by John Stoltenberg
You know those big live TV versions of blockbuster musicals that get broadcast decades after the show was a hit on the stage? Like, not until generations have come and gone? Well in the case of Dave, the new musical just opened at Arena Stage, I’m afraid that lag time just won’t do. Because Dave needs to be beamed into America’s living rooms right now.
I’m serious, this is a matter of national urgency. Did you see the alarming news that broke on the very day Dave opened? (I know, you’re wondering, Which alarming news?) Shrinks across the country are reporting increasing cases of Trump Anxiety Disorder. I’m not making this up. The telltale symptom of the syndrome is feeling as though the world is going to end. And no wonder: the news cycle is a 24/7 trigger. People’s psyches are fried. The mental health of the citizenry is at stake. We need Dave to get us through.
The musical Dave is based on the 1993 movie Dave, about an ordinary citizen named Dave Kovic who resembles President Bill Mitchell so much he’s recruited by the president’s handlers to be the president’s stand-in. Then President Mitchell has a stroke while fucking his mistress and the dastardly chief of staff and his West Wing-man press secretary decide to pass off Dave as the president without telling the First Lady, thinking she’ll never know because they hardly speak and assuming Dave the dufus will do their bidding. But Dave turns out to be a far better president than the one who’s in a coma. He lifts the country’s spirits, he promotes progressive legislation, he shows he really cares, and America loves him. He even wins the cold heart of the First Lady, who is icy toward Dave initially only because she thinks he’s the faithless dick she’s married to.
Dave the movie was in production during the presidency of George W. Bush and distributed during the presidency of Bill Clinton—in between lies about WMDs and lies about sexual screw-ups, in other words. Dave was a funny and moving contemporary fairy tale that in its time touched a nerve: a latent longing for our nation’s patriotic ideals to be real. For truth, justice, and the American way, for gosh sakes. And the movie did very well.
But no one could have predicted then the era of lies, inequity, and treason we live in now.
So the idea to bring back Dave as a musical was beyond brilliant. (Shout out to Warner Bros., which produced the motion picture from Gary Ross’s screenplay and got the ball rolling on its way to Arena.) And the creative team assembled is a galaxy of genius: Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin (book and lyrics), Tom Kitt (music), Tina Landau (direction), Sam Pinkleton (choreography), Rob Berman (music direction).
Here’s why the musical they’ve made far surpasses the original movie: It’s live and it’s us. We the audience are in it together.
There comes a point in Act One when the storyline calls for the performers on stage to sing the national anthem. Nowhere in the script does it say: Come on, folks, join us. The plot would move ahead just fine if everyone in the house just kept seated, watched, and listened. But the night I saw the show, as soon as the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” began, the audience started to rise and sing along, one by one, until it was nearly everyone. I looked around incredulous and saw hands held over hearts. It was a spontaneous breakout of audience participation so full of pure, undefiled patriotism that it not only stopped the show; it lofted the musical into a whole new realm of communal meaning.
In addition to being set in the present—with cell phones and such—the musical Dave is different from the movie in several substantive ways that deepen its bond with audiences profoundly. For instance, in the movie First Lady Ellen Mitchell is an advocate for disenfranchised children, and Dave’s unexpected visit with her to a school and shared commitment to her cause is when their relationship thaws. In the musical Ellen is an advocate for eldercare, and Dave’s unexpected site visit with her to a nursing home and his active allyship on the issue serve a similar plot point—but the moment is immensely more resonant to the generation of theatergoers who themselves have been or are caregivers.
Another example: In the movie, Dave runs a temporary employment agency; in the musical, he is a high school history teacher with a huge admiration for Lincoln. In the very first scene, we see him teaching his class the Gettysburg Address, an excerpt of which is displayed on an overhead projector. Dave has circled the word we wherever it appears. He wants to imbue his students with their agency and responsibility as Americans. That theme comes round again at the very end of the show, in a song the whole company sings called “It’s On Us.” And by George, we get it.
We want to believe in a country that many of us fear doesn’t exist anymore. What Dave does is restore our faith in that country by restoring our faith in ourselves. That’s a neat trick, but it’s something live theater is ideally suited for. And Dave moves us forward toward that faith so beautifully and resolutely that it becomes far more than the out-of-town tryout of a terrific show destined for Broadway hitdom. Dave is a spirit-lifter, a hope-renewer, and a brain-reboot—a show that we as a nation need now more than we know.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.