Musical Theatre in the Trump Age

Musical Theatre in the Trump Age

Matthew Teague Miller

From its inception, Musical Theatre has embraced and celebrated diversity.  It is an art form that has lived on the front lines of the fight for equality and challenged its audience with forward-thinking and progressive ideas.  As James Corden stated at the opening of the 2016 Tony Awards, “Theatre is a place where every race, creed, gender and sexuality is equal, is embraced, and is loved.  Hate will never win” (Corden).  This is reflected in the spirit of Musical Theatre as well as the themes of its productions. 

Original production of 'Showboat'

Original production of 'Showboat'

Many scholars consider Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse’s 1927 production of Showboat to be the first great step from the traditional Musical Comedy into what is now referred to as Musical Theatre.  As Richard Kislan says in his book The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theatre, “[With Showboat] The prototype for serious modern musical had arrived” (Kislan 121).  It was the heavy themes of racial inequality, domestic abuse and alcoholism and Oscar Hammerstein’s huge step towards lyric integration that made it a “musical play” as opposed to its Musical Comedy and Operetta predecessors.  It was also a landmark Broadway moment for another reason.  It was the first racially integrated Broadway Musical (Naden 16).  African American stars had previously appeared in predominantly white Follies and Vaudeville style shows but “Musicals such as Showboat…went still further by mixing black and white talent in both leading roles and in the chorus” (Woll 211).  While reading this show today it would be easy to make the argument that several of the characters are drawn from negative racial archetypes, in 1927 the mere visual of African American performers singing and acting on the same stage as Caucasian ones cannot be understated.  Especially when one considers that this production opened 27 years before “Brown versus Board of Education.”  Add to the integrated cast the incredibly well drawn character of Julie and her struggles as a mixed-race woman at the turn of the century and it is clear that Showboat was ahead of its time as being the birthplace of musical theatre as an art form and in its strong stance for inclusion and diversity.

When Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan adapted James A. Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific for the stage in 1949, The New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson called it “a magnificent musical drama” (Atkinson).  Only four years after the end of World War II the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical tells the story of a group of soldiers and nurses stationed on a small island in the middle of the South Pacific and the unique racial interface between the military and the local island people.  When the protagonist Nellie Forbush learns that the man she has fallen in love with has mixed-race children from a previous marriage with a Tonkinese woman, she leaves him saying it is “Not because of (his) children” but because of their Polynesian mother (Hammerstein 81).  Meanwhile another character, Lt. Cable, through the matchmaking skills of the iconic Bloody May, has fallen in love with the island girl Liat but, despite his feelings, decides he cannot marry her, presumably for the same reason of an underlying concern of how a racist world would view this interracial marriage.  In a desperate attempt to understand his feelings and grapple with Nellie and his decision, Lt. Cable sings the following about racism.

        You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
        You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
        It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—
        You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Reading these lyrics through today lens, it is a poignant, thought-provoking and poetic verse that carries incredible weight.  Considering the the age it was written, it is a magnificently, progressive and dangerously controversial statement that risked alienating a large portion of the audience.  1949 was only three years after the Japanese internment camps that incarcerated over 120,000 people, 62% of whom were American citizens, closed (History.com).  This musical, that challenged whether or not racism was “born in you” or “taught,” first appeared on a stage six years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, nine years before the sit-in civil rights movement began, and fourteen years before Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  South Pacific is another incredible example of Musical Theatre fighting on the front lines for equality and cultural diversity years before the movement gained steam or momentum. 

When Hair opened Off-Broadway, and eventually on Broadway, in 1968, it revolutionized musical theatre by breaking a number of cultural boundaries. With nearly a third of the cast African-American, it built off Showboat’s previously set multiracial precedent.  Equally as important, it was the first time the United States’ counter culture was represented on a Broadway stage.  With references and songs about sex and drugs, and the actual implementation of a Rock and Roll score, Hair not only depicted the anti-establishment but was written and performed by it.  Prior to this production, when “modern day youth” appeared on a Broadway stage, they looked like the Sweet Valley High townfolk in Bye Bye BirdieHair brought the drug-using, sex-having hippies who were hanging out in Central Park into a Broadway theatre and glorified their movement by embracing them as their own.  Denny Martin Flinn, in his book Musical! A Grand Tour, says, “Hair caught the crest of a powerful grass-roots movement in the country, and crystallized in dramatic form the anger building over everything from the government’s pursuit of an illegal and immoral war to the rigid social codes of the time. 

Moreover, it helped explain that movement to the middle class” (Flinn 334). Aided by the popularity of The Fifth Dimension’s cover of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, which spent six weeks as Billboard’s number one song (Billboard.com) in 1969, and the audience curiosity about the much talked about, albeit brief, nude scene, Hair was able to run over 1700 performances in New York.  It was uniquely able to build one bridge for a young audience, who seemed to view Broadway as a place for their parents, into the theatre and another bridge for the typically white, middle-class audience into the hippie “peace and love” movement of the late 1960s.  Hair’s concept musical format was a perfect fit for the “out there” times and it courageously looked its audience square-in-the-face and demanded that it was time for cultural change.  “Criticism of society’s entrenched institutions, from the stage, hadn’t been so severe since Aristophanes.  Hair may be the most potent and successful use of drama as politics in musical theatre history” (Flinn 334).

La Cage aux Folles

La Cage aux Folles

Despite the fact La Cage aux Folles was based on a previously written play, it was the success of the musical that cemented it into the history books.  Peter Filichia says in his 1993 book Let’s Put on a Musical, “The 1983 production opened to raves in Boston, and nothing could stop it from steamrolling onto Broadway, where it received equally good critical notices, nine Tony nominations, six awards- including Best Musical- and ran 1761 performances” (Filichia 180).  The musical, about same-sex parents who own, operate and perform in a drag club, sets out to normalize the family dynamic between two fathers and their son, who brings home his fiancé and her conservative parents.  With a moving storyline involving two men, who are married and deeply in love, this musical was years ahead of its time.  Thirty-two years before same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, two married men sat at a bistro table on a Broadway stage and sang, Song on the Sand, one of the most beautiful and simple love songs ever written for a Broadway musical.   Adding to its powerful and important impact was the unique historical moment that this musical appeared in the spotlight.  The 1983 opening was only two years after President Ronald Reagan endorsed the Family Protection Act, a law that would have prohibited the Federal Government from awarding any funds to an organization “that suggests that homosexuality can be an acceptable alternative lifestyle” (www.govetrack.us).  The August 21 opening was less than two months after Pat Buchanan, the President’s communication advisor, published a column in the New York Post calling AIDS nature’s retribution.  In his article Buchanan wrote, “The poor homosexuals; they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution” (Buchanan).  Two months after the column was published, George Hearn walked center stage of the Palace Theatre, cut off a chorus line of his fellow drag performers, who were referring to themselves as “an illusion,” and corrected them insisting that he was his “own special creation.”  He continues—

        There’s one life, and there’s no return and no deposit;
        One life, so it’s time to open up your closet.
        Life’s not worth a damn ‘til you can say,
        “Hey world, I am what I am!”

In the midst of the exploding AIDS crisis and threats of political reform that could cripple the community’s growing activism, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein courageously challenged the American conservative groups with a fun and sparkly Broadway musical, making La Cage aux Folles a landmark achievement in the canon of Musical Theatre history, as well as in the cultural revolution for diversity, equality and inclusion.

West Side Story, Cabaret, A Chorus Line, Rent, Hairspray, Next to Normal and today’s smash hit Hamilton are other examples of Musical Theatre taking strong stances by bringing up forward-thinking issues and confronting audiences with calls for change, diversity, and inclusion.  This legacy of onstage progressive activism begs the question, “What is Musical Theatre’s responsibility in this unique moment in America’s cultural history?”   A moment where walls, deportations and travel bans threaten the diversity of our nation.  In other words, what is Musical Theatre’s calling in the Trump Age?

For the purpose of this article, the author asked five of today’s top Musical Theatre creators the question, “In this unique moment in our cultural history, what is Musical Theatre’s responsibility?  What are the musicals that should be created right now?”  Their responses varied.  These composers and librettists represent a diverse cross section of what is currently represented on Broadway and will most certainly be hugely influential in whatever happens next.

"I make a habit of never commenting on things like ‘what musical theatre should do.’  I can only comment on what I am doing and want to do,” says Broadway’s Andrew Lippa, creator of John and Jen, Wild Party, The Addams Family and Big Fish.My personal goal is to make musicals that mean something to me, are about substantive ideas, and make an effort to include all members of our community. My next few shows deal with the imperative of creativity and the role of failure in making art; the history of homosexuality in America; the chaos women face (both internally and societally) when aging; and what happens when we trade hope for hatred.  These aren't - in precis - the stuff of tap-dancing showstoppers.  However, in my hands and heart, I am hoping to fashion them into something beautiful!" (Lippa).

Tony Award winning composer Jason Robert Brown, creator of Parade, The Last Five Years and Bridges of Madison County, stresses that a Musical Theatre creator’s accountability is, first-and-foremost, to his or herself and their own unique voice.  He said, “Art is art – it has to speak on its own terms. If you’re lucky, the art you create resonates in the world and speaks to the way the planet is turning, but I don’t think you can write about the Trump Age unless you write the stuff that’s inside you – if you’re writing what your heart and head are feeling, then you’re writing the right thing.  Musical theatre doesn’t have any ‘responsibility,’ it just is; an audience has a responsibility to be open to whatever the Art has to say, and to bring themselves fully to the work at hand.” (Brown).

Marc Shaiman’s Hairspray is a great example of a musical promoting themes of diversity and inclusion.  When asked what Musical Theatre’s responsibility was in the “Trump Age” his response was, “I think Musical Theatre has the same responsibility that we all do as people. Celebrate life, all kinds of people, share your experience and be empathetic to those whose experience is quite the opposite of yours…you know, all that kind of stuff!  The Golden Rule, it never fails. Treat your audience the way you wish to be treated. With respect, humor and great big dollop of joy for the insanity of life” (Shaiman).

Academy Award winning songwriter Benj Pasek, currently represented on Broadway by the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen, thinks that Musical Theatre has a unique opportunity.  “We live in very divided times.  It’s very indicative of this election from both sides that people aren’t hearing each other and not listening.  Not understanding other people’s viewpoints.  It seems imperative since music is a universal language and can pierce the soul in addition to piercing the mind.  Musical Theatre can come from an emotional place and it also has the ability to illuminate a different perspective from your own.  Being an audience member in a theatre requires you to have empathy and put yourself in a character’s shoes or at least understand where they are coming from.  It gives you a window into someone else’s perspective.  Being in an audience is a collective act of trying to be empathetic and understand someone else’s viewpoints.  Any theatre that demands empathy from its audience and illuminates multiple perspectives on one topic is good theatre.  Stuff that pushes conversations forward and makes people talk about and debate current issues and requires and necessitates that people think about issues from multidimensional ways is exciting and important and feels like that’s the conversation that we need to be having now” (Pasek and Paul).

Pasek & Paul's 'Dogfight' 

Pasek & Paul's 'Dogfight' 

Pasek’s writing partner, Justin Paul, agrees but also stresses that even Musical Theatre works that aren’t blatantly dogmatic can have an important impact on its viewers.  “There are some pieces that are ‘message pieces’ and there are some that aren’t and I think both can work to start a conversation.  Not every single piece needs to be overtly political or trying to broadcast a message.  Musical theatre should be showing points of view that are diverse and different.  Viewing a musical theatre production is a way for someone to come into the theatre and maybe hear about life from a perspective of someone that is very different from their own.  Hearing a character sing a song and express their feelings is very different than hearing someone yelling on a television news program or ranting online.  There is something really communal and shared and hopefully disarming about experiencing different points of view in a musical theatre performance” (Pasek and Paul).

In a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Musical Theatre superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda had this to say about President Trump and Broadway’s state of things.  “Here's where I agree with [President Trump]: The theater should always be a safe space. ... I think one of the reasons Hamilton has been embraced by people of every stripe on the political spectrum is that theater is one of the rarest places where we still come together. You may take a totally different conclusion from Hamilton than I do, based on your ideology and your politics and your life experience, but we all sat in a room together and we watched the same thing, and that doesn't happen anymore.  As you can see from this election, we have our own sets of facts based on who we listen to. Which news organization gets our business determines the facts that get in our head. So I think one of the things that makes theater special is, first of all, it's one of the last places you put your phone away, and second of all it's one of the last places where we all have a common experience together” (Gross).

Harry Belafonte struck a similar note as Corden's 2016 speech when he introduced Hair at the 1969 Tony Awards. Belafonte said “This year three men from our planet will go to the moon.  The rest of us are going to have to make it down here with each other.  In this period of the world’s history, the polarization of background and attitude is making communication between people more than usually difficult, the theatre must take its responsibility very seriously.  Almost the last refuge of its committed self to being a center of hope, where we can see the truth, where we can see what man is.  Where we can see the glory of what man is and what he aspires to be.  Scientists deal in logic and I have the faith that they will get some of us to the moon.  But there is more than logic in the theatre.  The theatre deals with passion and emotion.  We live in emotional times.  Artists are emotional people.  So, listen to them, friends” (Belafonte).

These words seem as relevant today as they did when Belafonte said them.  What will be today’s Musical Theatre legacy?  What work will be left behind for the next generation to look back on with admiration, commenting on how ahead of its time it was?  Should producers be dusting off old chestnuts like South Pacific, Hair and La Cage in this time of turmoil?  Or should Musical Theatre simply be an escape for its audience to forget about the turmoil this nation is facing?  Perhaps the truth lies in Brown’s comment “if you’re writing what your heart and head are feeling, then you’re writing the right thing.” Belafonte’s 1969 Hair introduction was one year after conservative Richard Nixon, a politician who alienated a large portion of an already divided nation, was elected as President of the United States.   Could it be that this nation is in a cycle and it is time for the next revolutionary musical to stand up, look an audience square-in-the-face and demand that it is time for change… again? 

~~~~

Mr. Miller is a faculty member of California State University - Chico. In addition to his position as Assistant Professor at California State University, Chico, Matty serves as Producing Artistic Director of the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, a professional summer theatre in Clinton, Iowa.

Works Cited

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  • <https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/97/hr3955>
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