I realize it may be heretical to admit that, in fact, I did not watch Breaking Bad. Never. Not even one episode. To make the situation even more dire, I didn't watch Malcolm in the Middle either. Bottom line? The chance to see Bryan Cranston on stage was not the reason I decided to make the trip to one of my very favorite theaters, American Repertory Theater in Boston, for the new play All the Way, by Robert Schenkkan.
This show is a rare open window through which we see Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, as he prepares for the 1964 presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater. Schenkkan was commissioned to create the work by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, having a somewhat personal connection to LBJ from growing up in Austin, TX, and with strong memories of the Civil Rights era and Johnson's Great Society, was intrigued to explore this complex man. The campaign of 1964 was critical to LBJ, because he hoped a victory would make him more than the "accidental" president who had been chosen by tragedy rather than the popular vote.
Bryan Cranston, as LBJ, had the Herculean task of making the man, who was often crass and unlikable, but also frequently remarkably insightful and effective, a character you would want to watch for over three hours. Spoiler alert: he succeeds in spades.
LBJ is not the only character in this play, and he is not even the most famous. His sparring partners include Martin Luther King, as they try to maneuver meaningful Civil Rights reforms into place in an uneasy alliance, and J. Edgar Hoover, whose animosity for King, and rising dislike and distrust of LBJ act like a fuse to an already tense situation.
The cast in this show was a dream, and most of the actors played multiple characters. Michael McKean as Hoover and Robert Byrd, and Reed Birney as Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond were particular standouts. Birney's Humphrey and Christpher Liam Moore's Walter Jenkins (LBJ's chief aide) broke my heart several times. I would have loved to thank each of the actors in person, and a few walked by the crowd clearly waiting for Bryan Cranston, but were with friends or family, and after a 3 hour show, seemed understandably anxious to get gone :). And I fully expected that Bryan Cranston would not greet fans after the show. After all, he's in the majority of scenes in that 3 hour span; and this was the fourth show he'd done in two days (there were matinees both Wednesday and Thursday).
My learning from this stage door experience is that sometimes being a lemming, even if you're not sure why the lemmings are doing what they're doing, can pay off. Because I was hesitant about whether I wanted to wait or head straight to the T station, I milled about a bit near where the actors generally emerge at A.R.T. ( to the left of the front entrance near the service/concession/hearing assist device station). I saw a growing number of people seemingly queuing against the wall where the box office windows are located. At first I thought they were all just waiting for friends...or the coat check perhaps? But no one seemed to be going anywhere, and it crossed my mind that maybe they knew something about Bryan Cranston's post-performance habits that I did not. So I drifted into the line and struck up a friendly conversation with a delightful fellow theater junkie, as we agreed to take photos for each other if the opportunity arose.
Sure enough, a gentleman was soon organizing the line, and admonishing us to have our cameras ready to go, with someone on tap to take a photo for us if needed, as Bryan did not have a great deal of time, and wanted to get to everyone. He explained that Bryan would happily sign show programs and tickets only. This is always a safe assumption to make if you're debating whether to bring other memorabilia to the stage door. I have seen many an actor decline (generally very politely) to sign anything other than something from the show itself (Playbill, ticket, poster, souvenir program, etc.).
But rather than just saying "no" to signing any other items, it turns out that Bryan's policy was that he would sign non-show related items only if accompanied by a $100 donation to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, DC. He knew, we were told, that many of those items would end up for sale down the road, and wanted some of that profit to go to a worthwhile organization. Apparently, the policy was not without its takers, as it had already resulted in $400 for the Center!
When Byan appeared and started greeting the first folks in line, he seemed to have way more energy after his fourth epic performance in 48 hours, than I have on any regular day on which I've done nothing more than go to the grocery store. Very impressive. He was so engaged, laughing and joking as he posed for photos and chatted with fans. When I flubbed the first photo I took for my new friend, he teased me humorously, and patiently posed again (that one turned out well :)). Most of the conversations seemed to be about the show, which I think he appreciated, but he definitely didn't mind hearing that people were fans of his other work too.
I'm still not going to watch Breaking Bad most likely, but I am now an official Bryan Cranston fan, and with All The Way heading for Broadway, I'd urge you to take this opportunity to see a wonderful theatrical look at history.
Stage Door Tales
Every stage door has a story.