Julie White Gets Loud in the Broadway Farce ‘POTUS’

Rachel Dratch (l) and Julie White in ‘POTUS’ Paul Kolnik

Julie White’s performance in POTUS starts at High C – with the C word – and continues italicized for the next 110 minutes. An attentive journalist might think twice before interrupting her vocal rest during her downtime, but White, in her folksy, homey way, refuses to bother or coddle.

She will explain that she just does what comes naturally: ‘I’ve always had the voice of the mother who could stand outside the house and scream’SUPPER† We are a rowdy group in Texas.

“When I took over from Sigourney Weaver in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a friend of my grandmother’s came to watch the show. She was already in her 90s and she used one of those hearing aids for the first time. I asked her how it worked. She said, “Pretty good.” “Well, can you hear me?” I asked. She said, ‘Oh, honey, you’re a blessing to deaf people.’”

Strong lung strength is a must if you’re the White House Chief of Staff, the right-hand man to a big male mess in the Oval Office. So does the ability to put the president’s mark on important papers and mop up his many mistakes. Three or four times during the game, characters remark that White’s Harriet is more presidential than the real McCoy. †POTUS comes with a subtitle: Behind every great fool, seven women try to keep him alive

White’s opening war takes place when press secretary Suzy Nakamura informs her of a crude remark the POTUS just made to a room full of diplomats about the First Lady (Vanessa Williams). The trick then becomes how to keep the insulting word away from a curious news hen (Lilli Cooper). Other dark clouds form: the president’s pregnant girlfriend (Julianne Hough) and his president-forgiven drug-dealing sister (Lea DeLaria).

Playwright Selina Fillinger was 24 years old and barely from Northwestern when she started writing POTUS four years ago. She didn’t know—or maybe she just didn’t care—that you don’t start a play with the C word. Whether that farce is a lost art on Broadway (aside from the occasional and rare sightings of Sounds off† She just went ahead and wrote a dandy comedy.

“Isn’t it interesting that it took a very, very young person to bring back the farce?” White points out. “We tend to slavishly follow the rules of playwriting. The brilliant thing about Selina is that she broke the rules by letting the engine of the farce be a woman. Suzy Nakamura and I are going to play the roles of Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick. It’s really nice to do these kinds of parts for a change.”

White did a reading of POTUS way back in the summer of 2019. “The idea was that we would start rehearsals in the summer of 2020 and run during the 2020 presidential election,” she says. “The pandemic has canceled all that. I remember thinking, ‘That poor girl! To get this close to her Broadway debut with this play and make this damn thing happen!’”

While White was in Los Angeles last winter finishing a show for CBS, her agent called. “Well, guess what’s back!” she said. “To be POTUSand it starts to rehearse, like, NOW

White soon found himself on the express lane. “It came back together quickly. We wouldn’t even be there this season. We were supposed to open after the Tony deadline, but once we got to rehearsal, Susan Stroman, our fearless leader, said, “No. You will be ready. Let’s get under the wire and be part of this one season. I think we are all signed up until mid-August. I hope people will find us because they are going to have a great time!

“I couldn’t have wished for a better gang,” beams White, who, as the play’s main problem solver, leads virtually all of them on the comedic attack. She was even submitted for the Tony Award for Best Actress, but the Tony committee narrowed her down to Featured Actress (as did Uzo Aduba and Phylicia Rashad who came across in what appeared to star roles in Clyde’s and Skeleton Crew

This new configuration puts our star in competition with POTUS’ mousy little secretary (Saturday Night Live‘s Rachel Dratch, a great source of pleasure in her Broadway arc). “She’s the gatekeeper,” White describes that role. “You’d have to go through her to get to the president. You get the feeling that she is a relatively new acquisition. She has a lot of skills, but not a lot of confidence.”

At one point, Dratch accidentally takes some of DeLaria’s hallucinogenic drugs and spends the rest of the piece irreparable, wearing a pink inner tube or draped in the American flag, muttering, “Are my feet touching the ground?” or “I feel like the air is sticking in my face.”

“Once Rachel takes those drugs, it’s like being on stage with a small animal,” confesses White. “Very friendly, she’ll pop up on stage sometimes so we can keep playing the piece because once she’s playing… something, that’s all people can look at. What ‘Straw’ does so beautifully is direct your focus. With so many scenes where all seven of us are on stage at the same time, how you throw the ball is important. A lot of people come back to see what they have missed laughing.”

Known as a choreographer and director, Stroman was an inspired choice to direct POTUS. huhThe musical timing is ideal for farces, but old habits persist: the cast breaks into musical numbers in the home stretch. For White, it’s kind of a musical comeback.

“My first role was Miss Adelaide, and then I did a production of the baker’s wife, the Stephen Schwartz-Joe Stein musical, in my hometown of Austin. I was about 18, and they came and saw it and were very encouraging. I auditioned the donors for them. Every time I see Stephen Schwartz, I say, ‘Hey man, thanks for the career.’ I thought I could really sing. My first show in New York was that of Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty Lucky Stiff, and – do you remember that vile critic, John Simon? He said—I’ll never forget—”She’s a nice Goldie Hawn clone, if you like that sort of thing, but she can’t sing.” It did. That scared me. I took it to heart and decided that I won’t do that anymore. Besides, Broadway singers are so good.”

The unmusical Julie White has done well for herself by simply sticking to comedy. She won a Tony for Douglas Carter Beane’s in 2006 The little dog laughed, playing a high-pressure Hollywood cop who tries to talk her A-list male movie star back into the closet. There are three more Tony nominations (for airline highwayGary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus and now, POTUS

“It takes a lot of energy to be an actress on stage, but I know Broadway is like that,” she says. “It is normal takes† Those two hours of the play have been crammed in half like 14 hours of regular playing time.”

No doubt about it: this lady has earned her vocal rest.

Julie White Gets Loud — And Tony Nominated — In The Broadway Farce 'POTUS'

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