‘Of Thee I Sing’ injects humor into politics

Gershwin music and Marx Brothers comedy resonate and amuse on a stage near you

FROM LEFT: Cast members Victoria Gershkovich, Miriam Metzinger, Gavriel Weinberg and Daniel Fliegler get into character.  (photo credit: BARAK BARD)
FROM LEFT: Cast members Victoria Gershkovich, Miriam Metzinger, Gavriel Weinberg and Daniel Fliegler get into character.
(photo credit: BARAK BARD)
A sensation from the instant it burst onto the stage, Of Thee I Sing made history in 1931 as the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Blending humor, romance, extraordinary music and trenchant political commentary (eerily resonant today), the iconic play continues to deliver an irreverent, thought-provoking and wholly satisfying theater experience.
Can a play written some 90 years ago possibly be relevant – even cutting-edge – today?
Very! Consider the following:
• The plot revolves around what should be an implausible premise: a president of the United States facing impeachment from his very first day in office. As if that could ever happen.
• There is legal trouble with a woman from the president’s past
• A scandal is blamed on “dirty work of Russia”
• A president calls Congress “worse than the measles”
• There is a threat of war with a foreign power
• Nobody can remember who the vice president is...
Here’s the backstory:
Rudderless, clueless, and desperately grasping for an issue to run on, presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen consults a focus group (well, one random hotel chambermaid) to determine what is important to voters. Embracing the consensus (if not the woman), he and his handlers conclude that he should run on a platform stressing love. If elected, Wintergreen will marry his beloved at the inauguration. But only if elected, so the public holds the fate of love in its hands.
Perhaps taking a page from the book (scroll?) of King Ahashuerus (or from Donald Trump, who ran the Miss Universe pageant for a decade), the bride is to be chosen by a national beauty contest. The plan goes awry, however, when the presidential candidate falls in love with and decides to marry his secretary (who makes yummy corn muffins), wreaking havoc on his new administration – including loss of credibility (we can’t have politicians breaking promises, now, can we?), a lawsuit, an international crisis on the brink of war, and, of course, the threat of impeachment from Day One (Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi: take careful notes here).
The intrigue and antics climax splendidly in a wholly unexpected conclusion.
After enjoying a recent rehearsal and being impressed by the energy and talent of the cast, In Jerusalem cornered play director and head of Israel Musicals, Yisrael Lutnick, and the two leading ladies, and fired a few questions.
Not everyone is familiar with Of Thee I Sing. What makes it a good choice to stage here?
Lutnick: It’s a gem, an excellent play powered by the sophisticated music of George Gershwin and a script crafted by the writers for the Marx Brothers. It is smart, extremely funny and has an outstanding score. It’s great entertainment, a consistent crowd pleaser.
How long have you been a fan of the show?
Lutnick: One of my earliest and dearest theater-related childhood memories was when my parents took me to Of Thee I Sing. I was nine at the time, and a show about politics had about as much interest for me as a dramatic reading of the phone book. I don’t remember if there was actual physical dragging involved, but somehow I found myself in a seat at the summer stock theater for the opening of the show.
Through the years, I have always had three of the songs bouncing in my head. I remember laughing uproariously at the comical vice president Alexander Throttlebottom (I kid you not, that’s the name). I still remember the music washing over me in waves and not wanting it to end. I warmly recall how grand a time I had and how Of Thee I Sing took such a big place in my musical-theater-loving heart.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The music is by George Gershwin, a fellow who knew how to weave a tune and enchant a listener. The story is totally Marx Brothers style, with quick wit, sharp sarcasm and precious laugh lines. The politics is easy, full of love and absurdity and amazingly prophetic – just compare it to today’s headlines in the US.
What do you like about being in the cast?
Alexandra German: I came to Israel last year from Texas and I’m playing a Southerner, Diana Devereaux. The Gershwin score gives me an excellent opportunity to apply my degree in vocal music. It’s wonderful to find a mix of sharp, quick-witted political humor and really good music, especially in a classical time-period production – and you just can’t get better than these composers.
Being in the cast is fun, especially with all of the backgrounds that the actors come from. Its a quintessentially American play, yet it has a diverse international cast that makes it even more interesting to watch. We have Israelis, Americans, Russians, a girl from South Africa, a boy from Austria – new actors and experienced ones, and everyone is excited to be here. They are all insanely talented and are quick to pitch ideas that further enhance the result.
What makes the play special for you?
Daniella Mann: I just got engaged, so I like the character I play –  a working girl who still loves love, a romantic. Having just gotten back from a year in New York studying musical theater, I appreciate the fact that this is a musical with real music – rich and intense and beautiful and varied – classical, yet hummable. It’s quite challenging from a vocal point of view, but in the most beautiful way. It’s a revival of something from the past and I think a lot of people like seeing and experiencing that. The story is so good, and it has a big element of comedy that works. It’s also crazily current; it’s what’s going on now. It should definitely resonate with the audience.
WILL PRESIDENT John P. Wintergreen be forced out of office? Will the United States go to war? Will anyone ever recognize the vice president or remember his name? For the answers to these and other pressing issues of the day – and for good fun, hearty laughs and awesome music in some of the best theater around, here’s where you need to be:
January 27, 29 and February 4 and 6 at Beit Shmuel, and February 9 in Ra’anana. Info and tickets here or 077-450-6012.
For more information about English-language theater, auditions and shows, check out JETcommunity.org