With Governor Ann Richards, in the person of Holland Taylor, holding court at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre and those hopeful Texans vying for a truck in the new Broadway musical “Hands on a Hardbody,” why not resurrect one of the greatest longhorns of them all, Lyndon Baines Johnson?
Coming this fall to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is “All the Way,” a new drama by Robert Schenkkan which graphs Johnson’s galvanizing first year in office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. If all goes well in Cambridge, prolific producer Jeffrey Richards is said to be eyeing a Broadway transfer for the play, which had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last summer. This would mean a return to New York for the Texas-raised Schenkkan, who is best known for “The Kentucky Cycle,” which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Baby boomers will recognize the title of his new play as the election motto of the 36th president of the United States (as in “All the Way with LBJ”).
Like the Seven Spielberg-Tony Kushner film, “Lincoln,” which focused on the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, “All the Way” dramatizes the fight to enact the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, aided and abetted by Johnson’s legendary arm-twisting, buttonholing political shrewdness. The legislative triumph was all the more remarkable given the intense opposition from the Southern flank of the Democratic party, including Richard Russell, Jr., the segregationist senator from Georgia who was a mentor of Johnson’s. He figures in the play, as does Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and Walter Jenkins, the president’s longtime trusted aide who became embroiled in a homosexual sex scandal.
“All the Way” has the distinction of being one of two inaugural winners of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, given to a work inspired by American history. (The other honoree is Dan O’Brien for “The Body of an American,” about the experiences of wartime photographer Paul Watson.) That a drama about Johnson should be recognized by the Kennedy family is somewhat ironic given the enmity between Robert F. Kennedy and his brother’s successor. Known as “the accidental president,” Johnson exuded ruthless Shakespearean hunger and ambition – the 1967 stage satire “MacBird!” envisioned him as the Scottish Thane. But Johnson’s War on Poverty led to several progressive landmarks, including Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, and aid to education, which the Kennedy brothers, both Bobby and Edward, admired and helped to pass. In Schenkkan’s play, a small country named Vietnam is but a flicker of the coming political firestorm that would doom his second term and rip the country apart. Among the names being bandied about to head the A.R.T. production, to be directed by Bill Rauch, is John Lithgow, who recently played Washington power broker Joseph Alsop in David Auburn’s “The Columnist.” In the play, Alsop’s stubborn support of the Johnson Administration and U.S. involvement in Vietnam War proved to be his undoing.
Image: Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the Oval Office/Arnold Newman, White House Press Office