'All the Way' on Broadway

NEW YORK — In the new Broadway play "All the Way," President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Bryan Cranston, takes a break from wrangling votes for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reflect on the trying nature of politics.

Facing mounting pressure from the Southern faction of his party and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson vents his frustrations to the audience. "Everybody wants power; everybody," he says. "And if they say they don't, they're lyin'. But everybody thinks it ought to be given out free of charge. ... Nothin' comes free. Nothin'. Not even 'good.' Especially not 'good.' "

It's a monologue one could easily imagine being delivered by Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher-cum-ruthless drug lord who Cranston played to thunderous acclaim on "Breaking Bad," which ended its five-season run on AMC in September.

It is tempting to draw parallels between the men, both expert manipulators with a thirst for power that to differing degrees led them astray: Johnson, the sharp-elbowed politician who engineered some of the most sweeping social and civil rights legislation in American history while driving the country deeper into the war in Vietnam, and Walter White, the sad-sack everyman whose impulsive money-raising scheme spiraled into a full-blown meth empire.

"Their egos got in the way, and it drove them to do things that were detrimental to themselves and, in LBJ's case, extremely detrimental to society and America. And in a smaller way, so did Walter White," says Cranston, 58, at the airy Manhattan apartment serving as his temporary home while he makes his Broadway debut in "All the Way," which opened Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre. (The play is also a debut for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which commissioned the play, and Artistic Director Bill Rauch, who directed it.)

Cranston, a native Angeleno shaking off his fourth cold in a punishing winter on the East Coast, graciously offers tea in a white mug, taking a black one for himself.

"I'll let you be the good guy, I'll be the bad guy," he jokes.

His views on kitchenware notwithstanding, Cranston is an artist drawn to characters who defy such easy moral categorization. He likens Johnson, a politician who continues to captivate historians, to King Lear.

"What made him so strong and effective domestically was his political acumen, which was stronger than anyone since Roosevelt and not matched by anyone to date. And his downfall was his political hubris. He didn't want to appear weak."

"All the Way" began its journey to Broadway in 2008 as part of American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a commissioning program at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival created with the goal of dramatizing pivotal moments in the nation's past.

When Rauch approached Robert Schenkkan about participating, the playwright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Kentucky Cycle," an epic six-hour play tracing the 200-year saga of a family in Appalachia, immediately knew the subject he wanted to tackle.

"All the Way" had its world premiere last year at OSF, with actor Jack Willis originating the role of LBJ. But when plans were made to bring it to Broadway, Schenkkan and Rauch went looking for a marquee name capable of tackling such a complex character. Cranston was at the top of their list.

"He's somebody who's completely charming and completely terrifying, who can bully and manipulate and have great vulnerability and passion for what he's fighting for," Rauch says. "LBJ was unbelievably smart. He was always three steps ahead of his opponents, and you need an actor with that kind of ferocious intelligence."

The project came to Cranston at an opportune moment. With "Breaking Bad" winding down, the actor was eager to get back on the stage because, after nearly 13 years of series television, he longed for the immediacy of theater.

"It's like painting a room," he says. "It's white, and if you and I spend a couple hours we can paint this a different color and we see the instant effect of our work."

After his previous series, "Malcolm in the Middle," came to an end in 2006, Cranston performed in the Sam Shepard play "The God of Hell" at the Geffen Playhouse.

The actor threw himself into research, reading Johnson's memoir, "The Vantage Point," as well as biographies by Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and Mark Updegrove. He also consulted with Johnson confidantes, including speechwriter Richard Goodwin and press secretary Bill Moyers, and made repeated trips to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. There he discovered a letter from Jackie Kennedy written to then-President Johnson days after JFK's assassination thanking him for sending notes of condolence to both her children.

"Here's a man who days earlier ascended to the presidency under tragic circumstances, and he took the time to do that. That says something to me about his character," Cranston says.

Taped phone conversations from the White House were also useful for capturing the private Johnson, who was, according to Cranston, "backslapping, crude, funny, angry, embraceable, irascible" — a marked contrast to the rigid persona he adopted in public. Throughout the play, the president fires off crass remarks unfit to be repeated in a family newspaper, and Cranston seems to relish exploring LBJ's bawdier side.

In conversation, Cranston slides effortlessly into Johnson's low, raspy Texas drawl, and on stage assumes his stooped, stiff posture. But the key to unlocking the character was emotional, not technical.

"He had a voracious appetite for achievement and approval and love. This is truly from a layman's point of view, but I think he would have been diagnosed as bipolar," Cranston says. "He was capable of very high highs and energy and excitement and determination followed by extreme lows."

At the height of "Breaking Bad" mania last fall, "All the Way" had a sold-out run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where it earned generally positive reviews. Cranston's performance in particular was praised, but he is acutely aware of how as a TV star — albeit a widely acclaimed one with three Emmys — he might be perceived as an interloper.

"I'm on Broadway because of 'Breaking Bad.' I make no bones about that," he says. "There's probably some resentment of that, but I've always been uncomfortable with labeling of actors being any one kind of actor."

If anything, Cranston hopes his presence will entice young "Breaking Bad" fans to their first Broadway show and perhaps inspire a new generation of theatergoers.

In July, a sequel to "All the Way," also written by Schenkkan will premiere at OSF. Called "The Great Society," it spans from early 1965 to March 1968, when Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

"'All the Way' is drama, and 'The Great Society' is tragedy," the playwright says. (Unlike author Caro, at work on his fifth volume on Johnson, Schenkkan plans to stop at two.)

Cranston isn't ready to address a possible return to Broadway, should "The Great Society" also make its way East. (Nor is he willing to indulge talk of a Tony Award.) However, he admits Johnson is a figure he'll continue to explore — whether on stage or off.

"When we're done with the run of this on June 29 ... I'll continue to read things about him, just because I'm interested. He'll teach me who he is. He's guiding me right now," Cranston says. "And I'm listening."

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