One of the things that fascinates Brian Cox about President Lyndon Baines Johnson is that the 36th President of the United States was a different person in every room he was in. “He’s such a brilliant operator,” Cox says of the man he now inhabits eight shows a week in The Great Society at Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. “He really cajoles, seduces, bonds, blackmails; he does the whole bit.”
In creating a character who nearly switches personalities according to his goals and environment, the actor set out to find the voice to match—a voice previously brought to the stage by Jack Willis (a Kansan with a Midwestern bent) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Bryan Cranston (to Tony-winning effect) in Robert Schenkkan’s first LBJ play All The Way on Broadway and for HBO. “Each bring a different, very personal way in on the musicality of Robert’s language—not unlike LBJ himself,” says director Bill Rauch. “LBJ would lean into the Texan twang more when he was trying to charm someone or when he was pulling out a folksy anecdote in order to disarm or make a point.”
Indeed, when Cox opens the play with a story about watching men ride bulls as a child, he slips into that relaxed Texan cadence, endearing himself to the audience; but when he’s haranguing Alabama Governor Wallace over suppression of voting rights among black citizens, the growl comes out.
Nailing the malleable accent for the Scottish actor is only one detail of the puzzle Cox had to solve with the help of dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser. She takes into account oral posture (“how their mouth is shaped, whether or not they move their lips a lot”), pronunciation, placement, prosody (“like melody”) and the effort (“Is the way they speak, more like a press or a glide or a punch or a float?”). Fraser and Cox dove into hours of recordings—speeches and addresses and secret White House tapes—to find a “home base” sound.
Her questions led to that sound like a mathematical equation: “How the language moves from speaker to spoken to can either be direct or indirect; the weight of the language can either be light or heavy; and the way the words link together can either be sudden or sustained,” she explains. (A strategy she employed with every actor in the cast who play figures from Bobby Kennedy to Richard Nixon.) “A punch is direct, heavy, and sudden and a press is direct, heavy, and sustained,” she says. Martin Luther King, Jr., played captivatingly by Grantham Coleman, glides and presses and floats, whereas “LBJ is definitely a press that sometimes moves to a punch.”
Cox did his homework and mastered that home base quickly, using it only as one texture in the fabric of his LBJ. “It’s not only technical sounds of the dialect, it’s how much meaning is conveyed and what’s the most important word in the sentence, how you drive a point all the way to the end of a thought, keeping up the vocal energy,” Rauch adds. Not to mention who you’re talking to and the emotional stakes of the moment.
A “stage beast”—as Rauch calls him—who has played everyone from Hannibal Lecter to King Lear, Cox layers in the emotional stakes of the moment, rich character history, and audience reactions in his ever-shifting performance.
Which is why the LBJ we hear onstage might not ring familiar to Americans alive during his Presidency, but still rings authentic.
Precision in this dramatic context isn’t about impersonation, it’s about emotional truth. “The task was to find a meeting place between the actors’ own voice and essence, the essence of what Robert created, and the historical characters—it’s a three-legged stool,” Rauch continues. “It’s not a documentary, it’s a dramatic ride.”
And Cox is one hell of a conductor.