NPR Story
3:18 pm
Mon February 17, 2014

Play Illuminates Tumultuous Year In LBJ's Life

The new play “All The Way” is now in previews on Broadway. Written by Robert Shenken and commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare festival, it tells the story of a year in the life of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who is played by former “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston.

Beginning in November 1963, when Johnson took office after President Kennedy was assassinated, “All the Way” focuses on Johnson’s push to pass Kennedy’s civil rights legislation and get reelected at the same time.

This production premiered at the American Repertory Theater last fall. At that time, Here & Now’s spoke with “All the Way” director Bill Rauch. We revisit that conversation.

Guest

  • Bill Rauch, director of “All The Way” at the American Repertory Theater. He’s artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

On this President's Day, a play about one. It chronicles a tumultuous year in the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson and the country. The year was 1963. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. LBJ would fight to pass his civil rights legislation. Three activists were killed in Mississippi. Democrats held a raucous national convention. Johnson managed to win in 1964.

Robert Jenkins' "All The Way" tries to capture all of this. The play is currently in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York, following its triumphant run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brian Cranston, he of "Breaking Bad" fame, stars as Johnson. Here, he addresses Congress right after Kennedy is killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ALL THE WAY")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Lyndon Baines Johnson) I'll urge you again, as I did in '57 and again in '60, to enact the civil rights laws so that we can move to eliminate from this nation every trace of discrimination that is based upon race and color.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hear, hear!

YOUNG: Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directed "All The Way" when it premiered at that festival in 2012. He also directed the production at the ART last fall, and that's when we spoke with him. And since Bill graduated from Harvard in 1984, we reminded him this was a homecoming of sorts.

BILL RAUCH: It's great to be home, and it's great to see you, Robin.

YOUNG: Well, we should say that in the '80s, you and some of your Harvard classmates founded the Cornerstone Theater Company. It still tours the country, bringing theater to underserved communities. But I went with you to Kansas. I will never forget your mounting of "Tartuffe" in a farm town there. What else did the group do?

RAUCH: We did a production of "Peer Gynt" in Eastport, Maine. We did the Aeschylus trilogy, "The Oresteia" on the Native American reservation in Nevada. So we worked all over the country.

YOUNG: Yeah, quite something. But tell us how "All The Way" came to be, because it was part of a larger vision that you had in Oregon.

RAUCH: Absolutely. We have the largest commissioning program of new plays. It's 37 new American plays that look at moments of change in United States history. We were inspired by Shakespeare's history cycle, where Shakespeare was trying to address the anxieties of his age, a childless monarch, Queen Elizabeth, what's going to happen to the future of our country. So he dramatized moments of change in his country's past. And we wanted to address the anxieties, the hopes, the dreams of our age by dramatizing moments of change in our own country's past.

YOUNG: Well, I know others have said this to you: This year in particular is so Shakespearean.

RAUCH: Well, LBJ was such a Shakespearean figure. The outsized appetites and the personality, how colorful his language was, just everything about him is Shakespearean.

YOUNG: Why do you think it is that playwrights don't see more drama when it might be right under their noses? I mean, we know Peter Sellars' "Nixon in China," I mean, it has been done. But why do you think this hasn't been done?

RAUCH: When we reached out to get advice to various artists, as we were launching the program, Tony Kushner said to us history plays usually make bad history and bad drama. And I think that that was a fair warning. You know, it's very, very tricky to dramatize history in an effective way. But Robert has really pulled it off.

YOUNG: And, well - and Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for "Lincoln," so...

RAUCH: Absolutely.

YOUNG: ...he had an - he had a sense of this. But we were thinking of "Lincoln" as we watched this, that in fact it was so thrilling to watch a past president try to push through legislation. But in this case, a lot of it's on the phone, you know? Let's listen to a scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ALL THE WAY")

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon Baines Johnson) I'd like to thank you, Dr. King, for your public expression of support.

BRANDON DIRDEN: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) We were all very heartened by your speech last night, Mr. President.

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon Baines Johnson) Well, it's not going to be easy.

DIRDEN: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) It's a difficult time, Mr. President.

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon Baines Johnson) Oh, it's just an impossible period. We're all still in mourning, but somehow we've got to get a budget out and agricultural bill and a civil rights bill. And we just got to not give up on any of them. I'm going to tell Congress just to stay in there. Just forget Christmas, forget the holidays. Just stay in there until they pass them all.

YOUNG: So, here you are, the director. What are you thinking? How do I make the words that Schenkkan has written, how do I help them come alive?

RAUCH: When I read, in early versions of the script, all those phone calls, I thought, OK, a phone call on stage can be undramatic, but it's my job, as director, to find the drama in all these phone calls and to create a structure in the staging that allows for variety in how the story is told.

You know, we're constantly shifting where we are. In one moment, we're in the Oval Office, and then a senator's getting his shoes shined. And then we're in the offices of the SCLC. So it immediately appealed to me, the challenge of how do you theatrically create these ever-shifting locations in a way that's fluid and that allows the story to flow, language to language, and not get hung up on scene changes.

YOUNG: In the show, you have actors sitting on stage, watching other actors. What does that symbolize for you?

RAUCH: There's a tension between public and private, of course, in any politician's life. Having the cast witness automatically takes very public moments and - very private moments, rather, and makes them public. There's also a tension between then and now. For instance, there would have been segregation of African-American and white characters that does not exist in the witnessing, that the witnessing might be integrated in a given moment. So you get that tension between the group of actors who are gathered to tell the story and what things were like 50 years ago.

YOUNG: Well, I asked how, as director, you bring out some of the tensions in the moment. It helps, of course, that you have extraordinary actors. We mentioned Lyndon Johnson played by Bryan Cranston.

This is interesting, because he's so come to be the science teacher who turns to methamphetamine production when he thinks he has cancer and breaks bad, you know, in the show. He's so that person. Did you at all worry that people would come in and think, ah, what you're saying is Lyndon Johnson was sort of a good guy who went bad?

RAUCH: No. I never worried about that, honestly. You know, obviously there are things that Bryan brought to Walter White that are useful in terms of playing LBJ...

YOUNG: Like what? Like what?

RAUCH: Well, some of the ferocity, some of the danger, his sense of humor. Bryan is a very playful actor and really, really smart actor. So all of that was just incredible - those assets - to bring to playing LBJ. But it's a very different man. And I think audiences are going to be thrilled to see this great actor transform himself in this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ALL THE WAY")

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon Baines Johnson) Everybody wants power. Everybody. If they say they don't, they're lying. But everybody thinks it ought to be given out free of charge, like Mardi Gras beads, especially to them, of course. Of course, they're going to do good with it. Nothing comes free. Nothing. Not even good, especially not good.

YOUNG: Bryan Cranston, as Lyndon Johnson in the play "All the Way." We're talking to the director, Bill Rauch. And, Bill, we see a president fighting to pass unpopular legislation. He thinks it's the right thing to do. This is, of course, civil rights legislation. He then takes steps to an unpopular war, Vietnam. Hmm. We're thinking we now have a sitting president who passed health care reform and then eyeballed Syria.

RAUCH: Look, when we did the play in Ashland last year, we opened a few weeks before both the Democratic and Republican conventions. We closed two days before the election. The run here at the ART is sandwiched between the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination and LBJ being sworn in.

You cannot watch this play without reflecting on where we came from and where we are now and where we might head from here. It's why we commissioned - we're in the process of commissioning 37 new plays. We wanted to create opportunities for deep reflection on who we are as a country. And I feel like this play is doing just that.

YOUNG: We spoke with "All The Way" director Bill Rauch last September. The Broadway production is in previews right now. It's scheduled to open on March 6th. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.