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Theater Critic-in-Chief

President-elect Donald Trump is no doubt busy these days making appointments and planning his agenda, but he took time out over the weekend to criticize his theatrical critics.
It all started on Friday when Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in New York City because that where the transition team is located, decided to take some time out with his family and watch the big hit show on Broadway. That would be “Hamilton,” of course, a hip-hop musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton which was won rave reviews along with 11 Tony Awards and already sold out a year’s worth of tickets at exorbitant prices. Pence entered the theater to a mix of cheers and boos from the audience, by most accounts with the latter drowning out the former, and left while being personally addressed in a curtain call oration. The actor who plays Aaron Burr was chosen to speak on behalf of the ostentatiously multi-ethnic cast and producers to ask Pence to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us.” He asked the audience to refrain from booing Pence, prefaced his remarks respectfully, and the screed was rather polite by contemporary standards of political discourse, but in all the New York papers it made for a bigger story than the $25 million that Trump agreed to pay to settle that Trump University lawsuit.
The incident certainly caught the attention of Trump, who took to “Twitter” to write, in his usual Lincoln-esque prose, “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” Lest you think that Trump believes that any request for his administration uphold American values and work on behalf of all citizens should not happen, he clarified in a later “Tweet” that he was only referring to the theater. “The Theater must always be a safe and special space. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man. Apologize!” Apparently peeved that no apology was forthcoming, he “Tweeted” again, adding “Very rude and insulting of Hamilton cast to treat our great future V.P. Mike Pence to a theater lecture. Couldn’t even memorize lines.” We’re encouraged by Trump’s newfound dislike of rude and insulting behavior, but hate to hear him using such a politically correct phrase as “safe place.”
Pence seemed unfazed by the incident, telling Fox News that “I nudged my kids and told them that’s what freedom sounds like,” and “I wasn’t offended by what was said.” He also lavishly praised the production, making no mention of any unmemorized lines, and said that Trump does indeed plan to work on behalf of all Americans. All in all, we thought it a very presidential response.
By the time Pence had largely put the controversy to rest a new “Saturday Night Live” was airing, though, so Trump was back to “Tweeting.” The show featured a skit with actor Alec Baldwin reprising his popular Trump impersonation, this time portraying the president-elect as overwhelmed by his newfound responsibilities and panicked that he won’t be able to keep his campaign promises, and Trump was clearly not amused: “I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?” All in all, we thought it was very stupid “tweet” and not at all presidential.
Saturday Night Live is totally one-sided and biased, of course, and always has been. That was true last summer when the show offered Trump a guest-hosting role, with no equal time for the far more qualified candidates he was running against in the ongoing Republican primary race, and we can’t remember Trump having any complaints about it at the time. Nor can we recall him ever complaining that Breitbart News and The Sean Hannity Show and that crazypants Alex Jones’ InfoWars and all of Trump’s other favorite media are also totally one-sided and biased. If Trump intends to reinstate that Fairness Doctrine of “equal time” that President Ronald Reagan quite wisely rescinded, his pals in the talk radio business are not going to be happy. Satirists will still be happily exempted, barring any changes to the First Amendment, and we can’t imagine how they practice their art in a way that wasn’t one-sided and biased. Perhaps Trump can get some writers to come up with some knee-slapping comedy about how totally awesome is Trump, but they’ll have to better than the ones who wrote his material for that Al Smith memorial dinner.
Perhaps Trump feels that his office deserves a certain respect, but that’s a newfound notion for a man who spent much of the past eight years peddling what he now admits was all along a cock and bull story about President Barack Obama being born in Kenya, and frequently accused President George W. Bush of telling a treasonous lie to get America into the Iraq War. That kind of vitriol, and the more thoughtful sort of satire and criticism Trump spent much of a busy weekend “tweeting” about, come with the job. We hope that in the future Trump will stick to more important tasks, let the theater do its job, and allow freedom of speech to live on.

— Bud Norman

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Broadway and Dead White Men and the Current Race

Once again we have been shut out of the Pulitzer Prizes, a slight we’re starting to take personally, but in looking over the mostly uninspiring list of this year’s winners we were tentatively pleased to note that someone named Lin-Manuel Miranda won the drama award for a big Broadway hit called “Hamilton.” We haven’t yet seen the show, as we’re located way the hell off Broadway and are a few hundred bucks short of the price of a constantly sold-out ticket, but by all accounts and the snippets we’ve seen on YouTube it’s a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, so we can’t help but love the idea.
Although we aren’t particularly avid aficionados of the hip-hop genre, save for a cherished 12″ 45-rpm copy of The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and De La Soul’s more hippie-than-hip-hop “Three Feet High and Rising” album with the Johnny Cash samples, and a few other albums that mark us as “old school,” we are huge fans of Alexander Hamilton, the most controversial and under-rated of the Founding Fathers, and we think he’d be pleased to know that after all these years he’s a hip-hop star.
The idea seems counter-intuitive at first, given that Hamilton is a Dead White Male and one of the guys who established the Establishment and created Wall Street and was arguably the man most responsible for laissez-faire American capitalism, and would surely be a Republican freaking out over the national debt if he were alive today, which is pretty much the sum of all the fashionable and hip-hoppy left’s bogeymen. On the other hand, he was born out of wedlock in the Caribbean, he did immigrate to New York City to hustle his way into some sweet gigs, he did prove his bad-ass machismo in the Revolutionary War, he did have some undeniable sex scandals, he did wind up getting fatally shot in a duel over a “dis,” and all those bling-laden and soon-to-be-shot rappers obviously aren’t entirely averse to some red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism no matter how often they vote for Democrats, so there’s definitely some hip-hop material there as well. Call it the internal contradictions of anti-capitalism.
Hamilton was also blameless of America’s original sin of slavery, too, as he never owned slaves and was outspoken in his opposition to the practice and contributed generously to abolitionist causes despite having the rather modest income of a scrupulously honest public servant, so there’s no reason that a hip-hopper can’t embrace him, or any reason to think he might refuse that embrace. Given how Hamilton embraced all sorts of good ideas from all sorts of places, even from the English systems of government and economics that he had urged and fought a revolution against, we don’t think he’d at all resent a mostly Black and Latino and Asian cast trying to find the truth of his dead white male self in what was a pretty much all-white moment in American history. When white people avail themselves of the best ideas of other people’s cultures it’s now derided as “cultural appropriation,” which is one of the dumbest ideas that’s come along since Hamilton’s time, but at least the rest of the world can still help itself to the best what of white people have come up with. Call it the internal contradictions of cultural Marxism.
The once-prestitigious Pulitzer Prize is just the latest wet kiss planted on Miranda’s face by what’s left of the cultural establishment, which has already rewarded him with countless glowing reviews and Tony Awards and a reception at the White House where the First Black President admitted he found the whole idea rather counter-intuitive, but of course there’s lately been a backlash. Nobody’s complaining about “cultural appropriation,” yet, but now some are complaining that Hamilton is still a Dead White Male no matter how hip-hoppy his story might might be, and of course others are noting that he failed to end slavery, and at Salon they’re worried the play’s popularity might prevent Hamilton from being kicked off the $10 bill to make room for a woman or better yet a woman of color and maybe even a trans-gendered woman of color. The ethnic and sexual and otherwise diversification of America’s currency could just as easily be accomplished by kicking the slave-owning and Indian-oppressing President Andrew Jackson off the twenty-note, but Jackson was the founder of the Democratic party and plunged his country into the second-worst depression ever by his populist stand against the Central Bank that Hamilton had championed, so Hamilton might have to settle for a Broadway hit and hip-hop hero status.
Sooner or later a roadshow of “Hamilton” will hit Wichita, and we’ll try to scrape the cost of a ticket, which shouldn’t be three figures by the point. We might not like the show, but we like the idea.
One of the most Pulitzer Prizer-worthy reads we’ve come across about Hamilton lately was written by The Weekly Standard’s excellent Noemi Emery, who wondered “What Would Hamilton Do” as she┬árecalled how he swung the presidential election of 1800 to longstanding political enemy Thomas Jefferson, who championed an agrarian and aristocratic notion of individual liberty at odds with his own vision of an urban and classless notion of individual, because the alternative was Aaron Burr. Although Burr’s stated political views were far closer to Hamilton’s than were Jefferson’s, Hamilton’s personal political and professional dealings with Burr in New York City with had convinced him the alternative was “unprincipled both as a public and private man … for or against nothing but as it suits his interests or ambition,” and that “no agreement with him could be relied upon,” and that his presidency “would disgrace our country abroad,” and despite his own admitted failings he went with the flawed man who at least showed some indications of a sense of moral restraint. There was a best-selling novel by left-wing nutcase Gore Vidal about Burr, who luckily escaped two treason trials and shot Hamilton in the most cowardly way, but his life doesn’t offer the same lessons as the flawed but more admirable Hamilton.

— Bud Norman

Comedic Timing in “C.P. Time.”

We’ve been somewhat preoccupied this week with rehearsals for our annual brief appearance on the amateur theatrical stage, in a satirical song-and-skit fund-raising revue put on by some of the local media, but we’ve been able to pay enough attention to the news to notice that the Democratic Party’s putative presidential front-runner has thoroughly embarrassed herself in a similar effort.
Former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and long presumed First Woman President of the United States Hillary Clinton volunteered for a comedy bit in the New York City’s Inner Circle show, which is apparently Gotham’s equivalent of our own Gridiron Show, albeit with bigger-name guest stars, and she wound up creating one of those racial imbroglios that inevitably result from Democrat politics. The bit involved Clinton, the more or less commie Mayor of New York City Bill DeBlasio and one of the black guys from the current Broadway hit “Hamilton,” and a joke about how DeBlasio had been slow to endorse Clinton’s candidacy because he was acting on “C.P. Time.” For those who don’t run in racist white circles or self-effacingly jocular black folk circles, “C.P. Time” stands for “Colored People’s Time,” which implies that people of color are congenitally unpunctual, but it all led up to the putative punchline that DeBlasio had been acting on “cautious politician time,” so there is a certain unsatisfying humor to the gag, but it seemed to fall flat with not only the audience but the broader Democratic primary-voting pubic.
As former professional drama critics and ambitious semi-professional satirists, we found the entire performance entirely second-rate yet rife with intriguing unintended ironies. There’s the fact of that black guy dressed as Aaron Burr from the big Broadway hit “Hamilton,” for one thing, because it’s an all-black-and-Latino cast celebrating in hip-hop fashion the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, which is so rich by itself. Hamilton remains the most controversial of the founding fathers, and the one slated to be expelled from the currency instead of the slave-holding and Indian-slaying but Democrat-party-founding Andrew Jackson, because he was the foremost founding father of America as a capitalist country and the only one who would inarguably be a Republican today, but he was also an illegitimate sire of a Caribbean family and a New York City urbanite and ardent abolitionist who envisioned a nation of similar strivers who wound up dying in a duel over a “dis,” so he’s actually a pretty likely hero for a hip-hop Broadway hit. We don’t even mind that some reportedly talented people of color have culturally appropriated this dead white male, and we suspect that Hamilton also wouldn’t mind, but we’ll resent on Hamilton’s behalf that he was somehow involved in this awful skit.
Neither Clinton nor DeBlasio exhibit any timing, and the presumably talented “Hamilton” star’s lines are clearly thrown off, and the part where he says he’s not comfortable with the whole “C.P. Time” thing hang more portentously than the punchline can stave off, and the funniest part is that both Clinton and DeBlasio are being criticized by even their most adoring press. DeBlasio might have thought he was immune by virtue of a black wife and half-black afro-wearing and fist-raising son, and Clinton might have thought she was immune by virtue of being the oft-betrayed wife of the first First Black President and the long presumed First Woman President, but they’re both still white and stuck with the comedic limitations.
Our own ventures on the amateur stage often entail some slightly uncomfortable humor about America’s convoluted race relations, and last year we had to refuse a local celebrity guest’s interest in a role because she was uncomfortable with a gag about a Starbucks barista telling a middle-aged white guy to “check his white privilege” and him responding that he hadn’t been laid in months, and challenging her to find a brother who would do the same thing, which got a big but obviously nervous laugh from our mostly liberal audience, but then again we’re not running for president as Democrats. If we were running for president as Democrats we’d know better than to frankly acknowledge such nervous understandings, and stick with a humorless scolding of any frank acknowledgements any Republican might make.

— Bud Norman