If you ever wanted proof that politics is theater — that the Iowa caucuses, less than a week away, have played out on a stage ...
DES MOINES, Iowa — If you ever wanted proof that politics is theater — that the Iowa caucuses, less than a week away, have played out on a stage — look no farther than Des Moines’ hip East Village neighborhood where “Caucus! The Musical” is opening.
East Village is nowhere near Broadway. But judging by the audience’s reaction during the show’s first preview Thursday, “Caucus!” might as well be playing on 42nd Street. It helps that within the first few minutes, the near-capacity crowd in the theater sees itself reflected onstage when an irate waitress, in a full-throated alto, lunges into song:
Oh, good Lord, they’re on each and every channel,
these candidates on both the left and right.
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It won’t be long before their campaign infomercials
pre-empt my “Cops” and “Wheel of Fortune” every night.
Written by Robert John Ford, “Caucus!” tells the story of the Wises, a farming family that becomes the subject of a newspaper series on a “typical Iowa caucusgoer,” and the four candidates who end up splitting their vote.
The two-hour show is part tutorial (there’s a mock caucus toward the end of Act 2), mostly satirical (along the lines of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch) but ultimately a celebration of what many deem an obscure, incomprehensible quadrennial exercise in electoral politics: the Iowa caucuses.
And with songs such as the Cole Porter-tinged “Anything for a Vote,” the witty “It’s Time to Go to Iowa” and the tap-dance number “The Tough Question Sidestep,” caucusgoers are guaranteed at least a couple of chuckles.
Though Ford insisted his fictional candidates aren’t based on any current candidates, the audience easily draws comparisons. Nora Halliday, a black woman, is a cross between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Harrison Tate, a moderate Republican, brings to mind Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani. The Rev. Stanley Jensen is part Mike Huckabee, part Sam Brownback, while Benjamin Goldman is a gay and much heavier Dennis Kucinich.
But it’s the Iowans that Ford makes the heart of the show.
The idea for a musical hit Ford in the early 1980s, when he was student at Iowa State University and observed obscure candidates standing on street corners desperately campaigning.
He first wrote an outline six years ago and presented a staged reading two days before the 2004 caucuses. That generated enough buzz that he decided to produce the show himself.
Sometimes the real campaign seems like an off-off-off-Broadway play. Think of the missed cues and late entrances. Fred Thompson, anyone? And Clinton’s seeming struggle between two images — soft, familial Hillary and tough, experienced Hillary.
Most everything seems to be for show. Like when Huckabee decided to go pheasant hunting the morning after Christmas and a throng of reporters, watched the former governor shoot while wearing a microphone from CNN. “A brilliant photo op,” a fellow reporter joked.
“Of course politics is theater, especially when you live in Iowa,” said Julie Bell, 46, who plays Sen. Halliday in the musical. She’s a medical practitioner by day, a pastor at Living Truth Church on the weekends and an actor in her limited spare time. She’s a Democrat and undecided about whom to support.
She’s standing outside the women’s dressing room minutes after the show, chatting with Christine Mallett, who goes to Bell’s church and showed up to see her pastor wear her acting hat.
“They’re not themselves, these politicians,” said Mallett, 29, a cashier at a local Hy-Vee grocery. She, too, is undecided. “It’s sad. Politics, as we have it now, aren’t letting these people be people. They’re packaged, like products in a store. They’re performing, like they’re onstage.”
The most dramatic part of the musical comes about 15 minutes from the end. The “typical Iowa caucusgoer” — the eldest Wise, a father of two, a former Republican disillusioned by the Bush presidency — stands on the stage, without a song or a dance, and says: “It’s been getting ugly from Day One. Look at them. I can’t endorse any of these. Why did I agree to be a part of this?”
The actor in the role, who has lived in Iowa for more than 25 years, said that was the hardest scene for him to do in the two-hour show. He is Greg Millar, 50, a college-admissions counselor. He’s undecided about whom to caucus for.
“It just hits a little too close to home, I guess. I’d never done it in front of an audience until tonight. They were quiet, thinking probably about the same thing I was thinking about,” Millar said. “But this is what theater does, right?”
Life imitating art, on the Iowa caucus stage.