Tony-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan plunges into second part of Lyndon Johnson’s story

06/26/2014 12:47 PM

06/28/2014 7:50 PM

Audacity pays off.

That appears to be the lesson of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s remarkable career. The man who claimed a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for “The Kentucky Cycle,” his one-act plays spanning 200 years, just collected his first Tony Award.

“All the Way,” the first of a two-part saga about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, was named best play at the annual awards ceremony on June 8, and its star, Bryan Cranston, took home his first Tony as best leading actor in a play. Cranston’s performance as LBJ was his Broadway debut.

“The Kentucky Cyle” runs about six hours if staged in its entirety. The same likely will be true of Schenkkan’s LBJ epic after he finishes work on “The Great Society,” which will receive its world premiere July 27 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The success of “All the Way,” like “The Kentucky Cycle,” was against the odds because it breaks all the rules. Three-hour plays with enormous casts and dozens of characters are rarely done. But “All the Way,” like Tracy Letts’ three-act “August: Osage County,” is a memorable exception.

In a theater-district interview two weeks before the Tonys, Schenkkan said Johnson was a permanent presence when Schenkkan was growing up in Austin, Tex.

“I was aware of LBJ from a very early age, being in Austin, but also because my dad had some contact with him,” he said. Schenkkan’s father was hired by the University of Texas to establish the “first public television and radio station, really, in the Southwest. The first job he had was to go to (then-) Senator Johnson and get his permission because it would have been direct competition with LBJ’s own media empire.”

Lady Bird Johnson owned both a radio station and TV station in Austin, as well as stations elsewhere in Texas. Johnson, however, gave his approval to founding a public radio and TV station affiliated with the University of Texas.

“So in my household, initially, LBJ was a friend of the court and thought of very highly,” Schenkkan said. “And I keenly remember the ’64 election. I was 11, I think. And you know, we all cheered and thought the forces of darkness had been banished. Then, two years later, with two older brothers at or approaching draft age, I had a very different feeling about LBJ.

“And 15 years later, as a young man, an artist, trying to raise a family and perfect my craft, I became aware of how many different governmental and social services were useful to me and that they had their origins in the Great Society. So then I had yet a different feeling about him.”

Johnson’s life and career were the stuff of high drama. Thrust into the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson left a legacy of progressive social programs aimed at fixing seemingly endemic problems in American life.

Johnson convinced members of the House and Senate to support his initiatives by pleas, threats, political blackmail and masterful arm-twisting. But his achievements were overshadowed by his disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.

“He’s such an inherently theatrical character,” Schenkkan said. “The way people talk about him — the physical size, the emotional size, the ambition, the virtues, the vices, the brilliance, the naivete. It’s fascinating to read descriptions by colleagues, aides, staff members, cabinet members, because they’re all very similar.

“They all fall into the category of: He was the most generous and most savage man I ever knew; he was the most loyal and the most treacherous, the strongest, the weakest. I love this quote by Bill Moyers, who said, ‘The 11 most interesting people I ever met were Lyndon Johnson.’”

Schenkkan also found in Johnson’s presidency the chance to discuss broader issues.

“He’s a wonderful window into the period and allows me an opportunity to explore themes I have always been interested in — power and morality and the tension between the two. How does one successfully wield political power in this country and stay true to one’s moral compass?

“Politics is inevitably about compromise. How do you draw the line between the compromise that is worthwhile and one that isn’t?”

At then end of the day, Schenkkan said, Johnson’s record of domestic policy achievements speaks for itself.

“There’s no question that LBJ was the most successful legislative president we’ve ever had,” he said. “FDR had three full terms, but LBJ had basically five years. And what he accomplished in that five years is just breathtaking: 107 major bills in that first Congressional session.

“All the work that he did: he and Congress (established) Medicare, Medicaid, urban renewal, poverty abatement, Head Start, clean air and water, aid to education, immigration reform and, of course, civil rights. And these are all the issues we continue to fight about today.”

The play’s dramatic arc depicts Johnson’s efforts to push through the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, requiring him to negotiate with such disparate figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and the segregationist George Wallace of Alabama. He had to circumvent political road blocks at every step of the way.

“We are still having this argument today about the nature of the federal government and what its proper role should be,” Schenkkan said. “The big change, I would say — and the play points to this — is how codified racial language has become in politics.”

“All the Way” was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions initiative spanning 10 years. The company’s goal is to commission 37 plays focused on American history. Schenkkan was the first writer the theater approached.

Schenkkan said he read all the major biographies of Johnson, as well as copious amounts of history about different facets of Johnson and the ’60s. And he listened to Johnson’s numerous taped phone conversations. At some point in the writing process, he realized that the story could not be contained in one play.

“It was simply too much to tell in one evening,” he said. “So I wrote ‘All the Way’ as a stand-alone play but left myself the possibility, if there was interest, to continue forward with the story. Fortunately, there is sufficient interest.”

Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards read the play and flew to Oregon to see it. When he decided to mount a Broadway production, it meant finding a star. But not just any star.

“It was challenging to think who out there fills that particular bill, who has the profile and the appeal and who can also play this part,” he said.

“I mean, it’s like ‘Lear,’ you need somebody with two separate skill sets. They need to be charming and funny and appealing and charismatic — and they need to be utterly terrifying. And if you think about it, Bryan Cranston, over the the course of his extraordinary television career, has bracketed both of those beautifully.”

As it turned out, Cranston was looking for his next project. And he wanted to do a play. And he wanted to do it on Broadway.

“He read the play and just flipped,” Schenkkan said. “It’s been a terrific working relationship.”

Nobody in the Broadway cast is trying to mimic the historical figures they play, although at times Cranston looks and sounds remarkably like the LBJ we remember.

“I always make a point to say I’m not a historian,” Schenkkan said. “I’m a dramatist. This is a play. And that means I take liberties.… I have two hours and 45 minutes to tell this story. By necessity I must omit enormous amounts of material.

“And the minute you start leaving things out, you change the narrative. The bar I set for myself is that I must never have a character say or do anything that I can’t defend in the context of the generally accepted notion of who this individual was and how they behaved.”

People of a certain age — Schenkkan’s generation — will find much of the history in “All the Way” familiar. But younger people are also watching the show. And what do they make of it?

“By and large they’re absolutely riveted, enthralled, astounded, horrified by what they see,” Schenkkan said. “It’s an introduction to things that for many of them they’re completely unaware of.

“They can’t believe it. That’s how we were just 50 years ago? That’s how people talked about African-Americans? That was the legal landscape? Did J. Edgar Hoover really do that? It’s eye-opening. There’s this young crowd that has no experience with it and are just gob-smacked.”

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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