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Slam from “Ham”: Unpacking the (Lin-Manuel) Miranda Warning for Mike Pence (& for Trump)

I’ve been off-blog too long—a combination of mainstream-media commitments and technological trauma (new computer). Let me start playing catch-up by addressing the latest arts/politics flashpoint: the “Hamilton” show vs. the Trump Show.

I’ll begin by coming out of my political closet: I disagree with almost everything the President-elect said to get himself elected, which gets validated on Dec. 19 by the Electoral College (barring the unimaginable). I’m in good company: Now Donald Trump himself seems to disagree with almost everything he said to get elected. He’s a moving target.

But whatever his sincere beliefs (if any), I agree with @realDonaldTrump’s tweeted assertion that the cast of “Hamilton” was inappropriately “rude” (his word) to his running mate at the end of a recent performance. However much Trump’s opponents may applaud Aaron Burr’s (aka actor Brandon Victor Dixon‘s) outburst directed at Vice President-Elect Mike Pence as he left the theater, it wasn’t (as many have tried to characterize it) “respectful.”

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the video of this contretemps. But look again at how Dixon deploys his acting skills—dramatic emphasis, sweeping gestures—to rile up his audience, while expressing “alarm and anxiety” on behalf of “diverse America” that the Trump/Pence administration “will not protect us” or “work on behalf of all of us…ALL of us!”

The dead giveaway that there’s a strong undercurrent of hostility beneath Dixon’s “respectful” words is his thrice repeated use of the honorific “sir” when addressing the ambushed Pence. Those of us fortunate enough to have seen the play (my commentary here) should already know that the movers-and-shakers, who (unlike Burr) got to be in “the room where it happens,” frequently addressed him as “sir” (conveniently rhymes with “Burr”), in a way that made apparent their barely concealed contempt for him.


Waiting on the ticketholders’ line to see “Hamilton”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To me, the fact that Hamilton’s brilliant playwright and powerful performer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, played a role in drafting Dixon’s post-performance oration avers my “sir” conjecture—that it was false deference, as in the play.

I’m fine with cast members’ making post-show appeals for charitable contributions to worthy causes. (Most frequently, it’s been Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.) But singling out an audience member for a condescending lecture is another matter. To understand why that’s inappropriate, imagine if a politically conservative Broadway cast (okay, that’s hard to imagine) had broken the fourth wall to take issue with President Obama (who, like many political figures, saw “Hamilton”) for his stance on gay marriage or global warming.

One of the most eloquent slogans from this tawdry presidential campaign (no, not “Make American Great Again”) came from Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” In this case, Pence “went high.” In an interview with Fox News, he repeated his remark to his children that the audience’s raucous reaction to Dixon’s speech was “what freedom sounds like.” He added that he “wasn’t offended by what was said….I’ll leave it to others to decide whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.”

It wasn’t.

This weekend, I’m planning to attend another previously sold-out Off-Broadway show, now in previews on Broadway—“Dear Evan Hansen.” Will its actors take the occasion to append a political postlude? What I fear (as did E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, as quoted by Daniel Kreps in Rolling Stone magazine) is that Dixon’s diction could unleash a torrent of tirades.

“You don’t single out an audience member and embarrass him from the stage. A terrible precedent to set,” said Little Steven, who added that “nobody on this planet disagrees more with everything Pence represents.”

At the theater, “the play’s the thing wherein [to] catch the conscience of the King” (“Hamlet,” not “Hamilton”). Political messages should be confined to the playwright’s creation—always more potent than polemics.

an ArtsJournal blog