As many a Democrat hopes will happen in the next election, Hillary Clinton is sitting behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office.
Dressed in a smart blue pantsuit and sporting a perfectly quaffed, blond do, Hillary’s announcement is met with a sea of laughter: “Let me tell you the story of my first presidency.”
This is the opening scene of “Clinton: the Musical,” which opened off-Broadway last month just in time for election season. The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly have raved about the 95-minute romp that skewers Monica, Bill and Hill. But Richmonders may recognize an additional figure onstage: Richmond-area native Duke Lafoon.
“It’s all incredibly goofy fun,” he says in an interview at the New World Stages theater complex in Manhattan. “We’re poking fun at everyone up there in a loving way.”
The musical shows dueling features of Bill Clinton’s personality, and Lafoon portrays his party animal side. “To be here, to be off-Broadway, to be in Midtown doing this show is definitely the biggest job I’ve had,” he says, “and I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
The Mechanicsville native attended Lee-Davis High School and got his start on the stages of Richmond. When Lafoon was a teenager, former Barksdale Theatre head Randy Strawderman cast him in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” After high school, he began performing at Swift Creek Mill Theatre in Colonial Heights under the wing of Tom Width.
“Between Randy Strawderman working with me early and Tom Width working with me early, that was my school,” Lafoon says. It was also at Swift Creek where Lafoon met his wife, Janet, a fellow performer.
“We talked on the steps out back shyly,” Lafoon says. “She said she used to come sit in the back and watch ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ because she thought I was cute, and then we did ‘Pippin’ together, and that’s where we had a ‘showmance.’ We’ve been together ever since.”
Lafoon continued to get cast in local shows, and caught a break when the now-defunct Theatre Virginia hired him to play George Bailey in a musical adaptation of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Titled “A Wonderful Life,” Lafoon was later cast in the same show at Westchester Broadway Theatre in New York. The show got him an agent and led to a move to the big city.
Though he now lives in New York, Lafoon returns to Richmond for shows, including 2008’s “Doubt” at Barksdale and 2013’s “Next to Normal,” with Virginia Repertory Theatre and Cadence Theatre Company. For his role as Dan in “Next to Normal,” Lafoon won best actor in a musical from the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle, of which this writer is a member.
But it hasn’t been purely success for Lafoon. For two years he worked on “Ace,” a musical that seemed destined to make it to Broadway. After staging the musical at three prominent national theaters and ending up at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, the show didn’t make it to the Great White Way. “That really looked like it was going to happen,” he says, “but if fell through, as it often does, I’ve learned.”
Last year, Lafoon was cast in “Clinton,” which was first staged at the New York Theatre Festival last summer. The show quickly made the leap to off-Broadway, and features two Bill Clintons — a respectable statesman called William Jefferson and the sax-playing sex fiend named Billy, played by Lafoon.
“He was this great politician and really knew how to play the Washington game, but at the same time there was this other side of him, this crazy, party side of Bill Clinton,” Lafoon says. “What’s interesting to me is we all have a double side. We all have this part of ourselves that we present in our work or in public life, and then there’s also this part that we try to keep wraps on.”
Accompanying Lafoon onstage are Tony nominee Kerry Butler as Hillary and Emmy-winning stand-up Judy Gold as both Linda Tripp and Eleanor Roosevelt. Though it turns Kenneth Starr into a sex maniac and presents Newt Gingrich as a whiney imbecile, the show cuts only so deep, and aside from Monica singing, “I’m fucking the fucking president,” the women are treated with relative respect.
“It’s very sympathetic to what Hillary was going through at that time, it’s super sympathetic to what Monica Lewinsky was going through at that time,” Lafoon says. “If there’s anybody that I really didn’t want to do harm to, it was her, because she was so young when all of this stuff went down. Which one of us haven’t done something crazy when we were 22?”
Width, Lafoon’s long-time mentor at Swift Creek, says this success couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.
“He’s the gem of the world to work with,” Width says. “He really is the whole package, and I’m glad it’s finally worked out for him, because he’s been slogging away at this for a really long time. He’s just such a sweetheart.”
So far, none of the real-life people portrayed in “Clinton” has come to see the show, but Lafoon says they’d probably appreciate that it doesn’t go for the jugular.
“I’d be both thrilled and I’d be terrified if they came,” Lafoon says. “I have this imagining that Bill would like to come, and Hillary’s like, ‘Don’t come within a hundred feet of that theater.’”
He drops into his Clinton voice: “But honey, I really want to see it.” S
“Clinton: the Musical” plays at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., in New York. Ticket information at clintonthemusical.com.