Behind the Scenes at the White House with a Battalion of First Daughters

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, First Daughter Suite



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


Nobody votes for the First Lady or her family, and yet they are with us on television and in print almost as much as their elected family heads, the Presidents of the United States. The daughters go to school, host proms, go out on dates, get married, do homework, play games with the staff and try to have the lives that all other American kids have – but can’t.

Michael John LaChiusa’s new musical, or opera, First Daughter Suite, is a look behind the scenes at the White House, a personal, very funny, very touching peek at the first daughters of America over the last forty years. In it, he works hard to remind the audience that First Families are very un-presidential at times and, well, in a way, just like us. The musical, that opened last week at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in New York, has its ups and downs, just like our first daughters did, and do. Overall, though, except for one dreadful scene involving little Amy Carter (remember her?) her mother and Betty Ford and her daughter, it is an enjoyable look at the history of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and many of the women, charming and not so charming, who lived there.

LaChiusa starts off with a nice story about the Nixons. It is Tricia Nixon’s wedding day at the White House and the skies look like rain. Can she have the ceremony outdoors, where she wants it, or indoors, where the rain may drive it. She pleads with her mother, Pat, argues incessantly with her sister Julie and tries, in vain, to see her father, the President, huddling in the Oval Office even on his daughter’s wedding day. The women come off well, and very down to earth, and the sketch, full of rich music, is delightful. On this day Tricia is not the daughter of the President, but any man’s daughter, worried sick that it is going to rain on the biggest day of her life.

Act two includes the Reagans and the Bushes. In the Reagan sketch, bad girl daughter Patti Davis, she of all those caustic books and magazine articles, and her mother, Nancy (“just say no…”) lounge poolside at Betsy Bloomingdale’s mansion in Los Angeles on their way to the Reagan ranch to join the President for Thanksgiving. Patti is like a machine gun as she peppers her mother with questions and makes all sorts of accusations, which are deflected neatly by Nancy with that famous smile and shrug of her shoulders. If people ask her any critical questions about her father, she advises Patti, just say “he did not know anything.” Patti does not accept that and rails some more until Nancy finally quiets her, very abruptly. It is a nice exchange between the two women, and full of fire, too.

The final sketch, and the best, is the very touching meeting between Barbara Bush, the wife of President George Bush, and the ghost of her long dead daughter, Robin, who died at the age of three. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, Robin’s mature ghost visits Barbara to discuss old times and see how the family is getting along. It is an evocative and masterful piece of theater that really delves into the heart and soul of Mrs. Bush and her Daughter-in-Law, Laura, the wife of Bush’s son George W. Bush, then in the middle of his own Presidency. Barbara keeps insisting that her son George W. is mediocre and suggests that he was in way over his head as President. Laura shrugs that she just does not think about those things. It is a loving portrait of the “granite granny,” Barbara but, at the same time, a critical look at the Bush family.

The one dreadful, just awful Presidential daughter sketch is of irritable Amy Carter, aged ten or so. In it, little Amy, her mom, Rosalynn, Betty Ford, drinking like a fish, and Susan Ford, who did something and then later did something else with her life, who knows what, get involved in a dream sequence in which they sail the Presidential yacht to Tehran and get ready to do battle with terrorists. There are plenty of explosions, lots of blood and a plot that makes no sense whatsoever. This part of the play gets a Rose Garden ugggghhhh!

The show has some dialogue, but is mostly an easy to follow and easy to understand opera. The music is soft and soothing. What writer LaChiusa and director Kirsten Sanderson do well is remind all of us that the daughters of Presidents, and their moms, are ordinary people swept into history on Election Day. They try to live out their lives under a press and public microscope, sometimes well and sometimes badly. We love them, we admire them and we embrace them and, from time to time, forgive them for their fathers’ policies and decisions. It is a very personal musical and a show in which you have to cheer for the daughters and their moms, even though you might have made fun of them when they lived in the White House. The First Family, and the first daughters, are nowhere in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. They were created by George Washington when he took office in 1789 and have remained a cherished historical institution ever since.

One good thing about the show is that you see a lot of political history and get a nice look at several Presidencies as seen through the eyes of the family. The playwright might have added more, such as first family relations with the press and something about 9-11, but what he did was just fine.

LaChiusa get some really sterling performances in the show and does a fine job of writing an all-woman play, ending the argument that there are no roles for women in show business today. Perhaps the best performance is by Mary Testa as Barbara Bush (you’ve just got to admire a woman who thinks it’s OK for her 90 year old husband to sky dive). Other good performances are by Alison Fraser as a tipsy Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan. Caissie Levy is superb as both Patti Davis and Julie Nixon. Others in the cast are Barbara Walsh, Betsy Morgan, Theresa McCarthy, Carly Tamer, Rachel Bay Jones and Isabel Santiago.

You will note that the Presidents are mostly Republicans. Hmmmmnnn… Then again, if they did the Clintons the play would be nine days long.

If you go, enjoy the first half of act one and all of act two, but bring along a good book to read when little Amy bursts on to the stage in the second half of act one.

PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by the Public Theater. Sets: Scott Pask, Costumes: Toni-Leslie James, Lighting: Tyler Micoleau, Sound: Ken Travis, Wig and Hair Design: Robert-Charles Vallance. The show’s choreography is by Chase Brock. It is directed by Kirsten Sanderson. The show runs through November 15.



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