History professor Julian Zelizer went with 48 students to Broadway on Wednesday to see “All the Way,” a play about former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency starring “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston as Johnson. The group had a chance afterward to discuss the play with several of the actors, including Cranston.
The play focuses on Johnson’s attempt to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed most forms of racial segregation.
The students asked several questions during the discussion after the play about the limitations and opportunities of bringing a historical character to the stage as well as how the actors had prepared to portray their various historical characters.
Cranston explained during the discussion that actors should resolve any disagreements that they have over how to play historical parts by going back to the text of the play.
“What is the text telling us?” Cranston said. “Go back to the story. Get away from yourself.”
Zelizer said the collaboration started with his participation in an event on Johnson and the play a couple of weeks before the play opened, explaining that during the event he spoke with one of the play’s associate producers, P.J. Miller ’10, about the idea of taking University students to see the play. Zelizer, who just finished a book on the Great Society, gave a keynote speech at the event and participated in some of the panels, including an interview with Bryan Cranston.
Zelizer said that he always tries to find ways to make both politics and political history exciting for students.
“There are different ways to learn about history; you could learn about it through textbooks, you could learn about it through lectures, you could learn about it through a senior thesis, but another way to learn about history is through popular culture,” he said.
He added that he wanted the students to think about some of the themes the play deals with, including race relations in the United States during the 1960s, presidential power and how it can be used effectively, as well as the opportunities and limitations of portraying history through a play.
Zelizer also noted that there is a lot of discussion going on comparing Lyndon Johnson to President Barack Obama.
“I hope looking into history opens up some ideas about thinking about the present,” he added.
Miller explained that the producers wanted to bring young students to see the play to give them a chance to reflect on the history that the play portrays. He said they wanted to make sure they could bring in as many students as they could.
“A lot of the things that we’ve been trying to keep in mind as we are producing this play is not just the appeal to a commercial audience but the appeal we can have to young people, in terms of engaging the students in theater for one, and the specific time period in the event in particular,” Miller said.
Miller noted the time period the play portrays is very relevant to modern politics, explaining that we are facing many of the same issues today that people faced during the time period of the play.
Benjamin Liu ’15, a student who participated in the event, said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience and that the play helped him to understand better what he learned in class. Liu is enrolled in HIS 361: The United States Since 1974.
“[The play] presented [the historical event] in a different way than the lecture, where we just learn things,” Liu said. “We saw it happen – we didn’t really see it happen, but we saw how it might have happened. I thought it was a lot more concrete for me, so it definitely helped.”
Zelizer is organizing a similar event in May with alumni.