DES MOINES — Inside a brightly lighted downtown theater, a group of actors gathered around a piano, their songbooks open and voices ready, waiting for their cue.
Director Tony Humrichouser peered intently at the score. With his nod, the cast began to sing:
I remember back in ’84 ,
I went to open up my door
And there stood Walter
Mondale in my yard.
He’d been there since the break of dawn,
That’s when he’d mowed and raked my lawn
And walked and fed my lazy St. Bernard.
“Think of all the times you’ve had a candidate call your house late at night, wanting to talk about taxes or education!” Humrichouser urged, yelling over their voices.
Such is the nature of artistic direction at the first rehearsal of “Caucus! The Musical,” an anthem to Iowa’s role in the frenzied race for the White House. Written by native Robert John Ford, the play both celebrates and lampoons a hallowed electoral tradition here in the heartland.
“What the candidates do is all song and dance,” said Ford, settling in to watch the cast practice. “It’s just done on a different kind of stage.”
Anything for a vote . . .
Bill Bradley washed my
Anything for a vote . . .
Kucinich cured my hiccups.
Iowans know well that a
candidate will sell
His soul to earn one measly caucus vote.
Indeed, life is a series of political photo ops for residents here every four years -- and has been since 1972, when then-Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota had a strong showing in Iowa, which helped him land the Democratic nomination. Four years later, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter won Iowa and later the White House.
In Des Moines, a town with no full-time professional theater companies, theatergoers have about five plays to choose from at any given time during the current high season, said Michael Morain, an arts reporter for the Des Moines Register. A current local favorite? “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.”
In contrast, there are 38 political events being staged in Des Moines and surrounding areas in October -- so far.
Which is why locals say “Caucus!” is a story that, even though fictional, is all too familiar:
A fictional Iowa farmer, Eldon Wise, is discovered in a small-town cafe by a New York Times reporter who decides he will make the perfect voter for a series of stories about the caucuses. Four candidates, fighting for votes on the campaign trail, realize that the news coverage has made this farm family famous. They scramble to woo the Wises and scheme to destroy one another.
The issues touched on in the play have been drawn from recent headlines, such as the fight in Iowa to legalize same-sex marriage and the national debate over whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. The characters, not modeled after any one particular candidate, are thinly veiled composites of well-known contenders.
There’s Sen. Harrison Tate, whose stance on issues whipsaws with every reporter question -- an odd marriage between two Massachusetts politicos, Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat John F. Kerry. Sen. Nora Halliday, a liberal African American woman, draws from both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Rev. Stanley Jensen, an ultraconservative Christian? Think Pat Robertson blended with a bit of Sam Brownback.
Ford, a slender 45-year-old with an acerbic sense of humor, said he wrote the script on a whim. A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, who dreamed of seeing his plays on Broadway, he moved to San Diego in the late 1980s to work at the Old Globe Theatre, where he handled marketing, fundraising, casting and more.
But after 15 years, Ford dusted off his collection of scripts and returned home. His debut production would be a musical about Iowa girls’ basketball, called “Six-on-Six.”
“I figured that I might have better luck breaking into a smaller theater town like Des Moines,” Ford said.
He returned in the fall of 2003, to a state in the midst of a stumping frenzy. His phone rang with pleas from volunteers for Howard Dean and John Edwards, while television commercials touted the accomplishments of President Bush.
“Iowans expect to meet with each candidate personally before they cast their votes,” Ford said. “It reminded me of being 18, and having Rosalynn Carter come to my high school to shake hands in order to woo young voters.”
Friends and neighbors shared their own memories: candidates looking green from gobbling too many corn dogs at a county fair, attending their children’s Little League games, riding tractors and shoveling manure.
Iowa’s unique place in presidential politics is part homey tradition, part spectacle and, Ford said, perfect fodder for musical theater.
In December 2003, Ford spent two weeks scribbling down the “Caucus!” story line and crafting 11 songs. Then he started cold-calling actors and organized an impromptu reading in Des Moines.
But even in this tiny theater world, where struggling actors clamor for every chance to get on stage, it was tough to attract attention. Ford was a stranger, and the play focused on something the actors were weary of: politics.
“Whoever responded, we put them in the reading,” Ford said.
By early January, two days before the Iowa caucuses, the hastily assembled cast stood on an empty stage at the Des Moines Playhouse and entertained several hundred people with the tale of the Wise family. The crowd howled over the songs, including “It’s Time to Go to Iowa”:
When the rivers freeze and cease to flow
That’s when you know it’s time to go to. . . Iowa.
It’s the premier destination
for the savvy presidential
The show became an underground hit. As the years passed, the local theater community buzzed about Ford, his work and his penchant for political lampooning. “Six-on-Six” was produced in town, to good reviews. His plays were also seen at festivals in New York, Minnesota and Alaska.
As the 2008 presidential race grew closer, Ford updated “Caucus!” and decided to produce it himself. This time, it would have costumes, sets and an actual casting call.
As word of the show spread, actors began e-mailing Ford, asking to read for him. Friends slipped him names of people to consider, including Lester Small, the handyman at a local theater. (Ford cast him as Marlon Taylor, an unemployed factory worker and regular patron at the local cafe.)
“I’m not excited about politics,” said Small, 58. “The last time I voted was for Gore, and that didn’t do much.”
Late last month, rehearsals started.
Watching the singers learn their lines, Ford and his stage manager talked about ways to light the set of a typical small-town coffee shop.
Off to the side, the show’s choreographer hunched over her notebook, mapping out the tap and soft-shoe steps for a scene in which political candidates “dance” around the issues.
Under the spotlight, the actors continued to roll through verses of “Anything for a Vote”:
It was caucus week in ’88
When Mike Dukakis stopped quite late
And asked, “What can I do to win your trust?”
I said, “For starters, you can clean
Behind that soda pop machine,
Get rid of all that grime and all that dust.”
“Bigger,” Humrichouser said. “Broader!”
As he was scrubbing down the floors,
And Windexing the cafe doors,
I kicked back and enjoyed a root beer float.
Why tell him I’m Republican
Until he got the dishes done?
Anything for a vote.
The script is still being polished here and in New England, where Ford tailored his play for the New Hampshire Theatre Project in Portsmouth.
“I knew we had synergy when one of the songs rhymes ‘groin’ with Des Moines and we were able to match ‘crotch’ with Dixville Notch,” said producer Blair Hundertmark, who is directing “The Primary Primary!”
Now, as Hundertmark holds casting calls for his Jan. 4 premiere, Ford is busy praying that Iowa’s schedule stays put.
“Caucus!” debuts Dec. 27 at the State Historical Museum Theatre in Des Moines, and runs through Jan. 13.
That’s the eve of the Iowa caucus. At least it is for now.
“It’s a gamble,” Ford said. “But then again, what else would you expect for a play about politics?”
Huffstutter was recently on assignment in Iowa.