“Apparently, we’re all chasing corn muffins,” Bryce Pinkham laughed, before adding in a more serious tone, “Hopefully not for much longer.”
The Tony-nominated actor, known for his performances in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and the PBS historical drama “Mercy Street,” is not changing careers to pursue work in a bakery. Instead, he’s donning a tuxedo and taking the stage at Carnegie Hall to play President John P. Wintergreen in Of Thee I Sing, a musical satire about the American government and the driving forces behind political passions.
In the Gershwin-scored show, with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, Wintergreen is nominated to run for President. Without a viable political platform on which to run, he builds his campaign around love and is about to choose his wife from the contestants in a beauty pageant when he meets the practical, hardworking Mary Turner. Wintergreen is immediately determined to wed Mary, the deciding factor for matrimony being her ability to make corn muffins. His decision, which slights the pageant’s winner, Diana Devereaux, prompts a political scandal with a frenzied crowd demanding of the politician, “Corn muffins or justice?”
After opening on Broadway in 1931, Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize. Last revived in 1952, it was most recently seen in an Encores! Concert performance in 2006. It now takes the stage at Carnegie Hall on November 2 for a one-night only concert performance, with MasterVoices performing alongside Pinkham and Denée Benton (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) as Mary Turner, Kevin Chamberlin (The Addams Family) as Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom, and Elizabeth Stanley (On the Town) as Diana Devereaux. Mo Rocca, from “CBS Sunday Morning,” narrates the performance.
More than 70 years have passed since the musical last bowed on Broadway, but its relevance to present-day politics is arresting – and, as the cast has found, only enhanced as each hour passes.
“I think it would be impossible for us as performers not to acknowledge the context in which we’re performing the piece,” Pinkham said, adding, “There’s so much to connect it to.” The President runs on an unbelievable platform and wins. He plans to find his wife in a beauty pageant. Rather than a somber political moment, his inauguration doubles as a showcase for his wedding. And after taking office, he’s almost impeached. The parallels are undeniable. Wintergreen is even criticized for how many vacations he takes during his first few months as President.
Playing Carnegie Hall just shy of one year after Election Day, the musical’s relevance is further heightened by the news of Robert Mueller charging Paul Manafort with money laundering three days prior to the concert. One performer even worked Manafort’s name into the lyrics during rehearsal, and to the cast’s delight, it fit perfectly.
“It’s weirdly exciting and also upsetting how much the show resonates on an hourly basis,” said Pinkham. “It was written in the ‘30s, and those people back then were actually faced with similar outrageous truths in their sort of political sphere. It’s been weirdly comforting to be like, ‘People have survived this before.’ I think at times in the past nine months, it has felt like, ‘How could we possibly survive this?’ I think, hopefully, for however many people show up at our concert, and others like it, that will provide an iota of light at the end of that tunnel.”
A black-tie concert at Carnegie Hall marks a notable change from Pinkham’s most recent role – Sam in Benny and Joon, a stage adaptation of the 1993 film about the romance between a schizophrenic woman and an eccentric man. The musical, which premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, showcased his talents in physical comedy in the style of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, complete with a bowler hat and cane.
But the variety in Pinkham’s career has always been notable. Following his Broadway debut in the emo-rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, he starred in the stage adaption of the romantic film Ghost, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. He earned his first Tony nomination for playing the charmingly murderous antihero Monty Navarro, who inherited his family’s fortune by killing off each and every relative that stood in his way. His next role on Broadway was in the 2015 revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, playing Peter Patrone, an openly gay doctor and the title character’s best friend. He was then seen as a lovelorn innkeeper crooning songs by Irving Berlin in Holiday Inn. So, it’s no surprise his next role is a biting political satire in which he plays the American President.
And biting it is, with Wintergreen’s agenda and the men surrounding him offering a merciless mirror of the American government’s functionality – or lack thereof. Wintergreen’s political party doesn’t seem to matter, as it is never specified in the script. The powers of Congress, the Supreme Court and even the Vice President are not exempt from the musical mockery.
That mockery isn’t lost on Pinkham, co-founder of Zara Aina, a nonprofit to help children in Madagascar. He was poking fun at Donald Trump up until Election Day. His cabaret performance at Birdland in 2016 – before the election – combined political satire with classic musical theater: After performing “Those Were the Good Old Days,” the gleefully amoral number sung by the devil himself in Damn Yankees, Pinkham brought one of Trump’s trademark “Make America Great Again” hats onstage and proceeded to tear it in half.
“Even the devil was disgusted by the hat,” he recalled. “It played really well, pre-election. I don’t know that it would play so well post-election.”
Following November 8, 2016, he found himself turning to the political satire provided by John Oliver and Samantha Bee, along with Chelsea Handler, for comfort and humor. “It’s sort of like this weird thing happens when some ridiculous news story comes out. You sort of can’t wait now to see what those people are going to do with it. I’m just so grateful for those voices in particular to be leading the charge.”
In Of Thee I Sing, the voice of the people is performed by MasterVoices, a choir and orchestra of more than 100 people conducted by Ted Sperling, representing public sentiment and how powerfully it can influence decisions – and how rapidly it can change.
“It’s amazing how quickly everybody, including the chorus, turn on whoever they can turn on, including the President,” Pinkham said. “They’ll turn back to him with the same sort of ease. They sort of usually do it in large numbers at a time. Nobody wants to be the person to stick their one neck out. It has to be safety in numbers.”
In present-day politics, those numbers are often counted online, trending on Twitter or accumulating in Facebook shares and potentially resulting in the “fake news” whose influence on the election is currently under investigation.
“I think this election cycle was an indictment of a lot of things, but I think social media is definitely on the list,” Pinkham reflected. “And it’s a real cause for concern how easily we can get swept up in sort of social media frenzy whereby somebody says something and then it can multiply many times over, before it’s even vetted for truth… It does make you think of how quickly people can be whipped up into a fervor or at least be given the feeling they’ve whipped themselves up into a fervor.”
If Wintergreen were to play into that fervor, what would his hashtag be? After a moment’s pause, Pinkham responded, “Make America Love Again.”