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How to Steal an Election

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - August 28, 2023

Jason Graae (front) with (l-r) Kelly Berman, Drew Tanabe,
and Courtney Arango

Photo by Rider Foster
Sounds current, doesn't it? When I told friends I was reviewing something called How to Steal an Election, at least one responded, "Oh, is it new?" Not at all: The Off-Broadway musical by William F. Brown (book) and Oscar Brand (music and lyrics), the opening parry in the York Theatre Company's first Musicals in Mufti series since 2019 (and welcome back!), dates back to 1968. It opened fast on the heels of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the issues it deals with are largely the ones that made that gathering such a disaster: rebellious youth, corrupt entrenched politicians, violent cops, generational differences, Vietnam. It's a revealing glimpse into a turbulent era with many parallels to our own. But be warned, neat it's not. And it's not, in the end, much about how to steal an election.

No, instead it wanders all over the place, offering a warped, somewhat hallucinogenic American history of presidents past and then-present. I'm not even sure it's a book show, for although there's a plot and characters who stick it out and evolve, it's more a series of White House sketches. The musical it most resembles is, in fact, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Musical buffs, at least, will remember that one. It's a legendary 1976 flop, by Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner, that traversed administrations from John Adams to Teddy Roosevelt, and the troubled evolution, or lack thereof, of race relations. Brand, a noted folk singer-songwriter and host of a long-running WNYC folk music series, isn't a patch on Bernstein and Lerner, but he wrote a tuneful score that works confidently within a traditional-1960s-musical framework: There are waltzes, jazz, ballads, protest hymns, and a number of historic campaign songs written by other hands. The lyrics are often jaundiced and sometimes witty: "Rape's not a crime/ When you do it to the voters/ A million at a time."

Brown's book is another matter, and often at odds with the songs: Brown was a conservative, Brand a lefty, and their viewpoints can be at loggerheads. In very timely 1968 fashion, we're just past the Democratic National Convention, where young, idealistic, hippie-ish April (Emma Degerstedt) and Jerry (Alex Joseph Grayson) were roughed up. They're put wise to the ins and outs of political gamesmanship by an unexpected interloper, Calvin Coolidge (Jason Graae). He could have been alive then: He'd have been 96, though the script keeps saying 97. But he's come back from the dead to offer the youngsters a selective retrospective of presidential and electoral power plays.

And that is largely a retrospective of disappointments, including some surprising lapses from some venerated presidents. Did you know that Lincoln was once quoted as saying he did not, in fact, believe in equality of the races? That JFK may have been put over the electoral edge by some Mafia skullduggery in a Chicago ward? Brown seems to enjoy sullying presidential heroes. There are also glimpses into the administrations of, among others, FDR, William Henry Harrison, Martin Van Buren, and Herbert Hoover. They're not what you'd call complimentary.

Ultimately, Brown makes the point, and Coolidge manages to convince April and Jerry of it, that working within a deeply flawed system is the best way to exact change, and rampant as corruption is, the democratic process will win out in the end. As for election stealing, the only instance that's discussed at any length (and it was in 1600, too) is the Rutherford B. Hayes-Samuel Tilden dust-up of 1876.

You'd think a performer as accomplished and mischievous as Jason Graae would make a meal out of Calvin Coolidge, but the old prez just hasn't that much interesting to say, and we're more compelled by the kids. Degerstedt, so delightful in the York's Desperate Measures some seasons back, is equally delightful here and makes the most of a lovely ballad, "Comes the Right Man," though the intent isn't altogether clear: Is she singing of the right guy for her, which the lyrics suggest but would be out of context, or the right president, which the lyrics don't imply but would make contextual sense? "Nobody's Listening" is a trenchant cri de coeur of despairing youth, and Grayson, with leading-man looks and the voice of an angel, socks it across. The two share a lament for the late JFK, "Mr. Might've Been," that must have induced tears 55 years ago.

Boy howdy, is this a talented cast. There are also Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman, and Drew Tanabe, inhabiting various presidents and lackeys at the drop of a cue, and singing and dancing up a storm. Victoria Casillo has devised some tricky, capably executed choreography, which, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. Joseph Hayward's direction has as much snap as the material will allow, and Miles Plant, at the piano, generates some sweet sounds.

Hey, it was 1968, and coherence wasn't where it was at. How to Steal an Election doesn't always court logic, and its 90 minutes feel a bit longer than that, but it's a valuable look at then and now, the political similarities and dis-, set to a most listenable score. Meanwhile, the 2024 election is already upon us, and there's every possibility that someone will try to steal it. Luckily, they won't learn much about how to do that here.

How to Steal an Election
Through September 3, 2023
York Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Jeans, 150 E. 76th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: