Edinburgh Fringe 2012
There aren’t many contemporary political musicals out there. There’s The Fix and that’s about it. So it takes considerable pluck for writers Paul and Michael Hodge to write a musical charting the rise of the man whose political legacy was substantial but who is perhaps better remembered for the stain on his character left by a stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress. Although it doesn’t have the dramatic impetus or musical interest of Dempey & Rowe’s under-rated musical comedy, it betters it on jokes and whimsy by some distance. Even so, for those who know about American politics, or want to, this is a witty and energetic lesson in modern history.
In his memoir, Clinton often refers to himself as living “parallel lives”. The authors latch onto this idea to have two Clintons: Good Bill, the empathiser in chief (played with charm by Stephen Arden) and Bad Bill (John McLarnon), the Slick Willy hick who famously came from a troubled childhood in a town called Hope.
Like all the best satire, the show has a go at everyone but is particularly effective at its deployment of those annoyances so loathed by Republicans: facts. There’s plenty of comic caricature here but there is no rewriting history. Lewinsky is obviously there as is his fractious (and well documented) relationship with Hillary but so is the ridiculous yet impressive Newt Gingrich – the man who had an affair with a young staffer behind the back of his second wife while impeaching Clinton for a one-off liaison – and the unspeakable Kenneth Starr, here incarnated as a salacious love child of Gerald Kaufman and John Birt. At one point one of the Bills asks why their show is making Starr out to be outrageously homosexual. “Because he’s going to fuck us” comes the reply. Gore appears as a cardboard cut-out (those who watched the election debates will have flashbacks). Dick Morris, the polling guru, now a mainstay on Fox, is played bizarrely (and knowingly) by a woman – like seeing a demented toad played by Liza Minelli.
Like its hero’s early days in office, the musical needs more definition, currently not being quite substantive enough to be a musical drama but with too much of a narrative to be a revue.The show owes more to the political cartoon than to musical comedy or story-telling at its present length but this isn’t wholly to its determiment. The hymnal harmonising on the phrase “public interest” is the best satirical moment in the show; a big serious number by Hillary doesn’t earn its place given the tone of what lies around it. But it has plenty of great one-liners, such as the Republican Party being “a collective noun for a group of fuck-knuckles”.
It’s all a bit undergraduate –- wigs and sight gags galore (not helped by being performed on a postage stamp) and is yet to work out if it’s a proper satirical musical or, as its venue implies, a cabaret with a dramatic motor. But it took Clinton himself time to work out what he really was. Let’s hope that this musical of his life also gets a second term to prove what it can really do.