After success off-Broadway and in the UK, a rollicking Australian musical about Bill Clinton is opening in Perth.
In 2007, Paul Hodge and his family went to see Keating! The Musical in their hometown of Brisbane. “After the show Dad said, ‘yes, it was good but I’m not sure politicians make the best subject matter for a musical – except maybe Bill Clinton,’” recalls Hodge.
It was a light-bulb moment. Before long, Paul and his barrister brother Michael were bouncing around ideas for Clinton: The Musical. In 2015, after several years of development, the show had a successful four-month season off-Broadway. Now, a new production of the ribald musical satire is about to open at Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company. “Being Australian we always hoped that it would come home, so it’s very exciting,” says Hodge, who wrote the book and lyrics, and co-wrote the book with Michael.
Paul Hodge with Kerry Butler from the off-Broadway production. Photo by Russ Rowland
Described by the New York Times as “smartly silly, hilariously impudent and sneakily compassionate”, Clinton: The Musical follows William Jefferson Clinton through his turbulent career as the 42nd President of the United States (1993-2001). Early on, Michael suggested that they had two actors to portray Clinton. “I said, ‘that’s a stupid idea, why would we do that?'” admits Hodge. “Then when I read Bill’s autobiography it talks about how he felt he’d led these two parallel lives. And in reading other people’s biographies of him, they talked about his two different sides. They even had nicknames for him like Saturday Night Bill and Sunday Morning President. So it seemed like having two Bill Clintons was an interesting and kind of truthful way of depicting a very complicated man: a man of contradictions and a walking paradox.”
Thus the musical features WJ (played in Perth by Simon Burke) who is the charismatic, honourable statesman, and Billy (Matt Dyktynski) as his pot-smoking, sax-playing, playboy alter-ego. Hillary Clinton also features large, while the many other characters include a sex-crazed special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and that most famous of White House interns Monica Lewinsky, who gets to belt out a number with the unforgettable line: “I’m f**king the f**king president”. There’s also a Donald Trump moment – “but I won’t ruin it by revealing what it is,” says Hodge. But as Hodge points out, Trump was a supporter of Bill Clinton’s in the 1990s, donating to his campaign. “It’s funny how the themes of the show are very evident in the current American election; that idea of the mixture of politics and entertainment is very clear. That’s what Donald Trump is, an entertainer,” he says.
Matt Dyktynski plays the randy Billy Clinton in Perth. Photo by Robert Frith
Hodge began writing Clinton: The Musical while studying for a Bachelor of Music (classical voice) at the University of Queensland (UQ). He then undertook a Master in Music Theatre Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is currently completing at PhD in Music Composition at UQ. The show had its first outing in a one-act version at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. They were then offered the chance to workshop a two-act version at London’s King’s Head Theatre, which led to an invitation to the 2014 New York Music Theatre Festival. From there it got picked up for off-Broadway.
With Hillary Clinton recently confirmed as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, the timing is perfect for a revival – and as the show has evolved, Hillary’s role in it has grown. “We’ve been rewriting the show constantly since we first started on it, which was both the usual rewriting process that happens with musicals, just trying to get it to work, and also trying to keep things current with Hillary,” says Hodge. “We brought in the [private email scandal] off-Broadway a little bit and that’s been expanded a bit more for the Perth production.”
Musically, the tongue-in-cheek songs have a cabaret feel, with Hodge taking a lot of inspiration from the 1990s. “I think that was always the thing that was going to hold it together, even if we had songs in different styles. Say there was a burlesque number or a gospel number, we would always think, ‘what would a gospel or a burlesque number sound like in the 90s?’ There are also a lot of songs that are like 90s pop music so I had a lot of fun reliving Britney Spears and The Spice Girls, so there are lots of different influences in it.,” he says.
Hodge currently has three new musical theatre projects on the go. He is collaborating with playwrights Louis Nowra and Kate Mulvany but can’t talk about either of those just yet. He is also writing a musical with playwright Stephen Carleton about former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen for JUTE Theatre Company and the Brisbane Powerhouse, which premieres in July 2017. “So I don’t know if I do agree with Dad,” says Hodge with a laugh. “I think maybe politicians do make good subject matter for musicals.”
Clinton: The Musical plays at the Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA from August 27 to September 11