Like science fiction becoming reality, or worse, satire becoming reality, this 1968 off-Broadway musical—or to quote the subtitle, this “dirty politics musical”—immediately opens eyes very wide in the ironic early days of America 2017. Some things never change, they just get worse.
In a New York Times review of a revival of the play in 2000, Scarlet Cheng wrote:
In the year of Richard Nixon vs. Hubert H. Humphrey vs. George Wallace, “How to Steal an Election” offered a compact off-Broadway primer on presidential elections bought, bartered and swiped throughout American history.
Librettist William F. Brown and composer-lyricist Oscar Brand had the notion of Jazz Age prez Calvin Coolidge materializing in the present day (that is, 1968). There he meets a couple of fervent young protesters, just back from the skull-cracking Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Disillusioned, these two have no taste for the political machine. But what’s wrong with pragmatism, Coolidge wonders? What about learning to work within a corrupt system? Thus Coolidge begins his history lesson, with vignettes and songs depicting cynical power grabs of yore.
The two stars were Carole Demas who was the original Sandy in Grease on Broadway, even before it was turned into the musical we know now (It was originally a much darker, dirtier production). The cast was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (don’t even get me started). She was also one of the two strange hippie hostesses of the weird early seventies TV show The Magic Garden, a program that even as a child had me running for the remote (not that we even had a remote) to avoid twee folk songs sung to flowers.
Also starring was Clifton Davis who appeared in countless films and television shows, making all the Love Boat/Vega$/Police Story rounds right up to the present. His TV biggie was co-starring on The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show in 1972 (or perhaps the That’s My Mama sitcom in 1974). His lifetime biggie was that he wrote the huge hit “Never Can Say Goodbye” for The Jackson 5! Now he’s a minister.
Oscar Brand who passed away last year at 96 was an original folkie who, among many other things (he wrote a hit record for Doris Day, collaborated on musicals, had a TV show called Let’s Sing Out, wrote children’s records, etc.) had the longest running radio show in history.
He hosted the radio show Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival every Saturday at 10 p.m. on WNYC-AM 820 in New York City, which ran into its 70th year. The show ran more or less continuously since its debut on December 10, 1945, making it the longest-running radio show with the same host, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Over its run it introduced such talents to the world as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and The Weavers. In order to make sure that his radio program could not be censored he refused to be paid by WNYC for the next 70 years.
Brand, whose radio show was referred to as a “pipeline of communism” by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and who told stories of buying food for Leadbelly when the two traveled together in segregated areas, also participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. He said the character of Calvin Coolidge in the play was originally written by him to be Satan.
...he was Satan, who had decided that the electoral process was the most interesting thing he could join in on since he got kicked out of heaven.
The producer of the play Steve Mellow had this to say:
I was the producer of this play Off Broadway in 1969. It was a labor of love. I got the idea from my uncle Jake Arvey, who was a powerful political broker in Chicago.The play took three years to get on and went thru five different authors. Oscar Brand was with me from the beginning. He has written many political campaign songs over a period of seventy years. Nixon was running for President. His campaign manager asked what we were doing on him in the play. I told him to buy a ticket.
If all this sounds classic, the fate of the show is a true tale of American-style “land of the free” business Hell.
From the New York Times:
“How to Steal an Election” opened to favorable reviews and was packed nightly. After 50 performances, the show was set to move to Broadway. But there was a glitch. Turns out, says Brand, the $80,000 lined up for the move was mob money, and it would only be delivered after someone on the production helped with some securities laundering. The producer ducked out, and Brand refused to cooperate. End of deal, end of production.
And that’s no trumped up charge.
More after the jump…