Truly great theater is always a reflection of the times we’re living in. That’s why you can’t divorce some of the most popular productions from their political undertones.
Would South Pacific have been such a hit without the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a surprising rebuke of racism that rocked the theater world in 1949? Also, it’s not overstating for me to say Grease would not still be a cult classic if Sandy didn’t bid farewell to her goody-goody alter ego, Sandra Dee (a symbol for the prudish 1950s culture, supported by the political elite), and embrace a freedom-loving future in “You’re the One That I Want.”
When I was in high school, I worked at a clothing store for little girls called Justice. Back then, High School Musical was the big thing and they couldn’t get enough of it. Our corporate-curated soundtrack soon included “Breaking Free” and “Get’cha Head in the Game,” which I heard so much that they’re now (unfortunately) in my long-term memory. I hated that musical because I started doing theater in 6th grade and, when Zac Efron’s poster was donning the walls of middle schoolers everywhere, I was playing Tituba in The Crucible.
The Arthur Miller play was written a response to McCarthyism, the term given to the extremely dangerous Communist-finding mission led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. During this time, his actions led to the firing of more than 2,000 government employees, and also targeted multiple entertainers and writers.
Those things didn’t really sit well with Miller (who was accused himself), so he used the Salem Witch Trials to show the world that Sen. McCarthy was really instituting a modern witch hunt. Just like the accused would do in McCarthy’s hearings, characters denied guilt, but pointed the finger at others to save themselves.
That’s what I was studying after class. During school, two of my electives were theater classes (one was an honors version), so I was probably the biggest theater geek at my high school, a moniker I wore proudly. I didn’t just hate High School Musical because the songs were terrible, I hated it because it wasn’t about anything; it didn’t even truly cover the teenage experience. The whole thing was done to make money, which I felt was disrespectful to musicals, which got their start on the stage.
The theater that I grew up loving has always challenged the political status quo. When Jonathan Larson watched the HIV/AIDS epidemic killed thousands of young people in New York in the 1980s, while President Reagan’s press secretary laughed about it, he wrote Rent; a reinterpretation of Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème, which was about the lives lost to tuberculosis. The epidemic of his time was HIV/AIDs and he wanted to shed a brighter light on the stories of people diagnosed with it.
The relationship between politics and theater is a challenging one. Politicians, like most people, don’t like being criticized and theater likes to shine a light on what they see as the shortcomings of our government. To put it in Facebook terms, “it’s complicated,” but it’s also necessary.
Productions have the ability to open the minds of theater-goers. (How many people left South Pacific realizing that they’d been taught to hate? How many people started donating money to HIV/AIDS organizations after finally seeing people battling the disease as more than stereotypes in Rent?) It can shed light on wrongdoings, which helps motivate people to push for change. By the way, creatives in every medium (film, painting, sculpture, graffiti) use their art to examine the political process, and they always have.
So, when the cast of Hamilton perform a show about how an immigrant helped shape the very fabric of America, in a time full of anti-immigration rhetoric, and then take a moment to respectfully ask a politician to protect the lives of their friends and family members, they’re participating in a long-standing tradition.
Sometimes, they need it more than the rest of us.