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A New York Theatre Guide to... The Great Society!
Here's all you need to know about the Broadway premiere of The Great Society, starring Emmy Award winner Brian Cox as President Lyndon B. Johnson...
After the phenomenal success of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s first ‘LBJ Play’ All The Way, which took home the 2014 Tony Award for ‘Best Play,’ Mr. Schenkkan has returned to Broadway with a second instalment revolving around the LBJ presidency. Directed by Bill Rauch, The Great Society began performances at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (at Lincoln Center Theater) on September 6, 2019, officially opening on October 1.
What’s it all about?
The Great Society follows Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency from 1965 through 1968, as his over-ambitious domestic programs (including Medicare and Medicaid) are overshadowed both by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement under the guiding hand of one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the growing expenditure and atrocities committed in the war overseas in Vietnam. The play juxtaposes LBJ’s skill in the Oval Office, physically imposing himself and manipulating those around him in order to see his agendas through, with his seemingly inevitable fate of becoming a victim of the times. His complex relationship with vice president Hubert Humphrey, his rivalry with Senator Robert F. Kennedy, his dealings with the likes of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, Mayor of Chicago Richard J. Daley, Governor of Alabama George Wallace, and successor Richard Nixon, are all highlighted in this fast-paced political drama. And as the pressures of the rising death toll in Vietnam and the overflowing anti-war sentiment, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, become too much to bear, The Great Society finally explores what led to LBJ’s decision not to re-run for president.
Who’s starring in it?
The Broadway cast is led by Emmy and two-time Olivier Award winner Brian Cox in a tour-de-force performance as LBJ, taking the baton from Bryan Cranston after his Tony Award-winning performance in All The Way. The native Scot now calls New York his home and he’s currently wowing TV audiences as media magnate Logan Roy on HBO’s “Succession.” He won his Emmy Award (and earned a Golden Globe nomination) in 2001 for his portrayal of Hermann Göring in “Nuremburg” and his other notable screen credits include the likes of “X-Men 2,” “Super Troopers,” “Braveheart,” “Troy,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and the 'Jason Bourne' and “RED” franchizes. Other standouts in the cast include a rising stage favorite, Grantham Coleman, as Martin Luther King, Jr., Tony Award nominee Bryce Pinkham as Robert F. Kennedy, three-time Tony Award nominee Marc Kudisch as Richard J. Daley, Tony Award nominee Richard Thomas as Hubert Humphrey, and Tony Award nominee David Garrison as George Wallace/Richard Nixon, to name just a few.
What’s special about this production?
The Great Society’s cast shows off its acting chops with its 19 members taking on around 50 different roles, some of them highly recognisable, and does it with ease. Many of the ensemble cast portray three or four different characters each, masterfully balancing the magnitude of the play’s scope, whilst ensuring the audience avoids feeling lost in the sheer number of historical figures and events. Kudos also go to Linda Cho’s costume design for each transformation. And speaking of transformation, David Korins’ deceptively simple set design partnered with Victoria Sagady’s projections transform the stage from the Oval Office to a graveyard to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in the blink of an eye. This also helps director Bill Rauch to maintain the pace of the production, particularly in Act I. And the sporadic decay of the set in Act II wonderfully symbolizes the unravelling of LBJ’s presidency.
Although the play concentrates on the political over the personal, with interactions between LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, sparse and few, for example, The Great Society is at its greatest emotionally with the depiction of the violence and indignities suffered by African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Coupled with the projections of the devastating and ever-rising death toll of Americans in Vietnam, it is here where the drama makes its lasting impact.
Who would we recommend it to?
If you like to be informed and educated whilst you’re being entertained, if you can’t get enough of your historical documentaries, and if you’re blood is boiling over the social issues and current state of the country and its reluctance to learn from the mistakes of its past, then The Great Society could well be the one for you. It is as important for young adults as it is for those who lived through the atrocities of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement to experience this drama, become politically motivated and raise their voices to build a better society.
Check out our video guide to The Great Society here...
The Great Society Tickets are available now for performances through November 30, 2019.
(Photos by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)