George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are among Americans' favorite presidents. Ellie MacPherson is no exception, but her reasons are less simple than robust social service plans or a steady hand during war.
"Abraham Lincoln had a sense of humor," says MacPherson, "He was very well known for it, but at the same time he was a sad emo boy. It is documented that he suffered from melancholy, and the way that he worked through all of his sadness was humor. He used that to bring people together, and that is something that I think is really necessary in leadership, and just being a person."
MacPherson, a comedian who made her Off-Broadway debut in The Play That Goes Wrong, can certainly relate. An amateur presidential scholar, she has crafted several cabaret acts filled to the brim with presidential anecdotes and pop music covers hand-picked to make audiences think just a bit more deeply about the men who have held the nation's highest office. Now, her flagship act, Happy Birthday, Mr. President!, has crossed the pond to play the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as a part of a so called "American invasion," connecting the international festival to the States.
Playbill sat down with MacPherson to discuss which President was "uncomfortably beautiful," which presidential pet takes the proverbial bone, and why John Tyler was the worst.
What is the weirdest thing a president has gotten away with while in office?
MacPherson: So, Grover Cleveland was a lawyer before he was president, and his law partner died very suddenly. He left behind this 11-year old girl Frances, who Grover gave her first baby stroller when she was born. Her dad died, and Grover became her benefactor. He paid for her living, and then she became his ward. And when she turned 21, he married her in the White House. And everyone was cool with it? She was a big deal. There was a lot of paraphernalia printed for her because she was so beautiful and young, and Grover Cleveland looked like a walrus. He got away with it, and it wasn't even being hidden. At the time, people were happy about it, but now in hindsight, we cannot believe that that actually happened. It was the first presidential wedding in the White House, and she was basically his kid.
Which president missed their calling as a cover model?
The simple answer is Gerald Ford, because Ford was actually in Cosmopolitan. But also, Rutherford B. Hayes is the hottest man I have ever seen, and I've seen Hugh Jackman in person. Rutherford B. Hayes is so hot, it is so important that you see how hot Rutherford B. Hayes was. The show starts with Rutherford B. Hayes' photo, because he is just smoking. He fought in the Civil War (for the Union) and got shot five times, and he just kept going back.
Who had the most unusual path to the presidency?
Ulysses S. Grant was a bit of an alcoholic. He was in the army, and one time he got a speeding ticket for drunk riding his horse. He was asked to leave, and then the Civil War happened, and we basically just held out a bottle of whiskey and said, "Grant, please, come back." And he came riding back on his horse. And now he's on money.
Who is your favorite presidential pet?
I have to go with the menagerie of Teddy Roosevelt. He had one of literally everything, it was an absolute zoo, and I appreciate that. Although, the flipside of that is he killed so many animals, and then stuffed them, so maybe that's a sick answer. Also, I want a Portuguese Water Dog just because of Bo [the Obamas' "first dog"].
Which president was the worst?
There is only one president, and he was an ex-president at the time, who ended up being a part of the Confederacy, and that's John Tyler. Which makes sense, because he was a total scumbag. John Tyler's second wife was a woman who was 30 years younger than him, and that is why he has one great-grandson still alive today. It is wild to be the president of the Union, and then to say, "ah, you know what I hate? The Union!"
How do you reinterpret these iconic American figures for your audiences?
I connect them with contemporary artists and songs. For example, I make the connection between Abraham Lincoln and Eminem in 8 Mile. They're both hard scrabble, come from nothing, and their power is in their intellect and their words. I do a mash-up of "Lose Yourself" and "My Shot" from Hamilton with the Abraham Lincoln hat, and the beard, and a hoodie. And then, for someone like J.F.K., I sing "Mambo #35," because there is a little bit of Marilyn in his life, a little bit of Mimi by his side, and so on. I bring it into our popular references.
Ellie MacPherson: Happy Birthday, Mr. President! is playing at the Underbelly Cowgate, Big Belly, through August 28. For more information on her Edinburgh Fringe run, please visit EdFringe.com.
Watch MacPherson perform "Lose Yourself/My Shot" below.