The Harmony of Politics and Musical Theatre
A month ago I was able to have the extremely fortunate experience of sitting next to my partner in the Richard Rodgers Theater while watching the first President of the United States sing only to be followed by hearing the current President of the United States speak.
Of course, George Washington wasn’t really on stage. That was Christopher Jackson singing his heart out as our nation’s first commander-in-chief. But President Barack Obama really was on stage addressing an audience of theatregoers who were attending a special performance of Hamilton as a benefit for the Democratic National Committee. After an electrifying performance of Hamilton, Obama stood at a podium off center stage right and spoke for approximately 40 minutes about his administration’s achievements, the current state of the election process, and the necessary actions to move the country forward.
He also drew a couple obvious parallels from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, including how his administration will have a long-lasting legacy (with the concept of “legacy” being a beautiful yet dangerous obsession of Alexander Hamilton) and how the citizens hold more power than any elected official. It’s no coincidence that the end of Hamilton spends much time focusing on the accomplishments of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, who may not be a founding father, but ignited more positive change and social consciousness than a person could dare to dream.
Pairing the POTUS with Hamilton seems like an obvious choice, but not because Hamilton could appear as veering towards “The Left.” In fact, Obama joked that this musical was the first thing he and Dick Cheney could agree on. But more so because Hamilton serves as a blunt example of political musical theatre. But this is not the first time politics and musical theatre have coincided.
There have been countless examples of how musical theatre (or any type of theatre for that matter) have come into play with public policy. When The Cradle Will Rock opened in 1937, the WPA tried to shut down the performance because the content was “too radical” and “pro-union.” In 1970, Richard Nixon requested lyrics be changed to 1776’s “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” because of a fear of how it could portray conservative politicians. Many credit the boom of blockbuster musical comedies in the 2000s to the emotional response of the 9/11 attacks and the desire for escapist theatre. And just five years ago, The Scottsboro Boys was greeted by countless protests claiming the show was culturally and socially damaging with such a strong racial rhetoric.
These are just a few examples. And some musicals are more likely to cause a greater debate than others. But as a friend of mine has said, “All theatre is political theatre, whether you like it or not.” Theatre, like any art form, is a reflection of the world we live in. And while musical theatre cannot literally change a law, it can certainly change the perspective of voters, elected officials, delegates and more.
As I sat in Row Q, watching President Barack Obama use a new musical to support his ideologies and policies, I couldn’t help but think how pertinent it is to see politicians use theatre to help our country move forward. As ridiculous as the question may seem, what would our founding fathers think of the current political state of theatre today? Where would they nod in agreement? Where would they frown in disdain? And most importantly, where would they stop and question their own ideals? And if a new musical could bring Democrats and Republicans together, then the possibilities really are endless.