By John Meyer
Lyndon Baines Johnson is not the first President who comes to mind when you think of a civil rights advocate and champion of the poor. His predecessor, JFK, is in fact the president many Americans might associate with the equal rights movement. However, without LBJ, many of JFK’s wishes for our nation’s unity could have died with him. This is the central message in the Broadway play, All the Way, (lifted from the campaign slogan “All the way with LBJ”). Bryan Cranston takes to the Neil Simon stage as the complex man and 36th president of the United States. Cranston, of tv’s Malcolm in the Middle and more recently of Breaking Bad, commands the stage the entire two hours and fifty minutes-an exhausting commitment for any actor.Cranston is at times manically energetic bringing both a voice and physicality to the spirit of LBJ’s charismatic and daunting persona. The play opens with LBJ on Air Force One, having just taken the oath of the president after President Kennedy’s assassination. The world starts to come out of its confusion and begins mourning while the threat of our involvement in the Vietnam War looms somewhat vaguely on the hazy horizon.
Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Robert Schenkkan, he was born in Chapel Hill, NC but raised in Austin, TX. The big Texan LBJ with a direct and at times intimidating demeanor must be part of what makes him a surprisingly enigmatic, (because of his combination of passion mixed with a large dose of no nonsense attitude), character and therefore, rich one to write about. Surrounded by opposing influences, LBJ must balance his desire to “do the right thing” with politics and consequently, the key players of the early 1960’s. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King, Jr., Governor George Wallace, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and Secretary of Defense Robert J. McNamara superbly depicted by a stellar cast.
Throughout the play we watch his public debates for what is right while being privy to his inner debates as to how best accomplish what JFK and his brother Senator Bobby Kennedy started. By alienating the South and the Dixiecrats, the South will be lost to the democrats ( to this day). Johnson knows what is right and forges ahead to create his great society. We also see the side of LBJ you don’t want to cross in the evolution of his relationship with Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, played by Robert Petkoff which was once one of mentors and a protégée but has disintegrated to one of a protagonist and adversary.. LBJ All the way is a must see for Fans of Broadway as well as American History.