News Flash: Broadway Has Always Been Political

The theater has never been removed from the world in which it exists. Why should we expect it to be now?
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One of the chief complaints lodged against the cast of “Hamilton” after actor Brandon Dixon addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence from the stage goes a little something like this: The theater is not a place for politics.

Pence was just trying to spend time with his family, “Hamilton” hecklers have suggested across social media, admonishing the musical team’s decision to speak directly to a politician in the audience after curtain call ― without giving him the opportunity to speak back, some added.

Dixon had no right to “harass” him, our own president-elect chirped, taking issue with a statement that was at its most heated when Dixon said, “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

One need only peruse the #BoycottHamilton hashtag to get a sense of this discontent. Let’s keep lectures where they belong, the angry beseech. Where do the lectures belong? Anywhere but the theater, apparently. But this belief ― that the theater is a place of political neutrality, that its halls are meant to be a “safe and special place” ― is a fallacy.

We don’t need a deep history lesson to prove this point, though Aeschylus’ and Shakespeare’s plays, or Puccini’s operas, would certainly do the trick. We could even stick to musicals to lay bare the reality that theater has always stared politics in the face.

There’s Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s adaptation of Les Misérables, undeniably centered on the politics of revolutionary France, the power of rebellion, and the consequences of class warfare. There’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” a musical that reflects on the anti-Jewish pogroms of early 20th-century Russia and the ways in which religious freedom and belief have evolved over time. There’s “Hair,” which amplified the voices of the counterculture movement in 1960s America and those who opposed the Vietnam War.

And then there’s “Rent,” a story of New York City’s art scene as much as it was a story of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. “Rent” composer and playwright Jonathan Larson confronted America’s troubled handling of multiculturalism, addiction and homophobia in a time when politicians volleyed HIV/AIDS-related legislation back and forth, the same year the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative formed and HIV/AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”

“This generation’s Vietnam is the AIDS virus and the rampant materialism they see all around them,” New York Times theater critic Laurie Winer wrote in 1996, after “Rent” hit Broadway.

The play “Angels in America” had broached similar subject matter a few years before, “The Normal Heart” several years before that. These productions were never removed from the world in which they existed; they offered less a “safe and special place” as Trump imagines it and more a provocative and deliberately entertaining lens through which audience members could view their tumultuous times.

“Any play that makes an audience think out of the box, that makes connections to life and names our pain and by doing so makes our pain subject to thinking and the process of understanding, is doing something inherently political,” theater critic John Lahr once explained. “By promoting understanding, by putting experience in context, by making connections between the normal and the rational, theatre is an act of anti-terrorism. It stimulates courage and a survival spirit. In that sense of political, there are a lot of serious plays doing their work in the world.”

Most importantly, “Hamilton” itself is a political musical, one that attempts, as its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has explained many times, to reframe the way we envision partisan politics in America, to infuse a narrative of our Founding Fathers with humanity ― and with the faces of men and women of color, too.

While “Hamilton” cast members don’t usually break the fourth wall to spark a conversation with one audience member in particular, they had every right to do so. And beyond their right to stage peaceful protest in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the world ― who has espoused policies detrimental to LGBTQ people and supports an administration built upon individuals with anti-Muslim, supremacist sentiments ― they did so in an arena historically infused with politics.

There are countless other, even more obviously politically charged plays and musicals worth discussing: “Assassins” (the hedonism of political culture in America), “An Enemy of the People” (whistleblowers), “The Crucible” (witch hunts), and, more recently, “Eclipsed” (civil war in Liberia) and “Allegiance” (Japanese prison camps). And those are just some of my favorites, cherry-picked from a long, long, long list of historically relevant titles.

Ultimately, Broadway has never been politically neutral. As author Celeste Ng told The Huffington Post, “Writing ― making any kind of art ― is always a political act, but at this particular moment it feels more important than ever.”

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