NEW YORK — In the new Broadway play “All the Way,” President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Bryan Cranston, takes a break from wrangling votes for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reflect on the trying nature of politics.
Facing mounting pressure from the Southern faction of his party and civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson vents his frustrations to the audience.
“Everybody wants power; everybody,” he says. “And if they say they don’t, they’re lyin’. But everybody thinks it ought to be given out free of charge. ... Nothin’ comes free. Nothin’. Not even ‘good.’ Especially not ‘good.’”
It’s a monologue one could easily imagine being delivered by Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher-cum-ruthless drug lord who Cranston played to thunderous acclaim on “Breaking Bad,” which ended its five-season run on AMC in September.
It is tempting to draw parallels between the men, both expert manipulators with a thirst for power that to differing degrees led them astray: Johnson, the sharp-elbowed politician who engineered some of the most sweeping social and civil rights legislation in American history while driving the country deeper into the war in Vietnam, and Walter White, the sad-sack everyman whose impulsive money-raising scheme spiraled into a full-blown meth empire.
“Their egos got in the way, and it drove them to do things that were detrimental to themselves and, in LBJ’s case, extremely detrimental to society and America. And in a smaller way, so did Walter White,” says Cranston, 58, at the airy Manhattan apartment serving as his temporary home while he makes his Broadway debut in “All the Way,” which opened March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The native Angeleno, shaking off his fourth cold in a punishing winter on the East Coast, graciously offers tea in a white mug, taking a black one for himself.
“I’ll let you be the good guy, I’ll be the bad guy,” he jokes.
His views on kitchenware notwithstanding, Cranston is an artist drawn to characters who defy such easy moral categorization. He likens Johnson, a politician who continues to captivate historians, to King Lear. “What made him so strong and effective domestically was his political acumen, which was stronger than anyone since Roosevelt and not matched by anyone to date. And his downfall was his political hubris. He didn’t want to appear weak.”
“All the Way” began its journey to Broadway in 2008 as part of “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle,” a commissioning program at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival created with the goal of dramatizing pivotal moments in the nation’s past.
When the OSF’s artistic director, Bill Rauch (also director of “All the Way” on Broadway), approached Robert Schenkkan about participating, the playwright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Kentucky Cycle,” an epic six-hour play tracing the 200-year saga of a family in Appalachia, immediately knew the subject he wanted to tackle.
Schenkkan, a Texas native, says he has had a long-held interest in the 36th president who as a U.S. senator granted his father permission to establish the first public radio and television station in the Southwest.
After deliberation, Schenkkan decided to focus on Johnson’s first year in office — his so-called accidental presidency.
“All the Way” dramatizes the tumultuous 12-month period that began in November 1963 with John F. Kennedy’s assassination and ended with Johnson’s electoral victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater. Though it concentrates on the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the ’64 presidential campaign, it touches on the many pivotal events along the way, including the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the infamous murders of activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi and the challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to seat an integrated delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
In addition to Johnson, who appears in nearly every scene of the three-hour play, a dizzying number of historical figures are portrayed, such as King, J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, Stokely Carmichael and Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Most of the actors in the large supporting cast, which includes Michael McKean and John McMartin, perform multiple roles.
“In this one amazing year,” Schenkkan says, “the Civil Rights Act transformed America and transformed our political system. It brought an end to Jim Crow and marked the end of the Democratic hold on the South. It is a high-water mark for the civil rights movement, and at the same time you can see the fractures that would lead to the rise of Black Power.”
A depiction of the unsavory backroom dealing required to pass even the most noble legislation, “All the Way” is thematically reminiscent of “Lincoln,” the 2012 Steven Spielberg film that chronicled the creation of the 13th Amendment nearly 100 years earlier. Despite Johnson’s sometimes bullying temperament, contemporary viewers accustomed to entrenched partisan gridlock are likely to marvel at his sheer ability to get things done, particularly in the face of virulent, often violent opposition from Southern segregationists.
“Despite the fact that the parties had very differing viewpoints, they still managed to cross the aisle back and forth and get things done,” Schenkkan says. “All of the issues that we are currently debating, if you can dignify it with that term, had their origin with LBJ in 1964.”
“All the Way” had its world premiere last year in Ashland, Ore., the home of the OSF, with actor Jack Willis originating the role of LBJ. But when plans were made to bring it to Broadway, Schenkkan and Rauch went looking for a marquee name capable of tackling such a complex character. Bryan Cranston was at the top of their list.
“He’s somebody who’s completely charming and completely terrifying, who can bully and manipulate and have great vulnerability and passion for what he’s fighting for,” Rauch says. “LBJ was unbelievably smart, he was always three steps ahead of his opponents, and you need an actor with that kind of ferocious intelligence.”
The project came to Cranston at an opportune moment. With “Breaking Bad” winding down, the actor was eager to get back on the stage because, after nearly 13 years of series television, he was eager for the immediacy of theater.
“It’s like painting a room,” he says. “It’s white, and if you and I spend a couple hours we can paint this a different color and we see the instant effect of our work.” After his previous series, “Malcolm in the Middle,” came to an end in 2006, Cranston performed in the Sam Shephard play “The God of Hell” at the Geffen Playhouse.
The actor threw himself into research, reading Johnson’s memoir, “The Vantage Point,” as well as biographies by Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and Mark Updegrove. He also consulted with Johnson confidantes, including speechwriter Richard Goodwin and press secretary Bill Moyers, and made repeated trips to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. There he discovered a letter from Jackie Kennedy to then-President Johnson written days after JFK’s assassination thanking him for sending notes of condolence to both her children.
“Here’s a man who days earlier ascended to the presidency under tragic circumstances, and he took the time to do that. That says something to me about his character,” Cranston says.
Taped phone conversations from the White House were also useful for capturing the private Johnson, who was, according to Cranston, “backslapping, crude, funny, angry, embraceable, irascible” — a marked contrast to the rigid persona he adopted in public. Throughout the play, the president fires off crass remarks unfit to be repeated in a family newspaper, and Cranston seems to relish in exploring the president’s bawdier side.
In conversation, Cranston slides effortlessly into Johnson’s low, raspy Texas drawl and on stage assumes his stooped, stiff posture. But the key to unlocking the character was emotional, not technical.
“He had a voracious appetite for achievement and approval and love. This is truly from a layman’s point of view, but I think he would have been diagnosed as bipolar,” Cranston says. “He was capable of very high highs and energy and excitement and determination followed by extreme lows.”
At the height of “Breaking Bad” mania last fall, “All the Way” had a sold-out run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where it earned generally positive reviews. Cranston’s performance in particular was praised, but he is acutely aware of how as a TV star — albeit a widely acclaimed one with three Emmys — he might be perceived as an interloper.
“I’m on Broadway because of ‘Breaking Bad.’ I make no bones about that,” he says. “There’s probably some resentment of that, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with labeling of actors being any one kind of actor.”
If anything, Cranston hopes his presence will entice young “Breaking Bad” fans to their first Broadway show and perhaps inspire a new generation of theatergoers.
In July, a sequel to “All the Way” also written by Schenkkan will premiere at the Oregon festival. Called “The Great Society,” it spans from early 1965 to March 1968, when Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.
“‘All the Way’ is drama, and ‘The Great Society’ is tragedy,” the playwright says. (Unlike author Caro, at work on his fifth volume on Johnson, Schenkkan plans to stop at two.)
Cranston isn’t ready to address a possible return to Broadway, should “The Great Society” also make its way East. (Nor is he willing to indulge talk of a Tony Award.) However, he admits Johnson is a figure he’ll continue to explore — whether on stage or off.
“When we’re done with the run of this on June 29, I’ll continue to read things about him, just because I’m interested. He’ll teach me who he is. He’s guiding me right now,” Cranston says. “And I’m listening.”