"Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have the lyrics to a few Broadway songs stuck in our heads," President Barack Obama said on Monday night, citing the praise of -- and a quote from -- Mel Brooks at the "Celebration of the Music of Broadway" at the White House.
Obama was seated in the East Room for the performance flanked by his wife, Michelle, on his right and retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on his left. Malia sat next to her mom and her sister, Sasha, with the girls' grandmother, Marian Robinson, next to Sasha.
The audience included members of the New York congressional delegation, and 25 of the 200 or so seats were reserved for students from high schools for the performing arts in Washington; Columbia, Maryland; New York; Loudoun County, Virginia; and Wisconsin.
Speaking before the show, Obama said: "In many ways, the story of Broadway is also intertwined with the story of America. Some of the greatest singers and songwriters Broadway has ever known came to this country on a boat with nothing more than an idea in their head and a song in their heart. And they succeeded the same way that so many immigrants have succeeded -- through talent and hard work and sheer determination.
"Over the years, musicals have also been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics. But perhaps the most American part of this truly American art form is its optimism. Broadway music calls us to see the best in ourselves and in the world around us -- to believe that no matter how hopeless things may seem, the nice guy can still get the girl, the hero can still triumph over evil, and a brighter day can be waiting just around the bend."
It's not often -- maybe this was the first time -- that Obama quotes the comic Brooks in a speech, but he did Monday night: "As the great Mel Brooks once said, musicals 'blow the dust off your soul.' So to everyone watching, both here and at home, here's a taste of Broadway to help us do just that."
Nathan Lane was an emcee, and his risque routine included this observation: Some men may avoid Broadway musicals, worried "your Y-chromosome is going to fall off. But not our president. He ain't afraid of those stinkin' showtunes. He enjoys them. . . . As one of the most articulate and stirring speakers ever to grace the White House, he understands the power of a well-turned phrase. . . . He even enjoys going to the theater. Now, after Lincoln, presidents haven't exactly raced to the theater. Although rumor has it Herbert Hoover was a bit of a show queen . . . spending many an afternoon in the Oval Office lip-syncing to Ethel Merman records."
This was the sixth event saluting different musical modes in the Obama White House -- jazz, country, Latin, classical, music of the civil rights movement and now Broadway.
Besides Lane, the stars included Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Elaine Stritch, Brian d'Arcy James, Chad Kimball, Tonya Pinkins, Marvin Hamlisch, Karen Olivo, Assata Alston, Danielle Arci and Constantine Rousouli. The show, titled "A Broadway Celebration: In Performance at the White House," will be televised on PBS stations Oct. 20 at 9 p.m. EST.
On Monday afternoon at the White House, Mrs. Obama watched a dance clinic, at which students performed a segment from the Broadway hit "Hairspray," with coaching from the pros.
The first lady said: "This is exactly what we envisioned happening when we started this music series, opening up the White House to just so many original forms of music."