No tickets necessary—admission is free! Just turn on your TV or fire up that high-speed modem and get your front-row seats to the most entertaining political show in years!
The setting is the Gulf of Mexico. The year: 2010. The curtain opens on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig as they prepare to shut down the well. The opening number: a heated argument between the rig operator’s top manager and the representative of BP. The BP man wants the job done quickly, safety measures be damned. The scene ends with the BP man winning the argument, the procedure being carried out hastily, and the well exploding. 11 people die. Oil starts gushing into the Gulf. The drama begins.
Act I builds up very gradually. Our hero is the American president, Barack Obama, who is slow to recognize the severity of the problem. He is initially tricked by the villain in this tale, BP CEO Tony Hayward, who convinces him that BP can handle the spill and Barack has nothing to worry about. Barack makes his first crucial error by trusting Tony.
But as the plot unfolds, the depth of Tony’s ineptness gradually reveals itself to the audience, culminating with his spell-binding solo, “I Want My Life Back.” We recognize Tony as a classic villain, a greedy CEO of a major multi-national corporation who is transparently more concerned with profit than human lives or the environment. He reminds us of the kind of British General in the old war pictures who callously orders wave after wave of men to a frontal assault on the enemy, concerned only for his own reputation as a winner and not at all for the men who have to die for his victories.
In Act II, we learn more about our hero Barack, who reluctantly turns against his friend Tony under the weight of public pressure. Indeed by Act II the audience hates Tony so much that we yearn for Barack to express some of our anger, but unfortunately it’s not consistent with his character. The weakness of the hero in this play is perhaps its biggest flaw, with Barack’s first solo, “I Want to Know Whose Ass to Kick” leaving the audience deeply unsatisfied.
Perhaps the weakest scene in the entire musical is Barack’s solo from the Oval Office at the beginning of Act III. The events leading up to the scene lead us to believe that this is when he’s going to get tough, when our hero is finally going to stand up and fight. But instead of “Onward to Battle!” we hear a song called, “The Blessing of the Fleet” in which Barack prays for the fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the catastrophe. No major initiatives announced. No battle cries made. Nothing to address the underlying flaws in the system that allowed such a tragedy to occur in the first place. Just a prayer that “a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day”—a dismally trite lyric at best.
In this reviewer’s humble opinion, the role of the president would have been much stronger had another actor been chosen for the part. Rachel Maddow made her own audition tape in which she completely changed the nature of the Oval Office scene, singing a different song altogether in which the president actually does speak forcefully, take responsibility for previous errors, and not only announces clear initiatives for how to prevent such catastrophes from ever occurring again but also explains how the battle will be fought and won.
But while Barack and Tony: The Musical may fall short of what Rachel and Tony: The Musical might have been, it’s still a fantastically fun show. The main characters are supported by a knock-out ensemble cast who play the TV pundits, the senators and congressmen, and the fisherman (who are rarely seen but continually referred to throughout the action). Some of the strongest scenes include journalists being told by clean-up workers that they are banned from conducting interviews (even though they’re not), and the clean-up workers themselves being warned by BP not to use safety equipment because it looks bad on the evening news. “Move Along, Nothing to See Here” is one of the most rousing numbers of the whole show.
Other notable songs include BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg’s solo, “We Care About the Small People” which serves as some much needed-comic relief, and representative Joe Barton’s “We’re Sorry, BP”. And who could forget Brit Hume’s wildly funny, “Where’s the Oil?” or Sarah Palin’s “Now Do You Get It?”
Of course, the climax comes after Barack finally confronts Tony and gets him to set up a $20 billion escrow fund to compensate victims of the spill, and Tony then comes before Congress for all the representatives to grill and humiliate him in front of the cameras, much to the audience’s delight. “Any one of us could do his job” is one of the show’s most memorable lyrics. Finally, the action comes to an end with Tony removed from clean-up operations. The audience cheers as he exits the stage in disgrace, to finally get his life back.
The drama is in fact so compelling that it’s easy to forget it’s actually based on a true story. The writers, a team including politicians and media personalities from all major networks, have worked hard to make an entertaining narrative but can’t seem to get the ending right because the real story isn’t over. The politicians in particular would like to see the curtain closed and everyone go home, but the oil keeps gushing.
Furthermore, there’s far too much to this story to fit it all into a single narrative and keep the audience interested. Issues such as the relationship between government and private industry and mankind’s impact on the environment are begging for attention but the writers keep the focus on the characters and their day-to-day interactions. It’s up to the audience to consider the larger significance of these events and what the characters—Barack in particular—should have done differently.
Should the government take a stronger stance against big businesses that ruin people’s lives by cutting corners to increase their profits? Should humans do more to alter the way we power our civilization, taking a cleaner and safer approach than drilling for oil? You won’t find the answers by watching Barack and Tony: The Musical, but you will be entertained.