Broadway interview

How to put the Trump trial on Broadway

The Daily Beast

June 10, 2024

Playwright J.T. Rogers, Will Keen, now playing Putin on Broadway, and producers ponder how Trump’s trial could be staged—and if theater-makers and audiences would embrace the idea.

There was most certainly drama, all played out by a vivid gallery of big characters: Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump, Judge Juan Merchan, Michael Cohen, Alvin Bragg, Karen McDougal, Todd Blanche, and Susan Necheles. Outside the court were vying groups of demonstrators and the shocking sight of one man, Maxwell Azzarello, fatally setting himself on fire. So, could former President Trump’s recent hush money trial—guilty on all 34 counts, sentencing to come—ever graduate to another kind of drama on the Broadway stage, and would audiences come to see it?

Will Keen, presently playing Vladimir Putin on Broadway in Patriots (Barrymore Theatre, to June 23), told The Daily Beast that such a play “could be compelling. There have already been plays about Trump. Bertie Carvel was brilliant when he played Trump (in The 47th, Mike Bartlett’s 2022 play, directed by Rupert Goold). There is also quite a history of plays based, verbatim, on legal proceedings, produced by the Tricycle Theatre in London (like The Colour of Justice and Nuremberg) under the artistic director Nicolas Kent.”

A play such as one based on the trial “might help you learn or question the things you yourself are capable of, or question your own moral checks and balances,” Keen said. “It may show you that the character you considered unquestionably immoral or amoral have their own pronounced sense of morality which allows them to behave in the way they do. You may end up questioning your own hardline judgments about people and things. We all have ways of acting, which we sometimes—retroactively—morally justify to ourselves: a moral meaning that allows behavior to have some sense.

“As an audience and actor, a person in the arts, there’s so much about the personality of someone like Trump who spends his time creating an image of invulnerability. I’m interested in investigating what vulnerability is there.”

J.T. Rogers, whose plays include Oslo (about the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords) and Corruption (about the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal), sees a similar rich dramatic potential—even if he does not want to write the play himself.

“Theater, a public stage, provides a way to talk about these things that you can’t in newspapers and other media, because in a play you’re not beholden to facts, even if you are beholden to the spirit of them,” Rogers told The Daily Beast. “That’s what fiction is there for. The challenge is, how do you find the emotional core of relationships set against this vast canvas that audiences can grip onto? We can be invested in politics and ideas, and care about the outcomes of politics and histories, but there need to be characters and stories for the audience to care about and follow.”

Telling the story of the Trump trial, said Rogers, means “finding a way to tell the story of a struggle between two rights, as opposed to a right and wrong—so the audience can see the points of view of two or more sides. Obviously I agree with one more than the other. The other challenge is how you fictionalize and theatricalize something where the battle lines are drawn so tightly, where one side is right and one side is wrong. How can you make the audience care about people who they have no interest in, or perhaps even loathed, when they sat down in the theater?”

One leading Broadway producer, who requested anonymity, said it was the widespread antipathy held by many towards Trump that would kill any play about him before it reached the stage—both from theater-makers and audiences. “No one in the theater, in enough numbers, wants to spend any more time with that man—fictionally or otherwise. I couldn’t spend any time with him,” the producer said.

Another leading producer echoed this, declining to comment because they did not want to “give any more attention to this odious subject.”

However, a third Broadway producer who requested anonymity welcomed the prospect. “I absolutely love the idea. I do hope someone writes this. I would watch it. For me, it should be in the form of a play, and be less about Trump and more about how he came to be, and our responsibility and place in his rise. I don’t think the character of Trump needs to be in the play. There have already been TV shows like Succession and Billions about the personalities of these people. I just watched the 2024 remake of A Man in Full starring Jeff Daniels (based on Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel, one of whose main characters is a real estate mogul), which is similar.

“I would want a play to be different to those things—what has our role and responsibility been in the creation of Trump and his power? What created our apathy, so that we have lost our moral compasses? Who are the people who have created and allowed Trump to be who he is—and who are the people left to deal with it? It’s an old morality play.”

Rogers said, “If I had a dollar for every time I had been asked to make films, TV series, or plays about Trump in the last five years, I would be a very rich man. It’s very difficult. One issue is distance, and why writers choose to write about events that really happened four or five years previously. It gives the dramatist both distance and understanding, and means the audience isn’t caught up in the hurly-burly of the moment.

“I have turned down all these Trump projects because I have to commit time and resources to everything I work on, and while I don’t have to love everybody I write about, I at least have to admire and deeply understand the lead characters. I find myself—whether it’s a virtue or flaw depends on my day that day as a dramatist—unable to empathize with Donald Trump. He is a figure outside the bounds of morality, justice, and outside the bounds of—and we use this word too much, but it applies here—decency. I can be fascinated and appalled and exhausted and bored by him, but I don’t want to live with him in my head and my heart.

“As a dramatist, it doesn’t bother me that I can’t write about him. After they saw Corruption, British journalists and politicians told me, ‘I didn’t know that’ about issues around phone hacking. The Trump phenomenon is the opposite for me: I’m just tuning it out. There is nothing new for me to learn.”

Crafting a play, any play, about Trump is difficult, Rogers said, because of the sheer volume of news and extremity attached to him. “How does a play trump Trump’s own social media feeds? How does it trump Robert De Niro outside the court with Michael Fanone, one of the cops injured during the Jan. 6 insurrection, who revealed his mother had been ‘swatted’ the night before. With Trump there is a speed and ocean-like deluge of craziness. The trail of cataclysmic events happening is hard to swim above—even for 24-hour news.”

“The larger Trump story is a huge canvas, so it’s difficult to know which bits of it in the end are going to be the most interesting points to hit,” said Keen. “Politics, and Trump, are so divisive here you would need to find a way of doing it that’s evenhanded, not just reaching to one side—even though I know which side I would take. Clearly, these are larger-than-life characters, and it’s an amazing tale. There are a whole lot of amazing tales to be told about what we’re finding out about that man.”


‘He’s such a toxic figure. Don’t make it about him’

“I think playing Trump would be an absolute joy to do,” Keen told The Daily Beast. “It’s not a part I imagine for myself because of my physique. You would need someone with a different stature, but it’s a fascinating character to play. I think people would jump at the chance. Just like Patriots, it could be a play that is properly engaged with both the zeitgeist and the imagination.

“At the same time you want it be a challenge. What one doesn’t want to do is reaffirm the consensus. The play should ask questions, and make people ask uncomfortable questions about their own opinions. With people like Putin and Trump, it’s easy for us to take a polarized view, to feel strongly one way or another—the challenge is to find a nuanced way to be three-dimensional about that.

“As an actor, the challenge of playing a character like Trump is that you’re trying to find a way into the empathetic imagination. One of the things that makes that easier with Putin is that we’re not doing it in his language—the acts of imitation and mimicry have a slightly broader remit. To get a feel of it. I watched the way Putin talks. Every language has its own character, its own effect on the body. If one were playing Trump, one would feel all the more acutely the pressure to be a miniaturist portrait painter—getting the character right beyond the physicality of the body, getting the sound and rhythm of the voice right.”

For Rogers, Trump would not be the focus in a play about the trial. “I think the best way to tell the Trump story, let alone the Trump trial, is to write about something else, while also very clearly writing about the Trump trial. I gave a speech honoring Robert Caro recently; Caro writes books about great men, twisting, or abusing power. By writing about them, you write how power can be abused today. It’s very hard to write about a figure like Trump, in the moment, bestriding the world for better or worse.

“In a good play, the audience goes in thinking it’s going to be about a), but it’s about b). I’m not talking about a bait and switch, but more swerves in every scene, so the play becomes not what it started out to be. So, a play about Donald Trump’s trial isn’t about whether he gets off or not, but instead about the way American justice works, its strange peculiarities and funny ways. The danger isn’t whether he gets off or not, but is the rule of law going to survive? The power of the law rests solely on the fact that everyone agrees it exists, and if someone with great force and followers says, ‘I don’t agree this exists, I will not follow these rules,’ what are you going to do?”

The main character in a Trump play should not be Trump, Rogers said. “There’s an exhaustion on the part of so many people when it comes to him, and a dramatic inertia around him. A diplomat once told me, ‘There’s always a double chess game: a game of chess on the surface, and one beneath it.’ And so the play might examine, behind the scenes, how a judicial system is corroded? How could that break the country?

“Who are the characters who are not Trump—Judge Merchan, court reporters, junior attorneys—who we could focus on to watch their revelations? These characters would have to discover something or things were not what they thought. What about the people working for him? What is changing for them during the trial? Why are people assisting him? What is it like to be a cop protecting him when this is a man who encouraged his followers to riot, breaking bones and killing other cops on Jan. 6?”

The Broadway producer in favor of mounting a production said a play focused on the trial should “make it clear what it specifically was about this trial that meant an indictment can move forward. So, the protagonists—instead of Trump—would be the DA or assistant DA, his employees, witnesses, and what all their parts are for good and bad. By not having Trump on stage, it might make it more attractive for theater-makers and audiences to examine him, and the public’s own role in how he has become so powerful. It’s easier to look at ourselves if he’s not in it. The play should be an indictment of him and us—it’s a self-examination play. He’s such a toxic figure. Don’t make it about him. Make it about us.”

The Broadway producer said, “Ideally, it would be like Robert E. Ingham’s play Custer, which is about Custer’s Last Stand, and looks at both sides—whether Custer was foolhardy, rushing into battle as a Lone Ranger, or did Captain Frederick Benteen withhold and refuse help to him? Similarly, the Trump play should be written not as what’s right or what’s wrong, but just ‘This is what happened.’”

Melania Trump isn’t the entry character, Rogers said. “That would be a short play! Judge Merchan seems to be the best option. In a play you want your main character stretched beyond the limits they thought possible. Here’s a guy who must be out of his mind. What does he do? Trump should be thrown in jail for contempt, but how do you throw the former president of the United States in jail even if he should be?

“I’m always interested in characters and situations where every option is terrible, but what is the least terrible option? What is the state of justice? Here is a character based on a real person whose entire life’s work has been lionized and supported, who likely has a credible sense of himself as a person and of a belief system he holds close, which all of sudden were far more fragile than he thought—and so is the country. What does that say about Merchan? He comes through the looking glass of the trial, with his entire view of the country, of justice, upended and not knowing what comes next. I fear a second Trump term would lead us into a version of American fascism, and so a dramatic pathway to that would be to ask in the play, what happens to Western democracies when democracy itself is eroded.”

“I think audiences approach real-life characters with a special scrutiny,” Keen added. “They are troubled by anything that takes them outside of their perceptions. I remember watching Alex Jennings playing George W. Bush in David Hare’s play Stuff Happens—about the Iraq War—at the National Theatre. He really caught the spirit of him.

“Playing a well-known figure like Trump or Putin, you want to be able to feel it’s him, but it’s a vision of him, an imagining of him—like meeting him in a dream rather than on the street, like there’s been some filter of the imagination that it’s been passed through. Well-known people are so clear in the public imagination, they are troubled by any inaccuracy of visual representation—in gait, rhythm of the voice, and manner—but as an actor you don’t just want to become a photocopier. You feel your way into something with more nuance to it.”

If the play features Trump, the actor who plays him doesn’t have to look like him, said Rogers. “I think of how Bertie Carvel played Rupert Murdoch in James Graham’s play Ink. The magic of the great stage actor is that they can transform into characters like Murdoch and Trump, even if they don’t look like them. The audience sees them.”

A Trump play would not indict the former president further, Rogers added, but rather show him “in a new light, or through the eyes of others. One of the reasons he is so powerful is because multitudinous people with multitudinous points of view are projecting their points of view onto him.”


‘Write it now, get it on to the stage’

The Broadway producer keen on the trial-as-theater idea said they were not aware of an appetite to make any theater about Trump among Broadway producers and artistic creators. “I’ve never been asked the question, and I avoid the topic because it’s such a hot-button issue. I don’t want to speak for the entire community, but in my corner of the world there isn’t any conversation about it—but that doesn’t mean those discussions are not happening.”

If there was any impetus or energy to mount such a project, the Broadway producer said time was of the essence: “Write it now, get it on to the stage.”

If Trump wins the election there may be a cottage industry of laudatory works, Rogers mused, “just as Jesus-themed movies tap into a great hunger on the part of Christians. A starting-off point for a lot of art is to focus on the downtrodden, or to be skeptical of power. If Trump is re-elected we might see a shift to works praising the powerful and contemptuous of the weak. Maybe there will be an increase in purely escapist works.”

Rogers once did a couple of productions with Max Stafford-Clark, the former artistic director of the Royal Court (Theatre in London, from 1979 to 1993). Rogers recalled Stafford-Clark saying once in rehearsal, “Theatre doesn’t change anything.” Rogers was “shocked to hear that from this lion of the Left. But Max said that if theater had changed anything, ‘we would have brought down (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher. We didn’t do anything.’ But we do what we do to bear witness. It’s not for nothing that the best pushback about Bush and Iraq came from a Brit, David Hare. There’s not really a tradition of political-social engagement theater here. I’ve been called a British playwright with an American accent.

Theater is not “essential to cultural discussion” in America as it is in Britain, Rogers said. “Here, television and film power that discussion. And there might not be work that bears witness in film and television because it would be seen as unprofitable.”

The Broadway producer said audiences’ and theater-makers’ antipathy and sense of exhaustion towards Trump could make the production “a hard sell commercially, especially if it is not crafted carefully. It reminds me of The Lifespan of a Fact (starring Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale on Broadway in 2018, during the first Trump administration). That wasn’t written about the administration, but it happened to arrive on Broadway as ‘facts’ were being brought into question. It had parallels. I really enjoyed Enron (the 2009 play by the British writer Lucy Prebble about the financial scandal and collapse of that company), but also thought for an American audience it was being staged too soon.

“I was not certain our culture was ready to look at itself through that lens. I think a Trump play would more usefully be staged in Britain first. They are a little more ahead of us culturally in terms of theatrical self-examination of current conditions. As a producer, I would be concerned about how well a Trump play would do here. It takes us a longer time, as Americans, to be willing to examine ourselves. With Enron, audiences weren’t ready to ask themselves about how those events came to be. And any Trump-focused play should rightly make us feel uncomfortable—just as Enron did.”

While Tony Kushner is working on a play about Trump, “and if anyone can pull it off, Tony can,” said Rogers, “generally arts needs distance. What you need to create art is some stability and some sense of quiet to think deeply about what you’re trying to say. I don’t know how you do that about Trump. As a genius agent of chaos he creates such a distortion field it prevents you from thinking anything, but—depending on how you see him—‘Yay,’ or ‘Boo.’ Everyone is so worn to the bone by him, and weakened by the unending noise around him. It’s been a near-decade of noise. There has got to be a pause.”

“An audience judges things on different levels,” Keen said. “I don’t imagine you come away from a play about Hitler making excuses for his political actions if it shows vulnerable moments of his own life, but I do think the function of art tends to be about making questions about yourself and your preconceptions.

“I don’t think anyone would want to watch any kind of inaccuracy about what Trump has done, but I would hope a play about him would poke at areas of consensus, and how we find easy targets that we can all agree are unacceptable. I don’t know what commercial considerations there would be around mounting a play about Trump, but it’s an important instruction to all artists to speak truth to power, and all artists and producers to some extent aspire to that.”

While the Trump trial verdict itself—guilty x 34—“feels more momentous an historical event than I expected,” Rogers said, “the media and other public responses are exactly as predicted. And again, it’s hard to make the predictable into drama.”

Despite the intricacies of his own musing, Rogers insisted he would not be swayed into writing the drama. “I’m very, very happy to keep my hands off such a project for my mental health and for my body of work. To those who might attempt it, I say, ‘Have at it,’ and—with some trepidation—I will come and see it.”