Rush Limbaugh! The Musical, Second City’s latest theatrical production, is a very dark show. It's definitely a comedy show, but it's the sort of black comedy you walk out of feeling depressed, scared, and kind of dead inside.
The show chronicles Rush Limbaugh’s (Mark Sutton) rise from small town DJ to famous conservative talk show host, intertwining commentary on modern American politics all along the way; for instance, supporting characters include Hilary Clinton, Barney Frank, Karl Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld. Set in 2014, the show imagines where Rush will be in five years. Obviously, the narrative isn’t purely factual—according to the musical, Rush decides to go on the radio and “be an unbearable pain in the ass” after witnessing a friend in pain in the restroom—but the show sticks to Rush's important biological facts.
Per the title, the show is full of musical numbers, which are by far the most entertaining part. The melodies usually come from well-known songs, like “Under The Sea” or “La Vie Boheme.” However, the lyrics are entirely original; the melody from “Under The Sea,” for example, is reworked as an ode to OxyContin. The contrast between the form and content of these songs (look, it’s a lighthearted song about using Jesus to push your hyper-conservative political agenda!) is a reliable source of comedy, especially when it is paired with Republicans doing synchronized dance.
The show as a whole has its hits, but mostly misses. There are some great one-liners—at one point, Rush turns to Ann Coulter and says, “You are as charming as I am smart!”—and the narrator, Shasta (Karla L. Beard), has a truly beautiful singing voice. All the performances are solid, with Bumper Carroll’s Karl Rove standing out as especially excellent. But these moments are scattered among moments of bitterness about American politics that are neither insightful nor funny. Rush is portrayed as a fat, bigoted imbecile, and to avoid the appearance of partisanship, liberals are portrayed just as poorly. Hilary and Barney are overly sensitive, ineffective politicians, worried that “competition destroys the confidence of children with a natural talent for losing.”
In this vision of politics, everyone looks bad, and the show's criticism is rarely constructive. At it's worst, the level of the show's political analysis is as follows: Rush says stupid, crazy things, he is popular for no reason, and it would be nice if he shut up. At it's best, the show crafts this message into something more nuanced and interesting, but often it delivers this simplistic, angry message without adornment, leading to the show's most uncomfortable moments. At one point, for example, Rush thanks god for 9/11 because it offers him a great political opportunity. At another point in the hypothetical future, he tells his listeners to go out and kill liberals in a scene that eerily evokes the radio propaganda of the Rwandan genocide.
Rush Limbaugh! The Musical is not as funny as other Second City shows I’ve seen, but it has its fair share of funny moments. Its real problem is that it has no heart. There are no truly likable characters, and it focuses on politics only to portray it as hopeless and ideologically bankrupt. The show is pure non-constructive criticism and its only message is people are jerks—although they are sometimes funny jerks!—and the future of the country is bleak.