The President on Broadway: FDR, George M. Cohan, and “I’d Rather Be Right”

by William A. Harris, Deputy Director, FDR Library.

Billy Rose Theater Collection, Photograph File, New York Public Library
Billy Rose Theater Collection, Photograph File, New York Public Library

Lambasting the President through low comedy or high satire shocks no one these days, especially during an election year. With the exception of editorial cartoons, before the 1960s, that wasn’t always the case. Motion pictures and the legitimate theater traditionally offered reverent presentations of the Presidents. FDR received this treatment in the Tony-award winning play, Sunrise at Campobello, which premiered thirteen years after his death. Incumbent Presidents were rarely portrayed at all.

Like running for a third or fourth term, FDR proves the exception. One almost forgotten show, I’d Rather Be Right, takes on Roosevelt, the incumbent President, using comedy and satire. The 1937 production also has the distinction of being the first Broadway musical, perhaps the first Broadway show ever, to feature the sitting President as the main character. As for reverence, forget about it. Almost everything was up for grabs, a daring approach at the time.

By any measure, 1937 was a tough one for FDR, from the so-called “Roosevelt recession” to accusations of court-packing. Commentators wondered if the President had lost his broad-based support and deft political touch. The climate was ripe for taking swipes on stage, and the President’s larger-than-life personality and often controversial policies offered plenty of material. Why let the editorial pages have all the fun, producer Sam Harris figured, when FDR enjoyed the limelight.

Writers Moss Hart and Pulitzer Prize winner George S. Kaufman eagerly embraced the project, and Harris teamed them with successful songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart whose numbers had graced several smash hits. Broadway buzzed as critics and theatre goers alike braced for knives honed to cut apart Roosevelt and the New Deal. The show was sure to be entertaining, but when legendary song-and-dance-man George M. Cohan signed on to play FDR, it promised to be the hit of the season.

Cohan, Broadway Program
Music Division, The New York Public Library. “The Yankee Doodle boy” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1904.

The epitome of scrappy, American patriotism, Cohan had endeared himself to the public with songs such as A Grand Old Flag and Give My Regards to Broadway over a forty-year career. It was a brilliant piece of casting, somewhat blunting criticism about the musical’s controversial content and undoubtedly ensuring a healthy box office. Neither Cohan, nor Kaufman were Roosevelt fans. Kaufman, however, appreciated the satirical possibilities, and all politics aside, Cohan recognized a star turn.

Known among the theater set for his arrogance as much as his patriotism, Cohan proved difficult from the start. Upon first hearing the score at his Fifth Avenue apartment, he walked out. He considered Rodgers and Hart “upstarts” and their material subpar. Rodgers remembered the experience as “at all times disagreeable.” But with the aggravations came financial rewards. Cohan’s name on the marquee resulted in $247,000 in advance ticket sales, second only to the blockbuster Show Boat at the time.

George M. Cohan as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library
George M. Cohan as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

The show went into previews before a packed house at the Colonial Theater in Boston on October 11, 1937. The reviews were positive, if not enthusiastic. “The spoofing is more good natured than biting,” noted a critic. The plot is as flimsy as a tar paper shack. A young couple can’t marry. Why? The economy, of course. But along comes a dapper FDR. He’s convivial and oh so helpful, enlisting his cabinet to balance the budget for the sake of young love. That’s Presidential leadership!

George M. Cohan with the Supreme Court, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library
George M. Cohan with the Supreme Court, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

The fantasy presents a parade of the day’s leading political personalities. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau sings a solo about bonds and Supreme Court justices pop out of bushes to warn the President against new laws. Postmaster General James Farley suggests selling off Baltimore. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins proposes taxing post offices. In the end, the budget can’t be balanced, but FDR generously offers to stay in office for ten more years to get the job done! A third term is essential.

Few escape the ribbing, even the President’s mother, whose butler is the 1936 Republican nominee Alf Landon. Eleanor Roosevelt, though, is noticeably absent. Unsurprisingly, FDR’s paralysis also goes unmentioned. In fact, Cohan’s showstopper, Off the Record, has the President cavorting before the audience in a patriotic fervor. In the end, everything turns out to be a dream, and Cohan’s FDR gives an inspirational closing speech about the future of America—not exactly a cutting edge conclusion.

The President kept his counsel about the show. A man of good humor and high self-regard, he probably didn’t mind the attention. When the production previewed in Baltimore in late October, the White House requested six seats for “Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary and Col. E. W. Starling of the Secret Service.” A small item on the front page of The Washington Post notes Starling’s attendance, as well as that of Presidential advisor Bernard Baruch. Presumably they reported back to the White House.

Scant correspondence about the hoopla exists in Roosevelt’s papers. A couple of letters by loyal supporters document concern about the show’s impact on American institutions. The National Democratic Council drafted a resolution denouncing the production as a “burlesque which directly reflects on the prestige of these United States.” Presidential secretary Marvin McIntyre directed a staffer to telephone the council’s vice president. The message—leave us out of this.

The show finally opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on November 2, 1937. As for the hype, writing for The New York Times, critic Brooks Atkinson observed that “I’d Rather Be Right has arrived in town. The town is still intact.” He reserved praise for Cohan. “The sensational moment…is not when the President tries to balance the budget,” Atkinson explains, “but when George M. Cohan pulls his top hat tight on his head, breaks into a skittish, waggling dance and whirls around the stage.”

A smash hit, I’d Rather Be Right ran for 290 performances. The success probably had as much to do with Cohan as the subject matter. It’s doubtful the President cared. When presenting Cohan with a Congressionally-authorized gold medal in 1940, FDR referred to him as his “double.” A news photo shows the star looking down on the President, who, all smiles, beams back confidently. Cohan may have been Mr. Broadway, a good mimic and outstanding showman, but there’s no mistaking who’s President.

I’d Rather Be Right is a relic of another era, too dated for a full-fledged revival today, many of its punchlines lost on modern audiences. In 1937, the very idea of this musical raised eyebrows. After its premier, they were quickly lowered. Even in satire, the President is a humorous, engaging figure. With his programs and policies so groundbreaking and far-reaching, his image and voice so pervasive and familiar, almost everyone could appreciate the jokes—most likely even Roosevelt.

For those familiar with FDR, his Administration, and the 1930s, the humor holds up fairly well, though it’s pretty tame stuff. The Wagner Act as a vaudeville troop and high taxes replaced by a national pick pocket aren’t bad. They were certainly good enough for record profits. As for the President himself, with his grand and engaging manner, his confidence and ebullience, he could take a joke without question and laugh all the way to a third term.

George M. Cohan as FDR with the full ensemble, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library.

A few “FDR” lyrics from the score:

On his beloved Hudson Valley hometown—

“When I go up to Hyde Park/
It’s not just to ride there/
It’s not that I love Hyde Park/
But I love to park and hide there.”

On Wall Street—

“I’m really quite the hero/
I only have to say, ‘My friends…’/
And stocks go down to zero.”

On his future—

“If I’m not re-elected/
I’ll never fear for hunger/
I’ll never fear for thirst/
I’ve one son with du Pont/
And another one with Hearst.”

On a third term—

“When I was courting Eleanor/
I told her Uncle Teddy/
I wouldn’t run for President/
Unless the job was steady.”