The big news over the last weekend was that the Vice-President-Elect, Mike Pence, attended the musical Hamilton. The news wasn’t that he somehow got seats at the last minute, but that at the end of the show, the actors pleaded with him to protect diversity. This elicited a response from the President-Elect that the comment was wrong, and that theatre should be a “safe space”. The President-Elect has continued his war with the musical, calling for a boycott thereof. Broadway is not backing down. Nor should it.
Mr. President-Elect, study your history. The theatre has never been a safe space. From an active shooter making a commentary on the Presidency in 1865 (the last active shooter in a theatre — what? too soon?), to annual collections for Equity Fights Aids, actors have always been passionate about the ideas in which they believe. Further, theatre has never been a space devoid of “dangerous ideas” — in fact, theatre often provides a space to explore those ideas — especially in times of turmoil in our nation. (Vox also has a nice summary on this point)
Don’t believe me. Perhaps this will refresh your memory.
- Showboat, in 1927 during the “roaring 20s” was a commentary on the tragedy of race relations and mixed marriages. It was a theme revisited again by Hammerstein in South Pacific, when we learned that racism and hatred had to be carefully taught.
- Sound of Music may have seemed light, but it was a commentary on the rise of Hitler. Hitler was also explored in Caberet, which also touched on the themes of antisemitism even more explicitly. Another musical exploring antisemitism in society was Fiddler on the Roof.
- Finians Rainbow was far from a love story — it was a hard hitting commentary on race relations. Similary, Lil Abner was a commentary on nuclear proliferation and the automation of society.
- Hair, of course, was an anti-war musical — again, a commentary on the politics of this country. Coming out in 1967 as the war was picking up steam, it also commented on the free love era and the impact on race relations there.
- Chicago, a long running hit, was a commentary as well — a commentary on our media driven celebrity driven society — a commentary on how Razzle Dazzle can distract from what was really going on.
- Rent, of course, was a commentary on the AIDS epidemic and its impact on society, as well as a commentary on redevelopment.
- Avenue Q, developed during the Bush administration, was a commentary on how society was hurting economically; how trickle down hadn’t worked, even for gay Republicans.
- Wicked — you know, that popular musical — isn’t just the Wizard of Oz. Listen to author Greg Maguire — it is a commentary on the rising power of an evil leader (something that becomes clearer in his second book, which was intended as a direct commentary on the Iraq war torture). The dangers of evil meglomanic leaders is a popular topic, from Lion King to Hamlet (which it was based upon).
- Fun Home explores growing up lesbian in a closeted household, and the dangers of being closeted.
- The Book of Mormon confronts the issue of what is behind faith.
- Spring Awakening confronts the issue of teen sexuality and its impacts.
- Allegiance was a reminder of the wrongs of the Japanese Internment.
- Hamilton, of course, is a celebration of the impact on America from immigrants and diversity. “Immigrants — We get the job done!”
These are just musicals. Commentary in plays is even more, from Death of a Salesman to Angels in America to The Laramie Project to…. I, of course, could go on and on. Theatre has long reflected the concerns and worries about society, and actors have long spoken their feelings. That is the beauty of America — that such feelings can be expressed without fear of reprisal or jail. That’s often not true in other countries, where actors risk their lives to express opinions from the stage.
So, Mr. President-Elect, please kindly shut up about the theatre insulting you, or TV insulting you. You are a better man than that; free speech cannot hurt you. Do your job — be a president for all America, even the greater-than -half that didn’t vote for you. Make wise selections for your advisors — advisors that are respected by all, not just rewards for those in your inner circle. Simply put: You want to avoid criticism? Then govern in a manner that does not invite it from large segments of the people you govern.
P.S.: I did hear a rumor that Mr. Trump was so upset, he vowed to build a fourth wall in all theatres, and to make the actors pay for it. Like that will ever happen.