Interview With Sean Cunningham, Part 2

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Here’s the second installment of my recent conversation with the HOOVER COMES ALIVE! Playwright (and part-time tweeter for La Jolla Playhouse).

Gabriel Greene: A lot of the fun in HOOVER COMES ALIVE! arises from the mash-up between presidential politics and rock and roll — particularly the idea that Hoover chooses to emulate Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special for his return to the public eye. What was so important about Elvis’s ’68 Comeback?

Hoover

HOOVER COMES ALIVE! Playwright Sean Cunningham.

Sean Cunningham: There’s a reason we’re still obsessed with Elvis today, and not so obsessed with, say, Pat Boone. By 1968, Elvis was already a legend, but the legend was severely in decline. Not just because of the music he was putting out — he was also making incredibly bad movies. His early movies, like Jailhouse Rock, weren’t necessarily great, but they were fun. These later movies were Elvis stumbling around looking bored. It felt like the producers were trying to get the lamest possible supporting cast at all times — a lot of actors who looked and acted like your dentist.

When the opportunity to do this television special arose, Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager and the mastermind behind his career, initially wanted Elvis just to do Christmas songs. The guy producing it said that was a terrible idea; Elvis should be getting back to his roots. Things were going so poorly for Elvis, it was the one time that Col. Parker said, “Yeah, whatever, do what you want. Just get him on TV.”

The concert itself was electrifying. First, it was a pre-cursor for the “Unplugged” format that would catch on much later. It’s Elvis with his old band, with an audience all around him, some of them sitting on pillows —

GG: A totally casual, organic experience…

SC: Right. Alex Timbers always brings up the moment when one of Elvis’s guitarists reaches over and picks some lint off of Elvis in the middle of the show, which is about as casual and unscripted as you can get. There is something amazing about Elvis opening up and reaching out. He projected this feeling of, “We’re all just hanging out together here,” and as a result, whatever was extraordinary about him emerged. You could again see what drew us to him in the first place.

GG: And so you can imagine what’s going on in Herbert Hoover’s 135-year-old brain: “I think I’ll stage a comeback like that young go-getter.”

SC: Exactly. This is a very give-and-take show, with a real connection to the audience. We’re interested in someone genuinely wanting to reach out. Things are so heavily scripted for politicians; we were interested in someone who, out of necessity, has to break out of that form because it just hasn’t worked for him at all. Hoover wants to show people why they should have liked him to begin with — he was hiding it before, but now he’s letting it out for all to see.

History’s largely forgotten what an amazing man he was. Hoover was an orphan from Iowa who made millions in mining and became president. Right up until the sky fell, he was probably one of the most respected men in America. He had an incredible drive to get where he did, and we want to be true to that; we don’t want to have this doddering old white man stumbling around. Elvis, if nothing else, was one of the most passionate performers ever to live. So we’ve created an oddly dynamic Hoover, ready to put all that passion out there on stage. He knows this show is his last shot at redemption. It’s not a matter of life and death — it’s infinitely more important than that — and there are few things more entertaining than a truly desperate man.