Out in the real world, Donald Trump was navigating meetings in France and Donald Trump Jr. was fielding questions about Russia.
Inside a theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, though, characters from the Trump universe were singing, preening and impersonating.
“Working Moms of America, I’m honored to be here with you,” said “Ivanka Trump,” an actress named Mia Weinberger doing a comical impression of the first daughter. “Moms like us value qualities such as empathy, kindness and sensitivity — all part of the Trump brand.”
The actress was conducting a last sound check for the evening’s performance of “Me the People,” a new off-Broadway production that has been filling its house since opening last month. The four-person musical parody skewers events involving the 45th president with a boost from classic hits, from “Hotel California” (“Welcome to the Hotel Mar-A-Lago”) to a new take on a “Sound of Music” staple (“How do you solve a problem like Korea?”).
With “Julius Caesar” a recent flashpoint and “Hamilton” a bone of White House contention, theater has been an unexpected cultural battleground between Trump and the liberal establishment. But the cast of “Me the People” is showing another way the fight can be waged: via campy and absurdly redone musical standards.
“I think a lot of Americans would agree these are dark times and we need to laugh,” said Nancy Holson, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show, as she waited with her cast before a performance one recent night. “The question is how to take those times and make it funny.”
Or as “Me the People” producer Jim Russek puts it, “Yes, they go low and we go high. But OK, we can go low for a little while.”
Like many Americans in the arts, Holson and Russek woke up after Election Day looking for a way to respond, or at least get out their frustrations. As the creator of a long-running stage satire called “The News in Revue,” Holson thought parody lyrics might be a way to go.
With the help of music director James Higgins (he also appears in the show as the piano player at a lounge where historical figures drop by) and director Jay Falzone, she set out to create a comedic musical response. Within four months, they had a full show. “Me the People” then became the first known stage production (but certainly not the last) to be created entirely in response to the Trump administration.
The show, in an open-ended run at a 130-seat theater called the Triad 2, has been generating warm word-of-mouth since it opened. Reviews have been generally favorable, if also taking less favorable note of the broad comic moments.
A pre-show voice-over assures audience members not to worry; the director will stop the proceedings if the president is impeached during the production. Then the four principal actors — four millennials with impressive versatility — launch into their series of musical numbers and deadpan dialogue.
“The parody begins with a humorous rewriting of the Constitution (“Glory the Constitution/With a little substitution/And its quiet dissolution”). The W in “We the People” is reversed to become “Me the People.”
There’s also an imagined day in the life of Jared and Ivanka (he meets with Russian and French officials; she holds auctions for million-dollar dogs), and a visit from Freud in which the psychoanalyst tries to diagnose the president to the tune of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”
A particular highlight comes with a fast-rhyming number about the Russia-hacking scandal pulled off with breathless and accented dexterity by actor Richard Spitaletta. “Don Jr. says that Moscow business is out of proportion/So who the heck’s Rybolovlev/who no one had the knowledge of/and Michael Flynn’s in Moscow and he’s eating Noodles Romanoff/His wife says he’s not home enough/His bank accounts withdrawn enough/And money is the subject which the two of them dwelt on enough.”
(Trump, incidentally, does not appear in the show. Holson said she felt that could conjure sympathy, as the Alec Baldwin impression had, and she wanted to avoid that.)
Another standout is “Repeal and Replace,” in which Spitaletta, doing an uncanny Paul Ryan, engages with the audience as a politician who pretends to care about their medical maladies. It then segues into a riff on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” (“What a bungle, a mighty bungle/But Ryan speaks tonight/What a bungle, a mighty bungle, we’ll try ‘n get it right.” And: “Let’s conceal it till we repeal it/The time is right/Why wait?/Let’s repeal it/Then I’ll reveal it.”)
“I really enjoy playing Paul Ryan,” Spitaletta said of the House speaker. “Which is something I never thought I’d say out loud.”
Aiesha Alia Dukes, who plays a host of original characters such as the maid Conchita at Mar-a-Lago, said the show walks a line between comedy and tragedy. “Our characters are funny,” she said. “But the things we’re highlighting are not funny.”
Most of the actors are not doing straight impressions, though that didn’t stop them from doing a lot of research. Mitchel Kawash, who plays many of the figures in the administration, spent hours poring over old Mike Pence speeches to play the vice president.
“He’s not someone who gives you a whole lot,” the actor said wryly.
Nor, for that matter, do some of the other personalities in the show. That might seem to pose an acting challenge, but the performers say there’s a hidden benefit.
“When you have people like Paul Ryan or Jared Kushner to play, it actually opens things up. You can imagine more possibilities,” said Spitaletta.
The tone of “Me the People” is consistently cheeky and unabashedly political. It also is not meant for subtlety, and the criticism could be (and has been) made that the humor is essentially fish-in-a-barrel, easy fare served up for an audience that wants to hear their perceptions of the president confirmed.
The principals don’t deny these ambitions. A refrain, repeated in person and on the show’s website, leans in on the issue of the partisanship: “Are we preaching to the choir?” it asks. “No. We are the choir.”
Cast members also say they’re trying to offer a kind of community for people who need catharsis; complicity with the actors helps in that process.
“When this woman yelled at me [as I played] Ivanka,” Weinberger said, “I think she enjoyed it and needed it, even if she didn’t realize how much she needed it.”
Still, even the most liberal ZIP Codes in the country can allow in outsiders: A protester turned up inside “Me the People” recently and held up a pro-Trump sign at various points. The moments were tense for the actors, who in the theater’s cabaret-style setup can easily see audience members, but the protester didn’t speak and tensions eased.
How to keep the show current has also been a challenge. Unlike late-night shows, “Me the People” doesn’t contain entirely new material each night — even if the news cycle moves fast enough to demand it. So the show is in a constant state of minor adjustment.
On the day of rehearsal, Holson offered notes that the cast should “Keep the Joe and Mika Tweet from last week” but in the wake of saber-rattling by Kim Jong Un, “change Bye Bye Seattle to Bye Bye Alaska.” The news had changed so quickly that nearly every number the cast had tried during auditions has either been cut or dramatically changed, from a piece on coal miners to an opus on Kellyanne Conway.
This week’s fast-moving news, capped off by the resignation Friday of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, provided the latest illustration of how tough it can be to remain timely with a script mocking the Trump administration.
“It’s very unusual to bring a show together this quickly,” said Holson of the process that got it to the stage, adding she’d like to take the show to Los Angeles if it proves a demonstrable hit in New York. “But we all felt we had to do it.”
Then she paused. “We’re bragging about what we’ve done [in the short amount of time]. Look at what he’s done.”
“We just quote him,” said music director Higgins.
The show’s finale is a parody of Cee Lo Green’s "… You” — using his original four-letter command — in which Hillary Clinton (and no doubt the subconscious of the audience) gets to offer a retort to all the electoral forces that brought the country here.
Weinberger appears as Clinton and gleefully flips off Vladimir Putin, Sean Hannity, members of the Trump family and even Bernie Sanders with the help of some colorful language.
“So thanks to Julian Assange/We got the [bozo] L’orange,” sings the character. And a lot of musical parody lyrics.