NEW YORK — In the new Broadway play “All the Way,” President Johnson, played by Bryan Cranston, takes a break from wrangling votes for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reflect on the trying nature of politics.
Facing mounting pressure from the Southern faction of his party and civil rights leaders, Johnson vents his frustrations to the audience. “Everybody wants power; everybody,” he says. “And if they say they don’t, they’re lyin’. But everybody thinks it ought to be given out free of charge. … Nothin’ comes free. Nothin’. Not even ‘good.’ Especially not ‘good.’”
It’s a monologue one could easily imagine being delivered by Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher-turned-ruthless drug lord whom Cranston played to thunderous acclaim on “Breaking Bad” on AMC.
It is tempting to draw parallels between the men, both expert manipulators with a thirst for power that to differing degrees led them astray.
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“Their egos got in the way, and it drove them to do things that were detrimental to themselves and, in LBJ’s case, extremely detrimental to society and America. And in a smaller way, so did Walter White,” says Cranston, 58, at the apartment serving as his temporary home while he makes his Broadway debut. “All the Way,” which opened March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre, was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan.
Cranston is an artist drawn to characters who defy such easy moral categorization. He likens Johnson, a politician who continues to captivate historians, to King Lear. “What made him so strong and effective domestically was his political acumen, which was stronger than anyone since Roosevelt and not matched by anyone to date. And his downfall was his political hubris. He didn’t want to appear weak.”
“All the Way” began its journey to Broadway in 2008 as part of “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle,” a commissioning program at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. When the OSF’s artistic director, Bill Rauch (director of “All the Way” on Broadway), approached Schenkkan about participating, he immediately knew the subject he wanted to tackle.
After deliberation, Schenkkan decided to focus on Johnson’s first year in office — his so-called accidental presidency.
“All the Way,” which had a reading at Seattle Repertory Theatre last year, dramatizes the tumultuous 12-month period that began in November 1963 with John F. Kennedy’s assassination and ended with Johnson’s electoral victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater.
A depiction of the unsavory backroom dealing required to pass even the most noble legislation, “All the Way” is thematically reminiscent of “Lincoln,” the 2012 Steven Spielberg film that chronicled the creation of the 13th Amendment.
“Despite the fact that the parties had very differing viewpoints, they still managed to cross the aisle back and forth and get things done,” Schenkkan says. “All of the issues that we are currently debating, if you can dignify it with that term, had their origin with LBJ in 1964.”
“All the Way” had its world premiere last year in Ashland with actor Jack Willis originating the role of LBJ. But when plans were made to bring it to Broadway, Schenkkan and Rauch went looking for a marquee name capable of tackling such a complex character. Cranston was at the top of their list.
“He’s somebody who’s completely charming and completely terrifying, who can bully and manipulate and have great vulnerability and passion for what he’s fighting for,” Rauch says. “LBJ was unbelievably smart, he was always three steps ahead of his opponents, and you need an actor with that kind of ferocious intelligence.”
In July, a sequel to “All the Way” also written by Schenkkan will premiere at OSF. Called “The Great Society,” it spans from early 1965 to March 1968, when Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.
“‘All the Way’ is drama, and ‘The Great Society’ is tragedy,” the playwright says.