On January 30, 2010, Rush Limbaugh was vigorously dancing to the music of Lady Gaga during the Miss America pageant. The next day, Mark Sutton was dancing in the role of Limbaugh during the final preview of Rush Limbaugh! The Musical, which opens February 3 at Second City's Etc. stage in Chicago. There's always that difficulty of making good satire when reality is more bizarre than any fiction.
But this musical comes from the creators of Rod Blagojevich Superstar!, so they're accustomed to making musicals about celebrities with a penchant for oddity.
Rush Limbaugh! The Musical is a sometimes entertaining show, but ultimately the performance is flawed by its inability to grapple with who Limbaugh is and why he is so popular. (The show is in still in previews, so some of what I criticize be fixed in last-minute adjustments.)
The musical begins with gentle mockery of Limbaugh as a man “with a friendly voice, if by friendly you mean crazy.” And although the attacks get nastier, and sometimes unfair, they never really pierce Limbaugh’s essence. Ed Furman and TJ Shanoff, the writers of Rush Limbaugh! The Musical, go to great lengths in pursuit of crude humor, and one can’t help but admire a show that makes a 30-year-old reference to George Brett’s hemorrhoids which inspire Limbaugh’s decision to pursue a career as an “unbearable pain in the ass.”
As the author of a forthcoming book about Limbaugh, I may have too much attachment to the basic facts of Limbaugh’s life, and a comic musical obviously is not a biography. Still, some of the fact-fudging choices are odd. A sock hop number depicts Limbaugh as someone stuck in the 1950s; in reality, Limbaugh liked rock and roll, and got fired from one job for playing the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” too many times. The musical claims that the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1984 and led to Limbaugh’s big break in Sacramento. In reality, the never-enforced Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987, and it had nothing to do with Limbaugh’s success. Limbaugh’s national syndication in 1988 is mysteriously moved to 1993 here as a response to Bill Clinton.
The show makes up a lead preacher character, Reverend Rightwing, who advises and guides Limbaugh in his life, and it depicts Limbaugh as a rabid fundamentalist in songs such as, “They Can’t Argue With Jesus.” In reality, Limbaugh almost never talks about faith on his show, doesn’t attend church, and didn’t have any contact with the religious right. Money explains why Limbaugh became who he is where he is, but God makes for better satire than capitalism.
The show could have built entire songs out of Limbaugh’s own words, which are often more shocking than what the creators could ever make up. But aside from a short reading of Limbaugh quotes in the middle of one song, it’s remarkable how little of Limbaugh’s actual words and verbal tics make it into the show. Even the minor details—like Limbaugh on the air declaring that the ninth caller will be a winner—reveal a lack of authenticity.
It’s clear that the show’s creators struggle to understand Limbaugh’s appeal. At one point, a frustrated Hillary Clinton character cries out, “you don’t make any sense, I don’t why people listen to you.”
There’s a certain kind of bipartisanship in the show, with Barney Frank and Hillary Clinton singing their anthem of the Democratic Party, “We’re fucked and we’re losers.” Still, no one can miss the point of view here.
There are funny lines about Limbaugh’s addiction to Oxycontin (“it’s only when you’re super-high that my show makes sense”), and his hearing loss (“When you never listen to anything anybody else says, you can be deaf for years and not know it”). And there’s a kind of pleasure to be had when the hostile narrator compares Limbaugh with John McCain: “he’s a hero, not a draft-dodging pussy like you.”
But too often the show strays from a focus on Limbaugh to standard conservative-bashing or song-and-dance routines that aren’t clever enough to justify the distraction.
One of the worst aspects of the show is the running joke of having Barney Frank deliver a double entendre about being gay. The problem with all these gay jokes is that they’re juvenile and delivered without any sense of irony about the fact that Limbaugh regularly makes similarly hateful Uranus jokes about Barney Frank. It would have been easy for the show to have Limbaugh deliver the anti-gay jokes and still get the cheap laughs, albeit with more discomfort from the audience. Instead, we’re left wondering why a musical that obviously despises Limbaugh shares a similar taste in mocking gay men.
At the end, Rush Limbaugh! The Musical hits its stride again. It’s 2014, and after President Obama defeated Ted Nugent in the 2012 election, Limbaugh has gone crazy. He accidentally reads the Bible one night, and decides “Jesus has shifted too far to the left.” Declaring himself divine, he calls upon his Dittoheads to lead a revolution to overthrow Obama, something that’s actually believable considering Limbaugh’s own statements.
The last scene provides a clever ending to help explain exactly why a black woman named Shasta is the narrator throughout the show (beyond Karla Beard’s obvious singing talents), since it doesn’t fit with anything in Limbaugh’s life.
There are so many ways, though, that Second City could have made this a great comic musical. Imagine putting Al Gore in the show (full of droning and powerpoints) to debate Limbaugh in song on Global Warming (as they did on Nightline in 1992). Instead, they resort to the lowest common denominator for their humor. Admittedly, musical comedy isn’t easy, and political comedy that plays to an audience that doesn’t listen to Rush is even harder.
Rush Limbaugh! The Musical is an entertaining spectacle for Limbaugh haters, but it’s also a missed opportunity to make a tough—and hilarious—critique of his ideas.
Rush Limbaugh! The Musical plays Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 2pm at Second City's Etc. Stage, 1616 N. Wells in Chicago, from February 3 to March 24, 2010. Tickets are $25.
John K. Wilson is the author of a forthcoming book about Rush Limbaugh. Crossposted at DailyKos.