Can Broadway Theatre Really Be Political?

“How the fuck did this happen?”

Those are the striking opening lines spoken by Michael Moore in The Terms of My Surrender, his one-man show now playing at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. Moore, a renowned documentary filmmaker, author, and activist, is one of the most visible and polarizing political commentators in America. However, based on reviews of the show, many audience members may instead be wondering, “Why the fuck did I pay to see this?”

[insert generic tasteless joke relating “TrumpiLeaks” to golden showers]

Down to the promotional material, Moore has made no attempt to hide what the The Terms of My Surrender really is: a two-hour monologue that has been characterized as a “therapy session” for audience members frustrated with the Trump Administration. It’s not a surprising move for Moore, who predicted Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election and personally dislikes Trump so much he even started a website called “TrumpiLeaks” where you can privately contact Moore if you have damaging information regarding the Trump Administration.

Reviews of the show have praised Moore’s humor and onstage performance, but the phrase “preaching to the choir” has come up more than once. Most reviewers have questioned the effectiveness of dedicating an entire Broadway show exclusively to liberal ideas and Trump-bashing, when most theatregoers already tend to lean Democrat. Trump supporters, even if they went to the show (they would have to be completely ignorant of Moore’s previous work), are unlikely to be converted. Even further, the box office grosses for The Terms of My Surrender show that audiences have been shrinking in the past few weeks, meaning that the show is failing to attract people other than diehard Moore admirers.

It also raises the question: Can Broadway really be political in a meaningful way?

Depending on your experience with Broadway theatre, or even smaller theatre productions, you may have seen many shows that are directly political, like The Terms of My Surrender, and many that are completely entertaining and devoid of any straightforward political moralizing. You may believe that theatre is a space where you should be able to forget your problems and simply enjoy the performance. If so, you’re in great company! Donald Trump agrees with you.

What Trump is referring to in this tweet is the November 18, 2016 performance of the Broadway show Hamilton, which was attended by then-Vice President elect Mike Pence. Immediately following the show, the cast, aware of Pence’s presence in the audience, read a letter addressed to Pence voicing many of the concerns Americans had about the incoming Trump Administration. While Trump responded with angry tweets, Pence himself was undisturbed, commenting that he enjoyed the show and wasn’t offended by the personal address.

The cast of Hamilton performing at what, presumably, will be their last show at The White House for quite some time (image credit: Pete Souza).

Hamilton couldn’t have been a better show to send this message; the show has been nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, featuring a racially diverse cast of actors to play (mostly white) major American historical-political figures like George Washington and the titular hero Alexander Hamilton. The show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has called Hamilton “a story about America then, told by America now.” It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Hamilton‘s success on Broadway (it has been running sold-out performances for over 2 years now) may be owing to its ability to project a progressive message, without being so didactic that political conservatives like Mike Pence can’t enjoy the show. That being said, Pence hasn’t done much since taking office to help the kinds of people the Hamilton cast was referring to, so perhaps a more direct political touch is necessary, even if it isn’t the most profitable option.

This seems to be what Michael Moore is doing: The Terms of My Surrender rarely sticks to a set script, with Moore often incorporating current events into the show. At one performance, he invited the audience to exit the theater, where buses took them directly to Trump Tower to protest Trump’s statement about the Charlottesville terrorist attack. It’s also interesting that, during that protest, Moore was accompanied by some of his fellow political performers: the lead actors of the play 1984, the Broadway adaptation of George Orwell’s famous novel.

While 1984 isn’t a direct critique of Trump, anyone who has read the book can tell you that Orwell’s work predicts modern concerns, such as government surveillance and “fake news.” A stage adaptation of 1984 certainly sounds relevant to this day and age, but, like The Terms of My Surrender, is it really necessary? The play (which has been described as “feel-bad entertainment”) doesn’t expand much on Orwell’s ideas, which have already been repeated in news media so often that making a show about them seems redundant. Perhaps more frustratingly, it has garnered more attention for its graphic torture scenes, which have left audience members fainting and vomiting in their seats, than for its political commentary.

Another recent (albeit, off-Broadway) show caused a more incensed response over a particularly violent political scene: the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park performance of Julius Caesar, which featured a Donald Trump look-alike as Julius Caesar.  If you’re familiar with the play, or the story of Julius Caesar, you know that Caesar is murdered by his political peers about halfway through. William Shakespeare’s works have been changed and reinterpreted for centuries, and Julius Caesar has often been used as an allegory for contemporary political figures. So the Public Theater’s decision to make Caesar a stand-in for Trump wasn’t particularly surprising, except to people who hadn’t actually seen the show. Despite the fact that Caesar’s murder is portrayed as a bad decision that ultimately leads to chaos, numerous conservative political outlets (as well as Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.) encouraged their supporters to protest the Public Theater’s production. The protests ultimately led to two major financial sponsors dropping their funding for The Public Theater.

The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar (image credit: The Public Theater)

This type of response highlights another major problem with political theater – even when it elicits a reaction, those reactions can be strong, ignorant (the Public Theater’s show clearly did not endorse Trump being murdered), and the possible repercussions for the theater can outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, shows like Hamilton, while having a broader cultural appeal, are possibly too indirect to actually make a difference, and shows like The Terms of My Surrender fail to reach anyone beyond a liberal audience. In the end, reaching a balance between a direct, useful political commentary while still offering audiences a great show is a challenge that few Broadway shows can claim to have overcome.

One thought on “Can Broadway Theatre Really Be Political?

  1. When it comes to Broadway shows that are political–or really that challenge norms in any way–I always think about tourists who stumble into them without knowing much about what will happen. I think often the response is something like, “Well, we visited New York because it’s weird and we experienced some weird.” But maybe sometimes it goes further. Maybe some minds are shaken up?

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