If anybody had told me last week that the biggest political story in the world was about to emerge from a Broadway musical, I wouldn’t have believed them. While theatre retains its satirical bite and political currency in some smaller corners of the world, the bright lights and big budgets of Broadway have long since sanitised political debate almost entirely out of the products this multi-billion dollar industry delivers to its customers.
Sure, this is an industry staffed by artists whose political beliefs thread their way through their work — from Fun Home‘s subtle appeals to give a fair chance to non-traditional families; to Fiddler on the Roof’s surprisingly pertinent refugee narratives; to The Color Purple’s take on misogyny and oppression — but the name of the game is to win tourist money and appeal to the broadest possible audience, creating a product to roll out all around the world. Politics? Forget about it.
It’s the type of industry in which audiences will avoid a work with even a whiff of the political about it, to avoid “preaching”.
So when a show like Hamilton comes along, wearing its politics on its sleeve, it feels like a substantial shift, and rattles things up. It’s the most explicitly political major musical since Hair premiered in 1967.
I’m not going to recount the details of the Mike Pence-Hamilton incident here — they’re as widely known as the details of the musical’s extraordinary and unprecedented success. What’s worth talking about is not so much the fact that cast member Brandon Victor Dixon thanked Vice President Elect Mike Pence for attending the musical before imploring him to support a diverse and inclusive America, but the response that speech received from Donald Trump and his supporters, who contend that the theatre should be a “safe and special space“.
Trump’s assertion that the cast “harassed” Pence or that they were rude to him is entirely without foundation. Seriously, watch the video. Dixon thanked Pence and told the audience not to boo as Pence was walking out during curtain calls. (I happen to consider that quite rude.)
But Trump’s assertion that theatre should be a space where social and political realities are left at the door is reflective of a widely held perception of theatre’s role in 2016. It’s considered a diversion from the real world, rather than an attempt to connect big questions with our hearts and grapple with the toughest of intellectual and emotional realities in an enriching way.
Of course, you can do all of that without making statements as directed and explicit as the one made by Dixon, but it makes sense that the cast of Hamilton wanted to get their message across with as much clarity as possible. Sometimes the metaphors of theatre just aren’t enough.
Even without taking into account any of the artistic arguments for taking the stance taken by the cast of Hamilton, nobody should be surprised that the Broadway industry wants its voices heard by Mike Pence.
This is an industry supported and run in large part by gay men. An industry which lost a huge chunk of its brightest and most talented during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, but has continued to inject billions upon billions of dollars into the US economy. An industry which acts as a kind of calling card for all of American culture.
If Mike Pence, a man who has advocated to defund HIV/AIDS research and funnel that money into programs which discourage men from having sex with men (he never explicitly pointed towards “gay conversion therapy”, but that’s not an unreasonable inference to draw from what he’s said), wants to see a Broadway show led by Javier Munoz, a gay, HIV-positive man, it’s perfectly understandable that the cast would want to express their concerns to him, using the platform which they have: the stage.
Munoz’s good health, which allows him to perform the title role in Hamilton seven times a week, is due in part to the type of research which Pence wanted to defund. We’re not just talking about artists whinging and enjoying the sound of their own voice here, we’re talking about people who could be directly and potentially catastrophically affected by this man’s actions. Would you shut up if you had the captive attention of a man who wanted to stop the research that allows you to live a long and healthy life? I think not.
Hamilton’s cast is also made up of Americans from all different cultural backgrounds, and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an Hispanic man who is one of this century’s greatest artists. His work also celebrates the achievements and contributions of immigrants to the US, which sits in direct opposition to many of the things said by Donald Trump and Mike Pence during this election campaign.
By telling part of America’s foundation story with an ethnically diverse cast, Miranda and the other creatives behind Hamilton have recontextualised a story about revolution, bringing the period’s politics screaming into today.
The score is mostly rapped and finds a meeting point between more traditional approaches to musical theatre and the hip-hop culture brought to the US by its immigrant communities and developed over hundreds of years.
This certainly isn’t a new thing; Broadway theatre is an industry that has borrowed from immigrant cultures since the beginning of the 20th century when composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were not just using aspects of their own Jewish cultural backgrounds to create music, but delving into African American cultures to find new rhythms and a new aesthetic.
I suppose the point of all of this is to say that nobody should be allowed to drop their politics at the door when they enter a theatre. Despite what many believe, and the forms which Broadway has championed, theatre is not a mere escape, nor is it a holy space separate to the world where everybody can come to “relax”. At its best, theatre digs deep into the beating heart of our society and its artists fight back with intelligence, passion and compassion. Making theatre is a generous act, but that doesn’t mean it exists purely to entertain and please an audience. And even when that’s its sole objective, the lives of the people who make the work, and the cultures which they draw upon, are unavoidably politicised.
I really don’t want to quote Shakespeare, because I don’t think we should be shaping our theatre according to words laid down by a playwright from four centuries ago. But the notion that theatre can be a mirror held up to nature continues to serve us pretty well. Even when that mirror is deliberately warped or grimy, we see something of ourselves reflected back.
That puts these artists in a unique position to speak truth to power. Here’s hoping many others join the Hamilton cast in doing so.