All the Way: One Longhorn’s Play About LBJ is Headed to Broadway

All the Way: A Longhorn's Play About LBJ is Headed to Broadway

Robert Schenkkan’s play about President Johnson’s first year in office, which was researched heavily on the Forty Acres, explores LBJ and his many contradictions.

When Robert Schenkkan, BA ’75, wrote the play All the Way, he knew he needed a certain kind of actor to play the demanding role of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

“You’re looking for an actor, a transformative actor, who can do two things,” said Schenkkan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992. “They have to be immensely charming and appealing, and they have to be terrifying.”

He found just the guy in Bryan Cranston, best known for his roles as high school science teacher-turned-drug kingpin Walter White on Breaking Bad and the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle.

All the Way opened with Cranston in the lead role in September for a month-long, sold-out run in Boston. Now, it’s headed to Broadway in February for a five-month stint. The play opens on Air Force One on Nov. 23, 1963, as the plane transports the body of President Kennedy back to Washington, D.C., and Johnson gathers his courage to take on the role of commander in chief. It spans the first year of  Johnson’s administration, from taking office and leveraging his power to pass watershed Civil Rights legislation in Congress to his landslide re-election victory.

Cranston visited the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum after hours in August as he researched the role. While in Austin, he listened to recordings from the archive, spoke with some of Johnson’s contemporaries, and visited the LBJ Ranch, but one letter in the LBJ Library spoke volumes to Cranston about LBJ’s human side.


Jackie Kennedy wrote Johnson a letter four days after the assassination. In it, she thanked him for walking with her son during the funeral procession despite secret service security concerns and for writing a letter to each of her children about their father.

“It really meant a lot to me because here’s a situation where the man just took over the presidency under tragic conditions, and within those four days, he took the time—the president of the United States!—he took the  time to write two individual letters to his predecessor’s children,” said Cranston in a press conference at the LBJ Library last week. “That says something about the character of a person.”

The idea for the play had been percolating in Schenkkan’s brain for quite some time. His father taught at UT and worked with then-Sen. Johnson to obtain approval to launch KUT, the first public radio station in the Southwest.

“I’ve been aware of and fascinated by him since I was old enough to be aware of politics. You couldn’t grow up in Austin, Texas, and not be aware of senator and then-President Johnson. The man cast such a gigantic shadow across the landscape and especially here in Austin, which in those days was a much smaller town,” Schenkkan said.

Both Cranston and Schenkkan spoke about the complicated and complex character of Johnson and how describing him often requires contradictory words.

“He was a man driven, obsessed, ambitious, a terrible bully, a wonderful friend, fickle, loyal,” Schenkann said. “Such a complicated individual, who—particularly in the course of the play’s time, November ’63 through November ’64—accomplishes so much. Particularly in the passage of 1964 Civil Rights Bill. A landmark piece of civil rights legislation that changes the country completely as a result of that.”

Schenkkan continues to draw inspiration from the “inherent theatricality” of Johnson’s life and the Shakespearean tragedy found in both his character and career arc. The playwright is now at work on The Great Society, a sequel to the play that picks up immediately after Johnson’s 1964 reelection and delves into his work on programs like Medicaid, Medicare, the 1965 Voting Rights Bill, as the dark shadow of the Vietnam War threatens to destroy all of his political achievements, and Johnson ultimately decides not to run for a second term.

“I think there’s actually a lot that has been forgotten about President Johnson,” said Schenkkan. “I think the way in which he left and the time that he left, fairly or unfairly, has been so colored by Vietnam that the legislative achievements, the enormous legislative achievements—the progressive high-water mark in American politics that was his creation—have largely been forgotten.”

Photos from top:

Reed Birney and Bryan Cranston perform a scene in All the Way.

© American Repertory Theater; Courtesy of Evgenia Eliseeva.

Cranston views objects in museum collections at the LBJ Presidential Library for his upcoming role. 

Courtesy of Lauren Gerson.


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