Essay From My College Years
"Rise Up: Why Political Theatre Belongs on Broadway"
The correlation between theater and politics is an extremely vital and longstanding one. However, in the history of mainstream musical theater, this development was more nuanced and gradual, despite political theater being the norm in the realms of experimental theatre, as evidenced by the lengthy run of shows such as Avenue Q. Although esteemed artists such as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein created musicals with embedded political messages (such as in South Pacific, particularly with the number “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” which is about challenging racial bias), due to the commercial nature of Broadway musicals, historically producers tended to shy away from overtly political topics. Therefore, the commercial success of both “Rent” and more recently “Hamilton” is all the more remarkable. Although the debate rages on about whether political resistance has a place on Broadway, both “Hamilton” and “Rent” are cogent evidence that the accessibility of musical theater makes it an ideal platform to examine and discuss complex political issues. In summation, both “Rent” at the turn of the century, and “Hamilton” at the beginning of the new millennium have set the stage for a rich future of musicals as a form of political resistance in the remainder of the 21st century.
While musical theater is one of the more financially lucrative art forms, art has been political practically since the beginning of time. Not only that, but theatre has always challenged those in power. In order to fully appreciate the impact of shows like “Hamilton,” it is imperative to understand the historical context for political theatre in the Western world. Examples of this range from, “Shakespeare plays, or Puccini’s operas…” (Katherine Brooks), although they aren’t necessarily viewed through that lense today because current issues of the time such as “Should the king have absolute power?” have long since been solved (to the extent that such significant questions can be solved). With Shakespeare specifically, many of his plays touched on themes of republic vs. monarchy that were extremely relevant for the time period in a manner that resembles the musicals of today. These themes included, “War vs. peace, the role of religion in politics, legitimate vs. illegitimate princes…” (Great Thinkers). One of the most recent musicals which appeared to challenge those in power is the show “Hadestown” (that made its Broadway debut on April 17, 2019) with the song “Why We Build The Wall,” which was almost certainly inspired by current political events in which a literal wall is being built as we speak between the United States and Mexico. Interestingly enough, there is certainly a correlation between the verbal dexterity of Shakespeare and that of Lin Manuel-Miranda, which makes their shows’ messages that much more powerful. The similarities do not end there, however. While Shakespeare’s plays challenge the nature of a monarchy, “Hamilton” examines the complexity of creating a new nation. The stage has been set long ago for politics to be embedded in the theatrical experience.
Trends are inevitable in any long standing art form, and musical theater is certainly no exception. As early as the 1930’s, musicals with an underlying political message existed. A perfect example of this is the show “Pins and Needles,” a revue show that featured garment workers, and discussed topics such as workers’ rights and labor unions. However, in the late 1990’s through the early 2000’s a large portion of the musicals on Broadway (such as “Wicked,” “The Phantom of The Opera,” and numerous Disney musicals) either fit into the category of “mega-musical” or Jukebox musical (such as Mamma Mia). The commonality between these shows is that they were extremely commercially successful, tended to focus on opulent sets (such as the famous chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera”) and/or hit songs, and didn’t necessarily pack a political punch. There are, however, a few notable exceptions to this such as Les Miserables, which originally premiered in France in 1980 and focused on the impact of the French Revolution.
“Rent” was a game changer in this terms of giving historically marginalized people a voice, because it prominently featured characters living with AIDS at a time when some politicians supported conversion therapy and other distorted measures to try to control the HIV outbreak. The fact that there are politicians in office (such as Vice President Pence) who still allegedly support conversion therapy and similar platforms speaks volumes to the ways in which musicals such as “Rent” are sometimes decades ahead of their time.
One of the elements of “Rent” that distinguishes it from the typical, dime a dozen rock musical rather than merely being a recapitulation of a rock star’s best hits, is that it shines a spotlight on historically marginalized, LGBTQ characters who society has often ignored. In other words, what makes “Rent” so revolutionary is that, “Rather than villainizing or stigmatizing these characters, writer Jonathan Larson did something radical; he sympathized with them” (Heiner). While musicals that broached controversial topics are the norm on the Off-Broadway scene, and throughout smallest, non-profit theatres' across the United States, this is not as common on Broadway, most likely due to: a. the financial risk of creating a Broadway show, and how much money is typically on the line b. many of the audience members of Broadway shows are average Americans who come from all over the country, and may have conservative viewpoints (unlike the average New Yorker). In other words, it has always been the case in theatre that when there is less money on the line, there is more room to take chances without fear of losing thousands or even millions of dollars. Additionally, the vast majority of Americans remain Christian, and some sects of Christianity (as well as other major religions such as Orthodox Judaism or Muslim fundamentalism) have beliefs that unfortunately are in opposition to the lifestyles of characters in musicals such as “Rent.” Considering this demographic, my theory is that producers have historically been hesitant to put their money behind any show that may alienate some audience members for fear of losing money. In short, Larson’s final work before his death planted the seeds for “Hamilton” to become the epic phenomenon that it is.
While musicals from “Hair” (protesting the Vietnam War) to “Rent” have had politically embedded messages in them, what makes “Hamilton” remarkable is that fact that it breaks the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. According to the writer Katherine Brooks in the article, “News Flash: Broadway Has Always Been Political,” “Ultimately, Broadway has never been politically neutral.” Ironically, “Hamilton” is a musical about the origins of American politics that has been praised by people across the political spectrum. However, directly speaking to a politician who attends a show is quite unusual. The debate over whether or not “Hamilton” was the appropriate venue for the cast members’ message became such a hotly contested topic in 2016 that it was debated on the daytime talk show The View (https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/video/hamilton-cast-delivers-speech-vp-elect-pence-43695600).
While most of the hosts agreed that actor Brandon Victor Dixon made the right decision by seizing the moment, the conservative host on the panel Jedediah Bila claimed that, “You’re basically marginalizing that person in the audience” (referring to Mike Pence and his family). What she fails to realize is that theatre has always been a method of challenging the powers that be, and at this moment in time, Vice President Mike Pence (and more significantly President Donald Trump) are some of the most powerful men on earth.
When theatre is at its best, it should be a tool for civil discourse, and opulent sets or flashy dance numbers does not mean this should be eradicated. If anything, the visual spectacle of Broadway should enhance the message being delivered. With both “Hamilton” and “Rent” the choreography and visual spectacle makes for the most engaging possible show, but the underlying message is never compromised by the grandeur of the show or majestic nature of the music. When musical theatre fails to pack an emotional punch is with shows such as Spiderman, where visual spectacle replaces a meaningful plot.
In conclusion, the reason that I personally think that theatre, and especially musical theatre, is so highly effective as a means for political dialogue and social change is that musicals are innately entertaining (or at least they should be if they’re well written). Therefore, “No matter how dire the circumstances may seem, the arts remain a valuable way to understand opposing points” (Heiner). In other words, the power of escaping into imaginary circumstances for an evening means that the audience can empathize with characters who may be different from themselves. When we as Americans gather together inside a dimly lit theatre, and the curtain rises, we are united as an audience, bound together by the common experience we are about to have.
1. Brooks, Katherine. “News Flash: Broadway Has Always Been Political.” Huffpost.com, Huffington Post, 21 Nov. 2016,
2. Gioia, Michael. “Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. Reveal How Rent Shaped History and Hamilton.” Playbill.com , 11 Feb. 2015.
3. “'Hamilton' Cast Delivers Speech to VP Elect-Pence.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 21 Nov. 2016
4. Heiner, Cate. “Social Commentary on Stage: When Politics and Theatre Collide.” Dailyutahchronicle.com , 29 Nov. 2016.
5. “Introduction: Shakespeare and Politics.” Thegreatthinkers.org, thegreatthinkers.org.