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Howard Sherman: A few thoughts to add to the Hamilton debate

Brandon Victor Dixon and the cast of Hamilton deliver their message to Mike Pence
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Almost a week later, is there anything more that needs to be said about the contretemps between America’s president-elect and the Broadway musical Hamilton?

The curtain speech heard around the world has generated a vast amount of press coverage. But was the vice-president-elect’s attendance at the show merely a smokescreen to deflect national attention from political actions being put in place? Was it appropriate for the production to speak (through a cast member) directly to Mike Pence? Is the theatre meant to be a safe place?

In only days, the incident became both punchline and portent. Online and on TV, countless wags questioned how people upset by the show’s actions could boycott something so well sold, since the decision not to purchase tickets would go wholly unnoticed. A theatre in Hamilton, Canada, was barraged with anti-Hamilton (the musical) messages by misguided individuals who didn’t take well to the events of last Friday in New York. A reportedly drunken patron who disrupted a Chicago performance of the show on Saturday, and was criminally charged for doing so, is being represented by an attorney who has mounted a defence saying that his client was incited by the statement in New York and the audience members around him.

There’s no need to recap the original incidents, as Mark Shenton, my colleague here at The Stage, has already done so, but there are still a few strands of the Hamilton imbroglio worth noting.

In his earliest tweets on the subject, the president-elect conflated two elements of what occurred at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Friday night, namely audience members booing the arrival of Pence in the audience (there were reportedly cheers as well) and the curtain speech by Brandon Victor Dixon. As has subsequently become clear, the curtain speech was planned in advance by producer Jeffrey Seller, author Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Tommy Kail – relatively quickly by all accounts, but with some forethought. After all, given the security detail around Pence and the scarcity of Hamilton tickets, government leaders don’t just drop by the show on the spur of the moment. The audience response was, so far as anyone knows, wholly spontaneous and indeed mixed, but news of it was buzzing around the internet literally hours before Dixon stepped forward during the curtain call. To some observers, the audience behaviour precipitated the speech, but the two were actually discrete, distinct expressions of opinion.

More importantly, regardless of whether one believes the curtain speech was appropriate, Hamilton has, more than most theatrical productions, relative immunity from blowback in making such a statement. Yes, it is protected because it occupies a stance that is almost invincible when it comes to popularity – after all, even if the roughly 25% of America that voted the Trump-Pence ticket never sees the show, the remaining 75% of the country can keep the musical going for a very long time. But the real reason Hamilton could step forward and speak of its hopes and fears is that it’s a commercial production.

A significant number of casts and companies might wish to do the same thing, should Mike Pence or members of the Trump family find their way to their theatres, but if those productions are in subsidised venues, they would be on thin ice in regard to funding. Not only do certain federal, state and municipal grant programmes explicitly proscribe political activity, but public funding can be swayed by public opinion. America has certainly seen the arts targeted by and for political agendas in the past.

Ironically, it is the free market that Republican politicians champion as the cure for all ills, and which has bid up Hamilton tickets on the secondary market to previously unheard of rates, that permitted the production to take even a mild political stance. Hamilton is beholden to no one but its investors and its audience, and obviously it felt secure enough in both to take the action that it did.

On a broader theatrical basis, the unvarnished asking of political questions from American stages carries more risk. Few subsidised theatres can afford to lose any manner of revenue, but since our federal funding of $150 million nationally through the National Endowment for the Arts pales in comparison to even the shrinking Arts Council England budget, some companies may be moved to take chances if they believe the new administration must be explicitly challenged. More likely, statements will come only within the context of the work itself, and even then perhaps cloaked in metaphor, although as mentioned last week, Tony winner Warren Leight took aim at the incoming administration with a new short play at a benefit just seven days after the election.

One commentator suggested that just as the death of John F Kennedy cast a pall over the musical Camelot, since his administration had been likened to Arthur’s idealised court, the election of Donald Trump has somehow marginally reduced the stature of Hamilton, a musical first heard in its infancy at an Obama White House dinner and which the First Family has seen several times. As already observed, Hamilton can withstand most any salvo against it and it will continue to flourish in the Trump era. The real question is whether the new president will take his Hamilton-specific, Twitter-enhanced ire and generalise it to theatre and the arts overall.

This week in US theatre

Already a one-man play and a well received film about a boy’s coming of age in an Italian neighbourhood in New York in the 1950s, A Bronx Tale now comes to the Broadway as a musical written once again by Chazz Palminteri, who created and performed the show originally and played a mobster in the Robert De Niro film. The score for the show is by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, choreography is by Sergio Trujillo of Jersey Boys and Memphis, and the production is co-directed by Jerry Zaks and De Niro. It opens on December 1.

Also opening on December 1, at Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater, is the musical Ride the Cyclone, written by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell and directed by Rachel Rockwell. A major hit in Canada, where it has already toured, the show turns on the effect of a rollercoaster tragedy on its young riders. Canadian works are relatively rare in the US, but Ride the Cyclone is the start of a Canadian mini-festival in Manhattan, to be followed by the musical Come from Away and the play Kim’s Convenience in 2017.

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