Trump the Musical: “If you’re going to do a comedy about Trump, you have to go hard or go home”
Following on from Boris the Musical! Their post-Brexit sing-song detailing the shenanigans and consequent fall from grace of the country’s biggest politiclown, the Blowfish Theatre Company are back with a new show. And this time they’ve got bigger, even more egotistical fish to fry – they’re taking on The Donald himself.
With Trump the Musical! heading to Theatre Deli next month, Exposed sat down with Laurence Peacock and David Burchhardt to discuss the origins of the company, how best to parody Trump and the fellow demagogues who’ll be joining the US President onstage.
Tell us a bit about how Blowfish Theatre came about?
L: OK, so I’m the co-artistic director and writer. I think we’ll start calling David here an artist, as I’ve seen that’s how other companies refer to their performers.
D: Yeah, that works.
L: We are a very collaborative enterprise. But anyway, Blowfish started in 2016 following the EU referendum – a very strange time of course. I mean, we’ve acclimatised to the strangeness now, but back then things had reached such a weird point. There was this strange period afterwards where Boris was a figure of ridicule and a “Shame on you, Boris!” sort of situation developed for a few days. I remember thinking to myself during that time, ‘There’s a tragic arc here: the clown that has reached his apogee and fallen’. That was when we decided to make a musical about Boris Johnson. It started out as a bit of a laugh, but in the end 500 people came to two shows in Sheffield and we put on another show in Doncaster. People liked it, we really liked it, so we decided to continue.
D: It ended up running until the end of August 2017, but we did have to update the script slightly as it was going between venues. The snap election came with a show the week after, so Laurence had to write an alternate ending with not much time to spare. Then the results came in and surprised everyone again, so more changes were needed.
I suppose with the pace at which politics moves these days, lurching from one crisis to another on a weekly basis, this must be a common issue for you?
L: It’s great, isn’t it? At the moment we’ve got two systems on the go. We’re really hoping to bring Boris back towards the end of this year, but of course it’ll need reworking a bit. In that system we take things people already know have happened and apply a satirical take to it. The idea with Trump, however, is to set it in 2020 during this dystopian-style future where Donald Trump is president. Could you imagine that?
It’s difficult trying to tell a story about Trump because you don’t really know what’s going on his mind, apart from narcissism.
Some comedians and writers says it’s difficult to be funny about Trump as he’s already so ridiculous and kind of breaks down the traditional conventions of satire. Was there an element of having to ramp up the ridiculousness a bit considering who you were dealing with?
L: Yes, the plot’s a bit silly on the surface of it; I’d say it’s almost written in a South Park sort of vein. But there’s also a more serious, satirical message beneath the silliness.
D: We definitely push the boundaries of the comedy right up to the line – to almost cringe-worthy levels at times. I think if you’re going to do a comedy about Trump, you have to go hard or go home.
L: We definitely raised our game in terms of tone… and cruelty, really. We had a lot of discussions about what we could or couldn’t actually say. Although, interestingly, all the bits we were worried about ended up getting the biggest laughs.
D: You can’t win over every audience member or reviewer, but at least it’s making people think rather than just being passive entertainment.
Boris is divisive but most people can’t help but find him a little bit amusing. Trump, on the other hand, a lot of people just find abhorrent. Was that ever a worry?
D: Yes, even if you don’t like Boris people can still see the humorous side to his character. Trump is literally love him or hate him.
L: We worried about that a little bit, but Trump is compelling in a different way. And when it comes to selling a show around a character the main thing is that they are compelling, albeit if it’s for separate reasons.
It must be difficult trying to think of something that he could say that he wouldn’t actually say.
L: I remember sitting down to write the first scene, which starts in 2010 with Donald’s ‘Make America Great Again… Again’ campaign trail, and trying to think what he couldn’t say versus what he might say in real life and get away with it. So, naturally, he eventually starts talking about Nazis. What’s the line, David?
D: *Taking off Trump with the trademark hand and lip movements* “Such a beautiful crowd. The biggest musical theatre crowd the world has ever seen. And not one Nazi. I hate Nazis. They’re the worst people. Journalists are sometimes worse people than the Nazis. A lot of journalists will say there are like 80 or 90 people here, they’ll put it in the failing New York Times, and they’ll say that everybody here was a Nazi.”
Can you go too far with satire as long as there’s a message?
D: A lot of it is inspired by bouffon, a comedic style which originated in France from a teacher called Phillippe Gaullier. The whole idea is ridiculous parody and grotesqueness. Especially with some of the Kim Jong-Un lines, we’d ask if it was going a bit far, but that’s kind of the point.
L: Also, the characters on stage tend to have a straight man with them who serve as something of a moral compass. Trump has Rod, his 823rd Press Secretary; Farage has a Chief Minister and Kim Jong-Un has a minion. So even when nasty things are happening and being said, the reactions from those characters looking uncomfortable and awkward changes the dynamic a bit.
What’s the secret to a good Trump impression, David? I see the small hands are very expressive.
D: Yeah, there’s also the pointing of the forefinger, the hands coming in and out like he’s playing the accordion, the pursed lips and squinting eyes. The voice is quite nasally but very deep. Though I’d say it’s much more difficult to do Donald than Boris.
There’s a bit more buffoonery going on with Boris.
D: Boris is just very exuberant, flamboyant and you can basically just go off on one. But with Donald it’s difficult to create a psyche for someone whose psyche is already… fucked. The challenge is to do something a bit distinctive and kind of put your own spin on the character a bit.
L: Basically, nobody in the show ever looks at another character because they’re all so self-absorbed.
Ah, because Trump won’t be the only world leader playing a part in the musical. Tell us more.
L: It’s difficult trying to tell a story about Trump because you don’t really know what’s going on his mind, apart from narcissism. So we came up with the idea of populating the show with a whole host of narcissistic, populist demagogues. We’ve got King Nigel I, who’s Nigel Farage after becoming King of England. Kim Jong-un obviously likes a bit of attention too, so he’s in there. Putin’s a different sort of narcissist, one who dresses up narcissism with a sort of wider glory and love for Russia. They all share something in being leaders who’ve co-opted these ideas in the greatness of the motherland and sell them for their own benefit.
So how are things shaping up for these guys in 2020?
L: Yeah, so Trump is trying to make Donald and America great again… again.
D: Kim Jong-Un just won’t stop dicking around with missiles. King Nigel Farage I has overthrown the monarchy, privatised them, and is now King of the Disunited Kingdom of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. He accidentally sold Wales in a poker game.
L: Nigel’s now planning on selling Scotland to Trump for him to turn into a golf course.
D: And Putin is being suspiciously quiet, especially with Trump, as he thinks Donald has ran off as with another lover, King Nigel.
L: As you can tell, it’s serious stuff. But we like to think there’s a bit of comedy in there for everybody; we’ve not had many walkouts anyway!
Trump – The Musical runs at Sheffield’s Theatre Deli May 9-12. Head here for more info and tickets.