Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign headquarters may be based in Brooklyn, but about 5.5 miles away, her iconic blue pantsuit is getting a lot of wear.
Now playing at New World Stages in Midtown Manhattan, Clinton: The Musical is a hilarious off-Broadway satire of the eight years that Bill Clinton served as President. Parodying everyone from Paula Jones to Al Gore to even Eleanor Roosevelt, this new show is a laugh-out-loud and over-the-top foray back into the 90’s when Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp were still BFFs and Hillary got her first taste of the White House.
Featuring an excellent cast that includes Emmy Award-winning comedienne Judy Gold and an unforgettable star-making performance by Kevin Zak, Clinton: The Musical stars Kerry Butler as the future Madam President, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I chatted with the Tony nominee about her transformation into the First Lady, her real-life politics, how Hillary’s official campaign announcement has impacted the show, what she’s up to next, and much more.
ALEX: Part of what I think makes this show so brilliant is that it can easily appeal to those who both love and despise the Clintons.
KERRY: I agree!
In their review of the show, The New York Times called your portrayal of Hillary, “peppy, very funny” and “whose ambitions are huge but whose capability is never in question.” Given that you’re playing an actual person within a highly satirized world, how did you find the balance between the absurdist comedy and staying true to who Hillary really is?
Well, Hillary is so normal that there isn’t really that much you can make fun of, and that was my challenge in the beginning. At first I thought maybe the Clintons are just grounded people with these zany, over the top people around them. People like Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr aren’t actually like how their characters are in the show – great liberties have been taken with those parts. I definitely did not want to do that with Hillary. But she is funny and sarcastic in the show, so I thought, “I have to bring it up a little bit” because it is a comedy.
When I was doing research on her, I was trying to figure out what I could click into. In the 90’s, she had a stronger Midwestern accent so I exaggerated that a little bit. She always had that really big smile. She’s a little bit stiff when she’s giving speeches and things like that. I watched videos of her dancing and I was like, “Oh, that’s really funny, I can totally play with that.”
Then what really clicked for me was I watched when the President was being inaugurated and I thought that she must be so happy at this moment. Before I watched that video, I had been playing it like she was so excited and over the moon happy with this big smile on her face. Then I watched the video of it and she was so intense and had this crazy look on her face. She wasn’t smiling and it just looked like she just had this drive underneath – almost as if she was trying to contain all the emotions she was feeling in that moment. So that’s when it clicked and I realized, “I need to exaggerate that” and “That’s what I need to do with her.”
At the same time, I love her. The more research I did on her, the more I fell in love with her, her politics and who I think she is. I do really think that she wants to make the world a better place so I was very careful and precious with her and was always very protective of her with the writers. We fought to make sure that her intelligence came across and to show that she was a partner with Bill in everything that he did. It was important to make her strong but still be able to poke fun a little bit. I don’t think she’s going to come see the show, but I feel like if she did, she wouldn’t be too upset with my portrayal of her. I hope.
In the show, there are two actors who play the President. There’s William Jefferson, who’s the more grounded, public face of the administration, and there’s Billy, the carefree, sex-crazed, sax-playing fast food enthusiast – and Hillary is the only one who can see them both. What do you think the choice of having Bill Clinton be two separate characters accomplishes and how did that impact your approach to playing his wife?
It’s fun to actually see them fight with each other! And, you know, most people have two sides to their personality. I know I do! You’re different around different people. Paul Hodge, our writer, read in a lot of books that people constantly said that Bill has these completely split personalities. So I think that it was just something fun to add to the show – like a gimmick that clicked into the comedy and to make the story telling different.
As far as playing opposite the two of them, I just decided that she treats them like they’re two different people. One she has to mother and take care of, and the other one is an equal partner who she listens to and takes advice from and he takes advice from her. She loves both sides of him, and she loves the one that she has to mother because he’s like a little kid and he’s fun and he brings out the little kid in her, so they can have a good time together. But, at the same time, because of her strong desire for her career and her life that she’s kind of carved out, that’s the part of him that I think, initially at least in this play, she wishes would go away.
The show takes a somewhat serious turn during “Enough,” the song Hillary sings after she finds out that the rumors of the Lewinsky affair are true. It’s a heartbreaking ballad that makes you really sympathize with her and that you as a performer really sing the shit out of. What’s your personal favorite song to perform in the show and which one do you find to be stuck in your head the most frequently?
The one that’s stuck in my head most frequently is “Monica’s Song” (“I’m fucking the fucking President!”). Obviously, that’s not actually my song but I think it’s the catchiest one in the show and it’s just so fun too. It’s funny because when I read the script, that’s the song that turned me off the most. When you read the script for the show, you’re like, “Oh, noooo.” I did it because initially Dan Knechtges, our director, was working on it and I trusted him and I thought, “Well, it’s just a reading, I’ll do it.” And then, I quickly learned that it’s just so much better on its feet than on the page. It’s much less insulting and much more fun, you know?
As far as my songs, I love singing “Enough” because I like the through line of the song and how it builds. And I definitely think it’s important to the story. It makes you see that Hillary does have a backbone and I love that you said that it makes you feel for her because that’s what I was hoping would happen. I also really like how another song that I sing, “Both Ways,” gets all fun and Celine Dion-like at the end. Just in terms of having fun with something, I really like that part. That’s kind of Hillary’s onereally silly moment in the show.
Looking at your resume, it seems as though you enjoy moving back and forth between big Broadway shows and smaller off-Broadway and regional venues. As an actress, what have you found to be the biggest differences and advantages of these larger vs more intimate productions?
Off the top of my head, you get paid a lot more money for the big shows. You can’t really make a living doing the Playwrights Horizons shows, but they’re very fulfilling. One of those shows I did, The Call, is one of the things I’m most proud of. It was about adoption, something that I did in my life, and something that I feel like I’m called to do and to tell people about. Sometimes you can do jobs just because it’s something like that, something that’s so personal to you.
With Broadway, you obviously reach a bigger audience. Those big Broadway shows tend to be like a high. I’ve missed doing musicals. Even though Clinton is only around 300 seats, it’s just fun to sing and dance and be silly. We feed off the audiences’ laughter. It’s exciting to be able to give that to them and then they give it back to us.
It’s interesting when you have a matinee crowd. Sometimes they’re older and they aren’t as responsive as the evening crowds, and that kind of unintentionally affects the show for everyone. I don’t think a lot of people realize that when they go to the theater they have a control over the experience as much as the performers do. You know what I mean? Because if you go into a show where you know it’s going to be silly and you know you’re going to have a good time, you can just let go and do it. Then it’s infectious for the whole audience and then that even is infectious for the actors on stage because they respond off of what you’re giving them. Actors definitely try to give the same performance every night, but you have this live audience and are fueled by their energy.
You’ve played a whole slew of iconic women – Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Eponine in Les Miserables, Penny in Hairspray, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, and Clio/Kira in Xanadu to name a few. What was something you discovered about yourself as an actress through playing Hillary that you never knew before?
In terms of me being an actor, I was petrified to do this part. I did not think I could do it in any way. I thought Dan was crazy to ask me to do it. I consider myself an activist, but I’m not political. And I’m not composed like Hillary is. I’m much more giddy and over the top than she is. Plus, I’ve never played anybody who’s living before. That’s something that people on Saturday Night Livedo, that’s what impersonators do, that’s not what I do. So it’s been really exciting for me that I did it, even though I was scared to death. I guess now I have more confidence in myself since I was able to pull it off. People aren’t like, “Oh my God, what were they thinking casting her?” so that’s been very nice. It’s great to be able to tap into the strength that she has. It brought me strength to see through her strengths. There’s something exciting about doing things that you are petrified of and that you don’t think you’ll be able to do. And then to actually accomplish it feels really good.
That’s awesome! It’s definitely a great new way to challenge yourself. I read that you actually volunteered for Clinton’s 2008 campaign. How were you involved in that and is there anything you took away from those experiences that helped inform your depiction of Hillary?
I actually didn’t volunteer for her campaign specifically. I volunteered for the Democratic Party when she was in Senate, so I had to call up and ask people to give money to support her getting her seat in the Senate and things like that. But once I had kids, I could not volunteer anymore because it was too much to try to balance volunteering and being a mom and working. But it was really fun when I did it. I think Al Gore was running then, so I was volunteering for his campaign in a way too. It’s funny when you do that. I was just this young girl who didn’t really know that much about what she was saying, and when I’d call other Democrats up to ask them for money, they’d just start talking to you. Whereas if anybody calls me, I’m like, “Please put me on the do not call list!” People actually want to talk to you and think that you know what you’re talking about, as if I’m actually friends with Hillary and I know all the in-and-outs of her campaign and what she’s going to do. So it was fun.
That’s so funny. One of the many things I found to be hilarious in the show was Hillary’s obsession with Eleanor Roosevelt and her constant desire to quote her. Who are some of the women who you look up to and are inspired by?
Well, Mother Theresa. Now I really love Hillary Clinton. I’ve already started collecting quotes of hers. I love a writer named Madeleine L’Engle. She’s written a lot of children’s books. Her husband was an actor and so she had to raise her kids on a Broadway schedule and have this other lifestyle which I kind of have to do. Like I’m working all weekend so my husband takes the kids and stuff like that, so I really love her writing. It’s very spiritual and just how she was able to kind of manage being a working mom and everything is very inspiring to me.
Obviously, Hillary just officially announced her plans to run for President in 2016. With her headquarters based in NYC and given that she was recently seen attending Hamilton at The Public, what would it mean to you to have her attend this show?
I would just love to meet her. I actually reached out to her people and said, “I’m going to be doing a lot press. If you guys want to tell me something specific to say to people, I’m happy to because I would love to help out the campaign any way I can.” But I think they’re afraid of the show. Hopefully they’ll hear things like you saying that we’re not being negative towards Hillary. Hopefully that will change their perception of the show. But I think at first they were afraid of it and didn’t really want that kind of press.
How did you and the rest of the cast celebrate and/or react to her announcement?
Well, it was a really fun day because she announced right before our afternoon show started. And so in the cast we didn’t know and then we found out as soon as the show was over. Then we had another show that night and that was when the audience went crazy. The show opens with me saying, “I’m Hillary Rodham Clinton and I would like to tell you the story of my first Presidency.” They went crazy and then again at the end when I said, “Vote for me!” So since she’s announced, it’s been really, really fun because now it kind of seems like a place where Hillary supporters can go and be together. They love the parts when we talk about how she’s already the President or how she’s going to be the President. The audience goes much crazier than they did before. So that’s been really fun.
I’m sure! How often do you were a pantsuit when you’re not in character as Hillary?
I own one pantsuit that I only got from doing a soap opera. They actually wanted me to wear it for press and I was like, “I can’t! I have one pantsuit, I can’t keep wearing it for every press thing I do!”
Politics is often such a touchy subject for so many people. But when a farce like this comes along that can really make people laugh at it, what do you think is the greatest takeaway an audience member can have when leaving the theater?
That’s what I love about the show. I think it’s very even-handed. One thing you can takeaway is the circus of the press surrounding the Clinton era. It was so silly how crazy that was when there were so many other important things going on, like healthcare costs. Everybody was so concerned with Whitewater, which wasn’t even a real thing. Obviously the Monica Lewinsky scandal got completely blown out of proportion. Those were personal matters and Newt Gingrich was doing the same thing as Bill, like you saw in the show. So I would hope people would instead decide to work together and focus on the issues that matter. Nobody’s perfect.
If you could star in the Broadway revival of any musical of your choosing, what would it be and why?
The first show I ever did was Blood Brothers and I was the understudy and I never got to go on for the part that I understudied. So if I’ve aged out of that part, Linda, I would want to play Mrs. Johnstone, the mother in the show. That’s one of my favorite shows and I’d love to be in it again.
Do you already know or have some ideas of what you’ll be doing next after Clinton: The Musical?
I don’t! I did Seth Rudetsky’s show Disaster! and that may be moving to Broadway so I may do that. I’m also doing a workshop of a musical based on the TV show Hazel. So you never know! That’s life as an actor!