POTUS was a gift coming out of the pandemic. I could not believe how funny it was. Selina Fillinger’s script had me on the first page, actually the first word – “Cunt.” I knew I had to do this play, but questioned if it could really happen while New York City was crawling out of the pandemic. Would this pandemic ever really be over? People were still wearing masks and taking COVID tests every morning. Rehearsing a comedy in masks – is that even possible?
Well, it happened. The brave producer Greg Nobile and his colleagues secured the prestigious Shubert Theatre for a limited run. No one had worked for almost two years and the trepidation and excitement about going back into a rehearsal room was palpable. As I walked through the stage door of the Shubert Theatre, I cried.
I went into fully masked rehearsals and constant COVID testing with seven exceptional women, and I watched as each woman succumbed to COVID. Just as one would recover, another one would be taken down. It was a revolving door of COVID patients. I never had a full company until opening night.
If it wasn’t for the amazingly talented women – Julie White, Vanessa Williams, Julianne Hough, Leah DeLaria, Suzy Nakamura, Lilli Cooper, and Rachel Dratch – who understood their craft and had an insatiable desire for comedy along with an undeniable urge to get back onstage, we could have never got through it.
POTUS is a farce. At its core is a group of people coming together to tackle a crisis in the White House. Here, as in any good farce, there are quick jokes, hijinks, misbehavior, punchlines, and slamming doors. But the big difference was this farce had a cast made up entirely of women. Farces traditionally feature men in the lead roles and with women as secondary characters who are usually the brunt of the jokes. POTUS put farce in a whole new light. In our story, a derogatory comment and an anal abscess cause things to spiral out of control, taking us to the very brink of global disaster. The women are not only trying to save the president, but also question their own complacency in supporting him – should they save him or not?
The play takes place in an alternate universe, somewhere in the near future. We don’t know if the unseen president is Democrat or Republican, we just know he’s someone who practices his position with the same narcissism, arrogance, and abuse that we’ve come to expect from people in power. Even though the show takes place in the White House, the audience can recognize that dynamic in any familiar work situation – a corporate boardroom, a law firm, a church.
Selina came to the idea of writing this play by thinking about the women in Trump’s orbit. Who could they possibly be? What were they thinking? How could this happen? When we did the play together, Selina was only 28 years old. I found her to be an inspiration. She has complete command of the language and a profound understanding of comedy and politics – she very much has her finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the world. When you engage with her, you’re engaging with someone who is bright and filled with an indefatigable lifeforce. She dedicates her play to “any woman who’s ever found herself the secondary character in a male farce.”
Women have not just been marginalized in farce, but in all worlds. Until about 15 years ago, my world as a director and choreographer was male dominated. For any kind of art, women have taken a very inferior placement. But finally that is changing – or at least it is changing with this play.
I think as we were exiting the pandemic era, Broadway audiences wanted both profound stories and entertainment, and all the better if they could get both in one show. POTUS gave them that. It felt important to return to Broadway with a comedy – making audiences laugh. EVERYONE needed to laugh. I loved sitting in the back of the theater and watching the audience react. Their laughter was uproarious every night. An extraordinary thing happened during the run of the show after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade – Dusty (Julianne Hough’s character) says the line, “Affordable, safe reproductive healthcare is a basic human right” and the audience would cheer, leaping to their feet to give those words a standing ovation. Amazing! Politics caught up with the show. POTUS was plugged in! Beneath all these laughs and applause is a reflection on women and power.
This was my first time taking part in an all-female production. Even though the play revolves around the President – we never see him. We only see the women. The cast was not only extraordinarily talented – they got along famously. There was much respect in that group, so they felt they could fall on their faces creatively and get back up again during rehearsal. This group of women will remain friends forever. Julie White and Rachel Dratch both received Tony Award nominations for their performances.
Julie White’s expert comic timing and sharp, dynamic voice were perfect for Harriet, the Chief of Staff. She and Suzy Nakamura, who played the tense Press Secretary Jean, were a comic dynamic duo. Julie is a terrific leader and a great arbiter of the plot. Rachel Dratch was hysterical as meek, gentle Presidential Secretary Stephanie who accidentally takes drugs and launches into a chase scene which takes her all over the theater, into the audience, and even, for a moment, into Shubert Alley. What a treat to see audience members get giddy once they realized she was standing right next to them in the aisle. Rachel Dratch is a comic treasure.
As part of the plot, Harriet encourages Stephanie to listen to a playlist called “Bitch Beats” – a compilation of songs that are the quintessence of female power, like Rihanna’s “Breakin’ Dishes” or Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”. She motivates Stephanie to find her confidence by dancing out a series of Power Poses. After collaborating with Selina on a list of songs that would be appropriate for such a playlist, I used the music for set transitions. As Beowulf Boritt’s glorious revolving set of West Wing interiors spun like a White House carousel, “Bitch Beats” became part of the those transitions. I choreographed a number of Power Poses, and towards the end of the show all the women performed the Power Poses to “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.
Julianne Hough was a revelation to me. Her acting was superb and she managed to keep the persona of alluring farm girl-turned-presidential mistress from becoming a cliché. Selina saw the character as the self-positive, sexual woman of the 21st Century and Julianne played the role with truth and heart. Her character was also required to sing and dance. Although we were doing a play, I still needed a musical actress to deliver a number towards the end of Act Two, which Julianne did with great aplomb, singing and dancing with the hilarious Rachel Dratch.
Vanessa Williams played Margaret, the super sophisticated, arrogant first lady, and was brilliant at trying to wrestle authority from Harriet with her witty barbs. They both played the fast-paced game of one-upmanship as they competed for the President’s attention. Vanessa was adored by the company and was the first to organize gatherings, help with outfits for press gigs and award shows, and was always there for anyone in need of a good chat. She was the only cast member who never got COVID. A miracle! She even helped arrange a lunch with the cast and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – an afternoon none of us will ever forget.
Rounding out Selina’s funny characters was Lilli Cooper’s Chris, a reporter for Time magazine who is an overwrought, recently divorced, working mother who appears several times with a breast pump attached to her body. And Leah DeLaria as Bernadette, the President’s drug-dealing sister who has just been released from prison and has a romantic history with Jean. In the show's final moments, Bernadette has one of the most memorable lines: “It’s not that voters like the president, so much as they're scared of the alternative.” When questioned as to who or what that is, she simply replies, "Us."
These incredible actresses grabbed a hold of this modern farce and delivered not only an evening of rip-roaring hilarity, but they made the compelling point about women in our society, asking the question, “What are we going to do about it?” It was as if Selina wrote each part specifically for these actresses. They all represented various sorts of woman with qualities we all know. Selina’s repeated line “Why isn’t she president?”, said of each character at various times in the show, was a running gag that resonated.
The reason this show was such a gift to me coming out of the pandemic was not just the opportunity to direct and collaborate again, but to be able to laugh with that group of women. I could not wait to get to rehearsal – it was like a dose of medicine. In interviews, I am often asked “What is your favorite sound?” My answer is always “Laughter. There is no greater sound.”
My Associate Director Leah Hoffman and Assistant Director Naomi Kakuk both have a delightful sense of humor. They were the right choice for this piece. They understood the comedy and were lovely collaborators. They were instrumental in focusing the actors on how to maneuver on a spinning turntable – there were many times during tech when the actresses would end up in the wrong room. Once that set started to spin and doors started to open and close, it was hard to get your bearings. But they cracked it! Beowulf Boritt earned a Tony Award nomination for his incredible set.
I had directed the play Dot by Colman Domingo Off-Broadway, but POTUS was my first Broadway play. And because of that, it will always be very special to me.
POTUS is entertaining and important – the kind of theater we need right now. It is a good reminder of what can happen when you put women in charge.
It might be a farce, but during this moment in time when women’s rights are being eroded and even disappearing, it was truly a cathartic experience.