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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

The Power of Art in a Democracy

Published on November 7, 2008

Wow, what a ride it has been for all Americans, these weeks leading up to Election Day—and especially for those few Americans silly enough to be attempting political cabaret! Who has had time to blog?

My Thalia Follies colleagues and I enjoyed a smashing success with the first of this season’s three Follies productions, entitled “At Last—an Election!” All four scheduled performances in the Thalia were sold out, so we scheduled an extra performance, and that sold out as well! Then, for the first time ever, we took the Follies on tour up to the lovely Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a theatre now collaborating with Symphony Space on a variety of projects, including Selected Shorts.

With songs and comedy sketches by Martin Sage and myself, as well as some written by members of the Follies cast—including Ivy Austin, David Buskin, Jay Leonhart, Lanny Meyers, Gregory Jones, Leenya Rideout, and Mary Brienza—we managed to touch upon many of the vibrating nerves in this historic political time. The wonderful Jane Curtin was our special guest star, and she was great, excelling in her solo depiction of Cindy McCain and joining me both as Lady McCain to my McCain, Thane of Scottsdale, and as Sarah Palin, coming to me as Henry Kissinger for a briefing in geopolitics.

I am puzzled by the way everyone just loved the Kissinger sketch, not only the writing and Jane’s superb Palin (not as perfect as Tina Faye’s impersonation, but much more inspired as political satire), but in regard to my own impersonation of the Nobel Prize-winning war criminal. Talk about self-image! In my heart of hearts I think that my public image resembles that of Robert Redford, as much as anyone, but I’m afraid the world sees me more as a Henry Kissinger. Who knew?

You might be interested in one little backstage story that took place at the dress rehearsal of At Last—An Election! For the cast, this was the first time they could see the images flashed on the screen behind them: photographs and cartoons related to the pieces in the show’s lineup. Our musical finale was a farewell to the GW Bush era, sung to a revised version of the Beatles’ “It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night” and accompanied by a sequence of memorable photos of GWB on the screen. As the audience sang along with the final lyrics about how “it’s gonna feel all right,” and how “when the voting is through, there’s gonna be someone new,” the image of a smiling Barack Obama appeared on the screen as the song and the show ended.

Well, I was not prepared for the reaction of several cast members: “Oh, Isaiah, you can’t do that, it’ll jinx him!” “Remember Kerry, remember Gore?” “It’s presumptuous!” I argued that this was the psychologically right way to end a show that had lots of images of John McCain and Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani et al. on the screen, but not yet a picture of Obama. But many of our team felt passionately that we should not end with that Obama photo. At first I relented and told our Stage Manager to cut that slide from the show. But I felt this was wrong, called everyone together, and we worked out a compromise. The photo was re-instated, but the cast, as they raised their arms at the finale of the song would show that their fingers were crossed!! Superstition? Perhaps, but it allowed the dissenting cast members to do what I wanted them to do. I was very gratified that when the moment happened in the actual performance, both in New York and in Massachusetts, it was greeted by cheers and sobs from our applauding audience.

So now we’ve seen how a little low-budget cabaret can bring about an electoral landslide. Oh, the power of art in a democracy!

And now we look forward to the next Follies, “America Reborn?”, scheduled to perform three weeks after Obama’s inauguration, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, February 19, 20, and 21. We know that we face a very large challenge. With no election, no Sarah Palin to kick around, no feverish public excitement, will we still sell out all our performances and schedule extra ones? Our October success is a hard act to follow, but we’ll try, and I hope you’ll get your tickets well in advance.

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