CAMBRIDGE — Among the colorful exploits of Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s first-born: She routinely flouted the dress code at society events. She had a pet snake named “Emily Spinach.” And when her dad forbade smoking under his roof (the White House roof, that is), she acquiesced — and puffed on the roof instead.
More often than not, Alice was the star of the show. And now, two Harvard students are bringing her to the stage.
“White House Princess,” an original musical written by seniors Maureen Clare and Charlotte Daniels, uses music and humor as it leans into Alice’s rebellious, larger-than-life personality, following her rise to stardom and her tumultuous marriage to US Representative Nicholas Longworth.
But the play’s co-creators also aim to capture a version of Alice they say is often lost to history: not the shallow socialite from contemporary headlines, but a complex, brilliant woman who challenged the social norms of her time.
“She was such an important figure, I think specifically for women during that time,” Daniels said. “She changed the rules.”
From swimming in her clothing to wearing blue to her debutante ball, Alice took an unconventional approach to navigating Victorian-era social mores: She defied them.
“You have to think that if you were a girl reading a newspaper about Alice jumping into a pool fully clothed, that your horizons were a little bit expanded about what a woman could be and do,” Clare said.
Songs like “Be Conspicuous” capture Alice’s philosophy in musical form. And Theodore Roosevelt’s “United States of Alice” humorously represents his response: He rattles off his presidential achievements — and says none compares to the difficulty of raising his teenage daughter.
A parallel plot follows Alice’s more prudish cousin — Eleanor Roosevelt — and her own stint in the White House as first lady, as well as her lesser-known romance with female reporter Lorena Hickok. Eleanor and Lorena also get their own song: “Dearest Darling,” which draws its name from the salutation the pair used in their romantic letters to each other.
In its treatment of both Alice and Eleanor, the play strives to portray “women trying to live on their own terms” despite an often male-dominated social world that prescribed its own, Clare said.
“Alice is very similar to her father, and the traits that elevate her father to the presidency get her shot down and called crazy.”
“White House Princess” often flips the script. In “Woman in the Arena,” a play on Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1910 “The Man in the Arena” speech, Alice applies her father’s words to her own marital struggles: “I’ll be the woman in the arena…if I fell while daring greatly, at least I dared at all.”
Though the play is a historical interpretation, Clare and Daniels say it hews closely to the facts of its protagonists’ lives — the result of three years of deep research.
To understand the Roosevelts beyond caricature, the pair pored over biographies, talked to historians, and dug into Harvard’s archives, which house a major collection of the family’s papers.
Working with original documents was an emotional process. It was often joyful, like when Clare and Daniels found Theodore’s loving letters to his daughter, complete with doodles in the margins. But it could also be heavy: The pair found a letter from Theodore’s sister, Anna, chronicling the tragic death of Alice’s mother. An attached envelope contained a lock of her mother’s hair.
Throughout the research, Clare and Daniels took seriously their responsibility in telling Alice’s story in a sensitive, truthful way. That thoughtfulness meant the pair often acted as skeptical excavators, especially when reading male biographers’ accounts of Alice’s life.
“We were very mindful of the fact that books have editors, and that historians have biases,” Clare said.
Instead, Clare and Daniels relied heavily on primary documents — many of their song lyrics are direct quotations. To make that history even more concrete for audiences, the show is accompanied by an exhibition in the Horner Room, across from the theater. Before and after the show, audience members are invited to peruse original Roosevelt letters and artifacts.
Though they’ve strived for historical accuracy, Clare and Daniels admit they have their own leanings: “We’re very biased — we love Alice!” Clare said.
The co-creators, who have been friends since meeting through Harvard’s comedy scene as first-year students, both dabbled in songwriting and have always loved musicals. But writing their own was a new venture with a steep learning curve.
To make matters more challenging, the pair wrote more than half of the play thousands of miles apart: During the COVID pandemic, they collaborated remotely on a Google document, Clare Zooming in from Buffalo, N.Y., and Daniels from Los Angeles.
Though recruiting Harvard actors to audition for a play they had never heard of was a hurdle, the duo has built a “team of friends” who are deeply invested in the show and its characters, Daniels said.
“I would love to think it’s because of us and our talent, but I think it’s the sheer force of Alice’s personality,” Clare said. “I think it’s really hard to look away once you know she exists.”
Clare and Daniels hope people watching the play will come away not only knowing who Alice Roosevelt was, but also with a curiosity for more of history’s untold stories.
As Daniels put it: “To have them walk out thinking, ‘I’d never heard of Alice, and Alice is incredible. Who else have I not heard of?’ would be a nice question for them to ask.”
“White House Princess” premieres Thursday evening at the Agassiz Theatre in Cambridge and runs through Sunday. Tickets start at $10 and are available through the Harvard Box Office.