Blagojevich is still everywhere – and some can smile about it

Illinois’ ex-governor, the subject of a hit musical, is relentlessly seeking the limelight. Will it help him if he ends up going to trial?

By Mark Guarino | Christian Science Monitor Correspondent


The wig gets the first laugh.

The mighty mane, atop the cranium of comedic improviser Joey Bland, is revealed under the blaze of red stage lights. Upon catching a first glimpse, the Chicago audience howls, knowing before even a word of dialogue is spoken what that coiffure means: Gov. Rod Blagojevich is back.

Well, his ‘do is back, anyway. It’s caked in hairspray each night to replicate the famous uber bangs of the title character, subject of a new musical now in its second sold-out run since opening in early February. “Rod Blagojevich Superstar!” is more than just another hit show by Second City, Chicago’s comedy institution. It’s also something of a cathartic outlet for Illinoisans who have seen one of their government institutions slammed in national headlines, once again, over political corruption.

Pay-for-play politics is certainly not new to people in and around the Windy City, but the arrest last December of the governor and his subsequent impeachment were rude reminders, coming off the elation of electing a US president from the neighborhood.

The Blagojevich saga is “embarrassing because he brought so much negative attention to something Illinois is already embarrassed about,” says Matt Hovde, the musical’s director. “We wouldn’t have written a show about [former New York Gov.] Eliot Spitzer … because he went away quietly and there wouldn’t have been a story there. The story here is this guy thinks of himself basically as a modern-day Jesus who loves the limelight. But he’s a governor of Illinois who did nothing different except to make people angry. It’s absurd.”

If the Blagojevich episode were not such ripe material for a musical, the twists and turns since his arrest on federal corruption charges would make a first-rate soap opera.

The former governor has taken his case to network talk shows, including “The Late Show With David Letterman,” “The View,” and “Good Morning America,” in addition to holding impromptu press conferences outside his North Side home while preparing for his daily jogs. Besides reciting a Rudyard Kipling poem to reporters to infer that he will be vindicated, Mr. Blagojevich is also reported to be heard on FBI wiretaps suggesting Oprah Winfrey as a suitable replacement for President Obama’s vacated Senate seat. (It was eventually filled by Democrat Roland Burris.)

Last week, Blagojevich hosted the morning show on WLS 890 AM, where he played songs by Elvis Presley (a favorite), compared himself with Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and told listeners his impeachment was a conspiracy to raise state taxes.

The media blitz is effective, says Blagojevich spokesman Glenn Selig, because “people seem enamored by him and fascinated by him.”

“He’s a likable guy, and he can take complex issues and simplify them so people can get it,” Mr. Selig says. “People see themselves in him. He’ll look for any opportunity that will give him a place to speak out.”

Longtime political writers here say the populist makeover is part of Blagojevich’s attempt to stroke sympathy from potential jurors, should his case reach trial.

“It’s his Hail Mary,” says Steve Rhodes, editor of The Beachwood Reporter, an independent online news site that examines how city and state news is covered by the mainstream press. “It’s the best card he has to play other than turning state’s evidence. He’s taken it much farther with more success than I would ever have dreamt. In the end, my feeling is that he’ll end up in prison.”

The Blagojevich musical is in step with “Hizzoner: Daley the First,” another local hit that skewers former Mayor Richard J. Daley. The shows are filling seats without much publicity, apparently giving audiences a much-needed opportunity to laugh together about the machine politics for which Chicago and Illinois are known.

“The machine is ripe for satire because it’s so out in front of us,” says Mr. Rhodes. “Satire requires a knowingness on the part of the audience and, the way the machine operates, you almost think it should be a secret like organized crime, but it’s not that at all.”

After a sold-out run at its home space in Chicago’s Old Town, Second City as of this weekend transferred the show to front and center of the city itself: the Chicago Shakespeare Theater located at the tip of Navy Pier downtown. Second City Vice President Kelly Leonard says the idea of a rock opera about Blagojevich came to him as soon as the scandal broke. Almost three weeks later, the show opened and sold out its first run – without advertising.

The 50-minute show presents Blagojevich as a lovable but dim “scrappy guy,” seduced into the Chicago machine only because he has a taste for free dinners at a local steakhouse and wouldn’t have to pay parking tickets. Adapting songs from other musicals that have a messianic bent (“Godspell,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Hair”), “Rod Blagojevich Superstar!” features five improvisers playing different roles, including Senator Burris, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who also happened to attend the show twice.

“My party, my party, why have you forsaken me,” states actor Bland, toward the play’s beginning. “Machine, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Audiences were particularly receptive during a five-show run in Springfield, the state capital, says Second City’s Mr. Leonard. “They had been living a six-year nightmare with this guy, so for a lot of people it was a chance to laugh instead of cry during what had been a really difficult time,” he says. The show proves there’s a public need for theater ripped from the headlines, he adds. Indeed, Second City is preparing a musical about the Wall Street bailout and may take it to New York.

“We can take advantage of [public] anger and give it a cathartic stage release, [as] opposed to someone burning down someone’s house,” he says.

Despite interviewing Bland and cast member Mike Bradecich on his radio show, Blagojevich is ambivalent about seeing the production, says Mr. Selig, his spokesman. He hasn’t put it on his schedule but is “looking forward to seeing it at some point,” says Selig.

Time will tell how Blagojevich will react to lyrics such as, “Rod Blagojevich Superstar/Are you as nuts as we think you are?”

Says Selig, “The governor is able to laugh when it’s appropriate.”

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