Playwright and screenwriter Selina Fillinger makes her Broadway debut at just 28 years-old with the Main Stem’s newest comedy, POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, now playing at the Shubert Theatre. Fast-paced and devilishly funny, the work follows a group of women working in the White House to clean up the leader of the free world’s public gaffes. One doesn’t have to look hard to find some real-life parallels in U.S. leadership over the past few decades, but for Fillinger, the inspiration was wider than just the Oval Office.
“We were having this full news cycle of headlines about men in positions of power abusing their power,” shares Fillinger of the play’s origins. “I was really fascinated by all of the women in these men’s orbits who were protecting them, and defending them, and enabling them; and in the ways we are complicit in our own subjugation and the subjugation of others. That’s really where I started thematically.”
That may not exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but it was necessary for Fillinger.
“I just needed to laugh. I think it’s a coping mechanism, but it’s also a way of connecting with people. When you can make someone laugh, a bond is forming. There is a recognition of a shared absurdity in your reality, and whenever you recognize something is a shared absurdity, it can be incredible healing—and it can be incredibly threatening to people in power whose power depends on you accepting those absurdities as inevitable.”
Laughs aren’t hard to find when you have the true all-star cast that POTUS boasts. Broadway comedy great Julie White and SNL alum Rachel Dratch are both currently Tony Award nominees for their performances in the work, and they share the stage with Vanessa Williams, Lea DeLaria, Lilli Cooper, Suzy Nakamura, and Julianne Hough.
And Fillinger has someone else in her corner, a perhaps unlikely collaborator: director Susan Stroman, the five-time Tony winner best known as a choreographer-director with a specialty for breathing new life into classic and classic-at-heart musicals, including Show Boat, Crazy For You, and The Music Man.
Of course, “Stro,” as she’s often called, is no stranger to comedy either, having won two of her five Tony Awards directing and choreographing Mel Brook’s The Producers on Broadway—and, it turns out, her dancing chops came in handy even staging this straight play.
“Really good comedy has a musical rhythm to it,” adds Stroman, “and there is something we call a ‘comic breath’ on stage that will land the joke stronger than another. It’s almost like being a drummer in that way, and hearing comic rhythms and knowing when to speak, knowing when to move—sometimes even the tilt of your head can get a bigger laugh.”
“The fact that she’s a choreographer is super helpful when you’re dealing with farce, because the comedy all comes down to timing, precision, pace, rhythm,” shares Fillinger. “I was raised watching Charlie Chaplin movies. When you watch them, like all good comedy, it feels like a dance, like a ballet in some ways where all the cogs are moving together. The fact that [Stroman] gets that—not everyone gets that, so it’s really special.”
But despite the difference in their amount of experience, Stroman says she found a great deal of inspiration in Fillinger.
“She’s 28 and she has such a command of the language and dialogue and comedy and politics, and she very much has her finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the world,” gushes Stroman. “When you engage with her, you’re engaging with someone who is bright and filled with the essence of life for someone who’s so young. I would say she is an old soul to be so smart about all these different things.”
“With someone else, it could have been intimidating or overwhelming, but Stro is just so loving,” says Fillinger. “She always treated me like a peer and we always had a really good collaboration. It’s a particularly poignant coupling for this play because so much of it is about intergenerational feminism. And it’s a meeting of genres. It’s a farce, which is a very traditional, classic form, but it’s very contemporary in tone and language and vocabulary, so in that way the play is a meeting of intergenerational traditions.”