William Jefferson Clinton / Simon Burke
I don’t even know where to start.
It’s brilliant. Amazing. Hilarious. Irreverent. Crass. And brilliant again.
And with a light hand picks up current politics as well as the shenanigans of the Clintons back then in 1998.
So let me start with a bit of meta-info:
Michael and Paul Hodge are the playwrites (Michael, the older one, is also a barrister) and came up with the idea of a musical about Clinton by way of a joke made by a friend of theirs. It took a bit, but they finally brought the musical to Edinburgh’s fringe festival and later on after a couple of rewrites for the US-market (you don’t need to explain this, everybody knows!) to Off-Broadway winning prizes along the road. And even though the show wasn’t actually acknowledged by the White House, some official men in black came one night and laughed heartily at the irreverent jokes – as well as some friend of Monica’s who actually believed Miss Lewinsky would have found it fun to watch.
The story is known by everyone who wasn’t living under a stone in the late 90ies (or not born yet): We are following William Jefferson Clinton’s imploding double life – he himself said in his autobiography that he felt sometimes as if he was leading parallel lives; on the one hand the suave and charismatic diplomat who steered the US of A out of financial troubles and into a better future, and on the other hand the still charismatic but also roguish and reckless saxophone playing entertainer who strayed from the married way more often than not.
Which of course led to pretty intern Monica Lewinsky and the Republicans’ war against the President. And even though his political opponents had the “stained dress” and witness statements, they weren’t able to dethrone the charismatic president. Neither Kenneth Starr who investigated Clinton’s affairs (and has just been fired/retired from his university job because of … wait for it — a sex scandal involving the football team), nor Newton Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the house, who began coughing while criticizing Hillary Clinton for coughing, have been glaringly successful since Monica-gate.
Now finally on to Clinton The Musical
When the curtain rises we see a person in pants sitting with their back to us, the audience, smoking a cigar. The impressive leather chair turns – and it’s Hillary Clinton (fabulous: Lisa Adam), telling us she ever only loved two men her whole life, and they were one. Enter William Jefferson Clinton, suave, charismatic, statesmanlike (the sublime Simon Burke), introducing himself with “I’m William Jefferson Clinton” – in struts another man from the other side (radio morning show host Matt Dyktynski) with the same line, just adding “But you can call me Billy, darling”. So while William Jefferson is trying his best to win the Presidency in order to give people a better life, in order to have a legacy (cue Hillary stage whispering “Legacyyyyy”) with telling them that he’s from Hope, it is the roguish Billy – he plays the Sax!!! – who wins over people, because he knows that “people have the attention span of a congested gold fish and politics is showbiz for ugly people!”
The Clintons win – WJ paints the future in The Me I See in glorious colours (Simon Burke’s voice is incredible sigh) – then try to get rid of Billy for the term. Because he lies (I’m creative with the truth) and has no moral compass (I just don’t use it) and because he’s trouble (no! Trouble finds me). This of course sets the stage for a power struggle between the two Williams for the White House and for dominance over Clinton himself. While William and Hillary celebrate their win (would I ever lie) out of the shadows comes a bored intern leading a group of tourists – and stops in her tracks because MR PRESIDENT!!!! I’m Monica (Megan Kozak, her first engagement and boy is she talented)… and off it goes with a kiss that takes minutes there on the steps and Billy declaring his love to Monica – would I ever lie – it’s a brilliant 4some happening; two duets merging into one brilliant song.
Meanwhile at the Republican’s headquarter “a Starr” is wished upon… Ken Starr (Brendan Hanson), the prosecutor, emerges from behind a wall-door in a black coat and hat and he wants Clinton buried deep. In his intro it turns out he wears leather chaps over an american flag thong. It is a safe laugh of course, but also a bit cringeworthy. He dug up a land deal in which the Clintons lost money “Whitewater arrrghhhh” and feeds that to the press. and even though nobody really knows what Whitewater (arrrrrgghhhh!!!) is, WJ is in trouble for the first time as the press is covering the story “today… and tomorrow… and the day after that”. Because the Republicans and especially Newt Gingrich (hilarious and whiney and great Luke Hewitt, snacking throughout the show!) want Clinton and his health care plan by Hillary (“a witch!!” hisses Ken Starr) dead and buried. and it works because congress says “nay”.
And then there’s Monica who is “fucking the fucking president, oh yeah, u hu! I’m fucking the fucking president shazam!!!” but as she can only see one Bill Clinton at a time, she’s devastated when WJ breaks up with her. The budget is – thanks to Billy’s plan to outmanoeuver Newt – balanced, people love their president, Hillary urges both men to work together (you must go both ways) to get re-elected, so “what could go wrong?” A subpoene, that’s what could go wrong.
It’s all downhill from then on – WJ doesn’t want anyone to know about Billy and therefore lies to Starr, his State of the Union-address doesn’t have anything sexy or legacy worthy in it and the press is asking about Lewinsky. In a rousing song about A Place Called Hope William dreams up his vision of America, a vision he’s had since before he was born… “where fox news were made illegal, where everyone would have an education, a house and such, and would need no guns because there are none and would go to church, but not too much. Where two gay men would marry, and adopt a child named Harry and join the Milit-ary and it would be heaven for them. … in a place called Hope”. There’s no time for that, though. Cast aside, Monica decides to side with Starr who – snake like – has waited in the shadows for her call. Together with Monica’s “friend” Linda Tripp (an amazing Clare Moore in a christmas themed pullover, who also doubled as a reporter, Eleanore Roosevelt and Callista Bisek) he has the witness, the DNA, the dress and Monica to ruin WJ, who in the meantime has confided in Hillary (she has plans of her own, to make 8 years in the White House into 16 and Trump plays his part in this…) who is devastated.
Only a miracle can now save the President. A miracle in the form of Callista Bisek – who has intimate relations with Speaker of the House Gingrich. She reluctantly after being outed by Clinton helps WJ understand that he will succeed only when showing his dark side, or in his case: Billy to the people who are judging him.
The trial in front of the congress is about to start, with Billy watching if his alter ego is going to be thrown out of office. But with political half truths William Jefferson manages to escape Starr – he first asks for the paper about sexual relations being explained, which both Starr and the Sheriff (Luke Hewitt obviously enjoying the song) then interpret: “if it’s groin, labia or glands, breast, hands or chest….then it is … sexual relations”. But, what a regrettable oversight indeed, the MOUTH is never mentioned. And President Clinton’s statement that he never had sexual relations with Monica therefore was correct.
Meanwhile Hillary is crushed. Betrayed once again by her unfaithful husband she sobs into the huge desk in the oval office, when Eleanore Roosevelt steps out of her portrait (it’s so lifelike, remarked WJ in the beginning) and gives out good advice to Hill: you’re like a bag of tea – you never know how strong you are until you’re put into hot water. Hillary should stay true to her husband – not out of love or for the marriage – no, for the country. Hillary misunderstands again: she won’t be discarded like a tea-bag – she’ll be president – a bitter brew but strong!
At congress it’s all about dismissing Clinton, who finally admits his sins, showing that he is just human. Even Billy helps to get Monica to forgive him and Callista – who wants Newt for herself – is center stage singing “I’m fucking the fucking speaker, oh yeah!” Then even Hillary joins her husband at congress, waiting for the verdict but the two Bills already have a plan – the lights go out. And in red glittery jackets they appear before congress: two men who make one hell of a president. Clinton is not thrown out of office, Hillary goes on to announce her candidacy for president – just not right away, tea needs time to brew after all – and the two Bills strut down the stairs “Then we’ll be fucking the fucking president, oh yeah, shazam”.
Are you still with me? good!
The cast is marvellous. Seven people, on stage almost all the time, their chemistry is shining through the play. A riot Lisa Adam who unabashedly hogs the stage with her energy. Her antics in her dreadful water colour suits are amazing. (Set and costume designer Bruce McKinven really outdid himself with a brilliant White House dominating the rotating stage and the dated dresses he created! loved it!!) She is the ecstatic worshipper, the air guitar player, the driven politician and the gleefully echoing “Legacyyyyyyyyyyyy” wife and brilliant.
Clare Moore as Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait is quoting the past first lady and being misinterpreted by Hillary – she is brilliant in her multiple parts, as a reporter (what the fuck is Whitewater arrrghhh???) as well as the American woman. And I love her Callista who really hates WJ but still talks sense to him.
Luke Hewitt: I almost broke something laughing when he slurped canned peaches during the impeachment scene (I love peaches!! he’d confessed before). His portrayal of a whiney, not very clever politician who does, well, nothing at all is hilarious and awesome – he is snacking through all his Gingrich scenes leading to slapstick comedy with a too tight belt or a too tight corset or a moment of clarity when he asks Ken Starr if it’s bad to have an affair… asking for a friend…
Which leads me to Kenneth Starr played by Brendan Hanson. Now, don’t get me wrong – he’s a good actor with a strong set of pipes and some hilarious one liners written into his part. But… One newspaper wrote about his almost aggressive portrayal of a gay man. And that was my problem with his interpretation. Of course the whole musical is way over the top (in a truly brilliant way) and blunt and fun, but I cringed when he started slapping his bare buttocks or got the definition of sexual encounters on paper out of his fly. Yes, it’s a programmed laugh, yes, it’s entertaining, but less would have been more, at least for me.
On to the two Clintons. Matt Dyktynski managed to be roguish without being sleazy, and made it very easily believable that women were falling for him left and right. When it is stated that the National Guard was procuring women for him, he steps in, enraged “That is a blatant lie. I procured them myself!” and I swear, me and every woman in the audience believed him. When I met him after the show I gushed a bit and he answered: I live to give! I’m not quite sure if he realised that this tagline was so Bill Clinton I almost choked on my water.
“I’m William Jefferson Clinton” are the first words Simon Burke sings when entering the stage. He sings it American, his accent flawless. When he talks, his voice is slightly hoarse and has the drawl Bill Clinton has. He’s one minute suave, the next comically wringing hands, being afraid of Hillary or trying to bring order to chaos and not succeeding. His talent shines – even more so when the sheet covering the huge portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t budging and he improvised, which brought on more laughs. I especially adored his “The me I see” – his first big number, ending on a high note and perfectly executed every time I saw the show. Or his A Place called Hope – the lyrics both earnest statement and hilariously surreal, he creates a new world with his voice, a world we all would love to live in, never falling out of his American accent. Which brings me to the impeachment scene: I swore I saw Clinton sitting in this chair, playing with his glasses, shrewdly commenting around the truth. Even his gestus was on point! His voice (yes, I am a huge fan, so sue me) is rich, velvety, belting when necessary, lyrical in intimate duets. I was so lucky to see this performance.
Also: huge thanks to the cast, the people of the black swan theatre and everyone involved for making me feel like a VIP – I have never been so well treated. I am still in shock and awe about it. Just please believe me when I say I loved every second of it and am hugely grateful.
My gratitude to Simon has no bounds. Nor has my admiration and love for him. Thank you for making this trip an extraordinary experience. You rock.