The Obama Effect … Wheee!

obamas going to theatre3 The Obama Effect ... Wheee!It seems to me that the First Couple—of date-night fame—represent great news for theater lovers. They not only enjoy going to the theater; they do it together.

Were the Bushes ever theatergoers? Or the Clintons? Once in a blue moon, when absolutely necessary. True, Bill Clinton is known to recite entire chunks of Macbeth by heart (“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me …”). I actually saw him at a performance of Macbeth three summers ago at Shakespeare in the Park. But Hillary wasn’t with him. “Enough already with Macbeth!” she must have told him. “What’s done is done.”

The Obamas’ date night on Broadway is a very welcome first. After all, it was only last season that Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush was winched via helicopter onto the stage of the Cort Theatre to announce cheerfully: “I said to the pilot why don’t you drop me off in the faggy theater district—and that’s what he did!” I’ve no problem with the reported cost to the taxpayer of $24,000 for the First Couple’s Broadway treat. I’m no mathematician, but that’s about average nowadays for the price of two good orchestra seats with an unobstructed view. Beside which, Mr Obama is the president. If he wants to take in a show with his wife by flying to New York on Air Force One, I say what’s the point of being president if he can’t? 

It so happens that his surprise nomination as the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts—maverick producer and race track enthusiast Rocco Landesman—created the first $480 premium ticket on Broadway, as well as the $225 ticket for all the losers who couldn’t afford $480. But none of that matters now.

Rocco’s a smart commercial producer (and Yalie) who just might revitalize the beleaguered NEA. He’s a radical choice—a refreshing departure from the usual bureaucratic suspects. He has nothing to lose. The daring appointment is designed to shake up the neutered NEA that’s been limping along as a battered victim of the cultural wars since the 1990s. It’s further evidence that the president intends to take the arts seriously.

As Michelle Obama put it when she recently opened the New American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The arts are not just a nice thing to have. They define who we are as a people.”

She also took in the opening night of the American Ballet Theatre that evening. And all of this is of a piece with the Obamas’ more culturally engaged White House, with its poetry slam and jazz night in May followed by the first of the White House music series in June. “Have fun, be loose,” said Michele, welcoming everyone to the White House from the podium.

I’m not so sure about date nights for parents, however. They don’t sound too loose to me. They sound awful. But that the Obamas’ unspontaneous date night took in Broadway is all to the good. The resentful notion that they should confine their theater outings to the Presidential Box at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is typically provincial. Millions of tourists visit Broadway every year. Why not the Obamas?

Their choice of August Wilson’s masterful Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was a serious one. How astonishing to remind ourselves that the First Couple were there to experience this searing drama and poem about turn-of-the-century white oppression and the search for black identity in America!

Still, their choice of Joe Turner was a little predictable—as Frank Bruni, restaurant critic of The New York Times, found their night out at the excellent Blue Hill Restaurant in the Village to be a safe choice. All is fodder to the blogger, and Mr. Bruni on NYtimes.com judged the superior organic fare at Blue Hill a predictably “proper message” from the White House about how to eat “green.” 

The dyspeptic Mr Bruni wished that the president, whom he correctly described as “almost joylessly disciplined and restrained around food,” had “bust loose” with his wife to dig into “a plate of fatty lambs at Resto … that killer bone-in New York strip at Minetta Tavern; the oyster pan roast at the John Dorry.”

What show might I recommend the Obamas “bust loose” and see? If the First Couple would be prepared to gamble on the truly unexpected in theater, I’d recommend the beautiful and flawed—and insane—musical Coraline at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the Village.

With music for pianos—including several toy ones—by the eerily brilliant rock musician and lyricist Stephin Merritt, Coraline is based on Neil Gaiman’s dark and weird fairy tale for adults and children. The Obamas could take the kids! Michelle just took them to see The Lion King in London, but Coraline is no Lion King.

It’s about a child (played by the adult actress Jayne Houdyshell) who’s bored by her middle-class workaholic parents and their health-conscious diets of organic chicken basted with prunes. One day, she walks through a bricked-up door into a freer version of her own life, where she meets her Other Mother, played by the downtown genius David Greenspan like a spooky Kabuki. (Mr Greenspan also adapted the book.) 

The rough magic of this risky experimental musical, directed by the gifted Leigh Silverman, is odd, messy and wonderful. I can’t guarantee how much the Obamas would like it. But as one of its lyrics goes, “Wheee! Theater is fun!”

jheilpern@observer.com