"Great Big Stuff" number from Musical Theatre West's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Caught in the Moment Photography.
I was watching Musical Theatre West's revival of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" last Sunday in Long Beach, when suddenly Donald Trump invaded my thoughts, in a preview of the GOP convention that would open the following day.
Benjamin Schrader, who plays the scruffy swindler Freddy in this "Scoundrels," was expressing his lust for "Great Big Stuff" (that's the title of the show's most famous song). Among the lyrics were these:
I'm tired of bein' a chump!
I want to be like Trump.
Two hundred pounds of caviar in one gigantic lump.
At intermission, I Googled the lyrics of the original show, which first opened in San Diego in 2004, to make sure that the Trump reference hadn't been added solely for this current revival. Although online versions of the words differed somewhat, the Trump lines weren't hard to find, in more than one version. Later I watched YouTube videos in which the actor who played the original Freddy, Norbert Leo Butz, sang those words - even on the 2005 Tony Awards telecast.
So composer and lyricist David Yazbek must have noticed that Trump's reputation was well-enough known, by 2004-05, that the Donald could serve as a role model for a greedy and sleazy con man - confident that a Broadway audience would not only understand but would be entertained by the notion.
Now, of course, the torrent of Trump tidbits has been relentless for more than a year, with hardly a pause. Of course it has dominated TV coverage -- Trump is a remarkable reality-TV performer and a fountain of material for other entertainers.
Still, let's consider two crucial differences between Trump in 2016 and the con men who are depicted in "Scoundrels."
First, the "Scoundrels" in Yazbek's lyrics and Jeffrey Lane's script disguise their real identities, in order to better bilk the unsuspecting. By contrast, Trump worships his own name and makes sure it is as public as possible. OK, years ago he tried to hide his identity in his campaign against the Indian casinos that he felt threatened his gambling operations. But more often, his celebrity name was an essential inspiration for his dubious enterprises, such as Trump University or the fizzled Baja real estate plans that were recently the subject of an LA Times article. The Trump moniker is still displayed at the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, even though he lost the property in one of his four bankruptcy settlements.
Of course, a more important difference between the "Scoundrels" in the show and Trump is that the fictional characters have zero interest in the White House or any elections. They're not even in the United States; they look for their American rubes among the tourists on the Riviera. But Trump thinks of every American as a potential mark.
In their recent electoral spats, Marco Rubio tried to alert Americans to the idea of Trump as a "con artist". But apparently many Americans enjoy the spectacle of con artistry, if it's amusing enough or if the victims are far away and gullible, as they are in the fictional scenario in "Scoundrels." In fact, the use of "artist" after "con" often suggests that the user isn't personally losing any life savings in the grifter's creations and has the luxury of laughing alongside the "artist" as he demonstrates the tricks of his trade. If a real "con artist" invades the Oval Office, however, the laughing might stop.
At Griffith Park right now, Independent Shakespeare Company is demonstrating Shakespeare's vision of what happened when a con artist assumed Britain's top job, centuries ago - yes, we're talking "Richard III."
No one in Melissa Chalsma's staging mentions Donald Trump's name, as David Melville's Richard connives, lies and murders his way to the top. Melville has Richard's usual limp and isn't wearing a Trumpian wig. But there are a few notable parallels. Watch as Richard makes sure he's surrounded by clergy as he prepares to ascend to the throne, just as Trump makes sure we know how much he's supposedly loved by "the evangelicals."
Right after that moment, just before the intermission begins, the parallel becomes clearer. Richard has finally claimed his crown. As he exits, the Lord Mayor congratulates him and expresses confidence (in a newly coined line) that Richard will "make England great again." Then, the Lord Mayor and Buckingham, who has served more or less as Richard's campaign manager or even his running mate, engage in a brief conversation that includes assurances that Richard will re-build Hadrian's wall between England and Scotland - and Scotland will pay for it.
The audience laughs. Indeed, Melville's devilish Richard elicits a lot of laughs. It helps that Chalsma's "Richard III," more than most, takes other textual liberties, incorporating components of Colley Cibber's popular 1699 rewrite, slashing the number of characters from 41 to 27, eliminating some of the less exciting scenes but allowing ample time for the women in the story and in the cast to strongly rebut Richard.
Beyond the text, the production also employs a rock band to inject musical energy in between and occasionally during scenes. "Richard III" is far from being one of my favorite Shakespearean scripts, but this one might be the liveliest "Richard III" I've ever seen.
Likewise, in Long Beach, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," is at least a light-hearted way to pass a summer evening, as directed and choreographed by Billy Sprague Jr., even if it will never be listed as one of the great musicals. Davis Gaines, best known in LA as our longest-running "Phantom of the Opera," insouciantly mocks his own hyper-polished voice and image, in stark contrast to Schrader's affable lower-class lout. They're assisted by musical director John Glaudini and musical-theater luminaries Rebecca Ann Johnson, Kyle Nudo and Cynthia Ferrer, on an elegant Kevin Clowes set, lit by Jean Yves Tessier.
Both of these shows play only through this coming weekend. After they close, November awaits.
DON AND THE DONALD'S GREAT BIG CHAT
Speaking of Trump, I wonder if I'm the only LA theater reporter who ever spoke with him. While working for the LA Times in 2005, I was assigned to talk on the phone with the star of "The Apprentice" about nascent plans for a musical based on the reality TV series.
In our brief time together, Trump suggested that Cary Grant should be reincarnated to play Trump's role, and he assured me that "everybody wants" the musical. This news - let's borrow one of Trump's favorite adjectives and call it "unbelievable" news - resulted in a 75-word "Quick Takes" snippet in the Calendar section.
Of course, that musical has yet to see the light of day. If Trump fails to reach the White House, he could try again on the Great White Way. After 2016, any such musical should be more about his presidential race and less about "The Apprentice." Someone should start right now by writing a duet for Donald and Melania, set just after they heard the reports of the plagiarism in her opening-night convention speech on Monday.
Investing in this new Trump musical might even be a better bet than a degree from Trump U.