Booed on Broadway

Last week, I was lucky to be in the audience for The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway. If you haven’t heard of the company, they gather theater professionals to write, rehearse and present six one-act plays in a single day. I watched most of the process, and was moved by how an artistic community mobilized to comment on the presidential election. The single performance, in front of a packed house, was both therapy session and celebration. It was unexpectedly cathartic, although I wondered what President-elect Trump might have tweeted if he’d seen the show.

Four nights later, Vice President-elect Mike Pence was in the audience at Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway. Some in the audience booed him, some cheered. Following the curtain call, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon read a statement that had been written by the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, its director, Thomas Kail, and the lead producer, Jeffrey Seller, with input from cast members:

“Vice President-elect Pence, welcome. Thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical. We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us. Thank you.”

Now, as Broadway news goes, this is not salacious. It’s less naughty than Patti LuPone stopping a performance for someone’s ringing phone, or pulling someone else’s device from their texting hands. But then Trump tweeted (and kept tweeting), and the Internet followed him down the rabbit hole. The next day, I read some of the most vile commentary I’ve ever seen on Facebook (I reported two posts for extreme language, and I’m someone who enjoys a well-placed cuss.)

A few thoughts, addressing nobody in particular, but in response to commentary on both sides of the “issue”:

Hamilton is a political show, both in its subject and in a meta sense. (As one person wrote, “It’s not Mary Poppins.”) I’d even suggest that show personnel might have been derelict if they hadn’t addressed the elephant in the room.

The statement itself, both as written and as delivered, was measured and respectful.

Hamilton has been sold out for ages. It seems doubtful that Mr. Pence purchased his tickets a year or more ago – he doesn’t seem a likely aficionado of musicals. So although he might have been in the audience for personal enjoyment, he was there because of his professional status (I assume he was given house seats, which are set aside by theater management for celebrities and other special guests.)

President-elect Trump offered more public commentary on this minor event than just about anything else in an otherwise news-packed week for his fledgling administration. My initial reaction was that he might have been relieved at being able to dig in to something that was up his alley, but then I wondered if it wasn’t a diversionary tactic. If so, mission accomplished: there was comparatively little discussion of the $25 million settlement of the pending fraud trial against him (which he’d said he wouldn’t settle.) Rabbit hole, indeed.

Finally, while Mr. Trump’s repeated demand for an apology from the Hamilton cast begs for a recollection of his own unatoned offenses, I’m more struck by the expectation that performing artists should keep their mouths shut and just entertain us. Mr. Pence has a record of promoting discriminatory policies that directly concern many in the Hamilton company. The Richard Rodgers Theatre is not The Cotton Club; its performers should not be similarly cowed. As Garrison Keillor sang in his definitive song about Newt Gingrich: “Artists always have the final say.”