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Bryan Cranston as LBJ in Robert Schenkkan’s "All the Way" on Broadway

Jonathan Gourlay - February 20, 2014

Type: Artist News, Artist Profiles

Author Robert Schenkkan on the porch of Schelling Studio in October of 2012.

Author Robert Schenkkan on the porch of Schelling Studio in October of 2012.

MacDowell Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winner brings newest play to Neil Simon Theatre after successful American Repertory run.

Bryan Cranston, who played Walter White on the long-running “Breaking Bad” television series on AMC, made his Broadway debut earlier this month as Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way, the new play by MacDowell Fellow Robert Schenkkan. The play centers on LBJ’s first year in office after taking over in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

All the Way, which opened February 10th at the Neil Simon Theatre and runs through June, was born of a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s program American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle for the development of new works. Playwrights chosen for the commission were asked to choose a time in American history that they considered a moment of change in the country and treat it the way Shakespeare wrote about The House of Tudor in his histories.

“I knew right away what I wanted to do,” says Schenkkan, whose earlier series of one-act plays, The Kentucky Cycle, won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. “I wanted to write about LBJ.”

Schenkkan worked on a substantial revision of a draft during his MacDowell residency in the fall of 2012 just months after All the Way had its world premiere in Oregon. At the same time, he says, he also worked in Schelling Studio on the first draft of The Great Society, the current play’s sequel, which will have its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July.

All the Way spans Johnson’s first year in office as the “accidental President,” covering the time period from late November 1963 through Johnson’s landslide election as President in November 1964.

“It’s an amazing time,” Schenkkan says. “A hinge point in American history when everything changes.” In that pivotal year, Johnson guided a landmark civil rights bill through Congress and the country became more deeply involved in Vietnam.

The play has been called “a sensational night of theater” by National Public Radio and examines how means versus ends played out in the Oval Office and behind the scenes in the halls of power. At a time when Johnson was working to rebuild the country into The Great Society, he presented a humble and friendly face to the public while he relentlessly exercised tough political gamesmanship.

“As an individual, LBJ is a fascinating character,” adds the playwright. “I think there’s really something Shakespearean about him – his ambition, his appetite, his complexity, his weaknesses. He was really a charismatic and compelling individual. He was a tragic figure.”

And with Lyndon Johnson as a tragic figure, he’s surrounded by other equally charismatic figures. The cast of characters includes such dynamic personalities as J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King, Jr., Governor George Wallace, Roy Wilkins, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and Secretary of Defense Robert J. McNamara, among others.

Schenkkan says he chose such a political subject because the reach of politics “is enormous, and its ability to create happiness or misery is unqualified.”

Since its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare festival during the summer of 2012, Schenkkan says he’s had plenty of opportunity to fine-tune the play. He said the main issues had to do with double casting some actors in the company in more than one role, making some of the transformations a little confusing.

These issues were resolved during a recent run at The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. “I did a lot of work on the script and I feel very good about it now,” he says. “We added five new actors, including Bryan Cranston. He’s truly a transformative actor and he’s just brilliant, and captures Lyndon’s spirit.”

All the Way will be running through the end of June.