top, which held a reading for potential investors last week, is the inspirational tale of a female political candidate's battles against sexism, set to song. Virginia Stanton is a New York senator who, in her noble quest for the presidency, inspires millions of women but ends up suffering a precipitous loss to a charismatic male opponent. (Shock spoiler alert: Her husband, a charming Southern governor, can't control his impulses.)

Clinton: The Musical, a satire about scandals of the 1990s, will make its U.S. premiere Friday as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Written by Paul and Michael Hodge, Australian brothers, it portrays two sides of President Bill Clinton: the jovial id who cannot control himself and the pensive policy wonk who cannot stop talking about the intricacies of health-care reform. Hillary Clinton is the struggling-to-be-stabilizing force, grappling with the Monica Lewinsky scandal while slyly eyeing her own Senate run.

Paul Hodge says his inspiration was Bill Clinton's 2004 autobiography, My Life, in which the former president explored his "outside life" and his "internal life." Dick Morris, the former Clinton aide-turned-enemy, called these parallel lives "Saturday Night Bill" and "Sunday Morning President Clinton."

Different actors play each side of the former president. "He's so complex that it seemed like an appropriate device," Hodge says.

There's only one Hillary. In the song "No!," she and both versions of her husband struggle to write a 1998 State of the Union address that will not remind people of the Lewinsky affair. Lines like "We can stand erect ..." and "No longer on our knees ..." are promptly rejected.

The Clintons have already left a big mark on pop culture, from the 1998 movie Primary Colors, based on the roman a clef by Joe Klein, to The Special Relationship, a 2010 HBO movie about Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The USA Network's 2012 political drama Political Animals, with Sigourney Weaver as a fictional version of Hillary Clinton, lasted a single season.

Other projects haven't gotten off the ground. Last fall, NBC abandoned plans to develop a miniseries about Hillary Clinton, starring Diane Lane. Around the same time, CNN scrapped a documentary from Charles H. Ferguson, who won an Oscar for the 2010 documentary Inside Job.

Clinton's supporters and critics had expressed concerns that the projects would either denigrate her in order to create TV drama or cast her in an unfairly positive light ahead of the 2016 election. (Both networks said the outside pressure had no impact on their decisions to cancel the projects.)

The creators of the musical A Woman on Top, Rhonda Kess and Dale Kiken, are unabashed Clinton supporters. They began writing the show in the years after Clinton's 2008 defeat by President Barack Obama, when talk of sexism permeated cable news.

"If there's a way for this piece to stimulate conversation while being extremely entertaining, then we'll have set out with what we wanted to do," says Kess, a classical composer who wrote the music that accompanies Kiken's dialogue. (They previously collaborated on Lost and Found: The Trial of St. Bernadette, which had its premiere in Los Angeles last year.)

As Virginia Stanton seeks the country's highest office, she says things like "Liberty, freedom and equality still ring true in the ears of America," while her ex-husband and opponent, Gov. George Reitman of Texas, tries to squash her ambitions. "Naw, honey, why would you want to get all that muck over your nice skirt," he says.

Clinton: The Musical, which was nominated for best new musical at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012, takes a less earnest approach. Paul Hodge says he had the idea for the show after he went with his father to a production of Keating!, a musical about Paul Keating, the former prime minister of Australia. At the end of the performance, his father remarked that he didn't think politicians were necessarily the best musical subjects.

"He said, 'The only politician who would make a good musical would be Bill Clinton,'" Hodge recalls. "And I said, 'Of course!'" For the Hodges' show, Clinton's character always had political ambitions, but the musical has evolved as it became clearer that she could run for president again in 2016. And the history of the Lewinsky scandal, which inevitably plays a big part in the musical, had to be rethought after Lewinsky re-emerged with an essay in the June issue of Vanity Fair. "That reminded everyone, us included, that she is a real human being and not just a joke that has been going on for all these years," says Adam Arian, the show's director.

The creators of both shows hope to attract attention and backing to reach large audiences. For the Clinton: The Musical team, in particular, the New York Musical Theatre Festival is a chance to gauge the local appetite for all things Clinton after its debut in Edinburgh. "Paul wanted to know what the American audience thought about material developed by an Australian in the United Kingdom," says Dan Markley, the executive director of the festival.

Will the much debated phenomenon of Clinton fatigue extend to the stage?

In Clinton: The Musical, Duke Lafoon portrays Billy Clinton, the fun-loving side to the serious W.J. Clinton (Karl Kenzler). Lafoon had previously played Bill Clinton in Monica! The Musical, a 2005 off-Broadway show that featured Hillary Clinton as a scheming strategist.

He says he'll hang up his Bill Clinton act after this one.

"They're so heavily in the news right now, with Hillary's book and potential run for the White House, so we'll ride that wave," Lafoon says. "At the same time, I understand what people say. Do we need these jokes again?"

Weekend on 07/17/2014

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