Vice President-elect Mike Pence appropriately took it in stride when the cast of the Broadway sensation “Hamilton” literally went off script to offer their recommendations on how he and the new administration might approach their job over the next four years.
Or you might say the actor playing the eponymous lead role, reading the message on behalf of the cast and producers, gently scolded Pence – and everyone in the captive audience paying upwards of a thousand bucks a ticket. The sentiments expressed were actually pretty harmless, as far as these things go, a short Kumbaya-ish riff of the kind we’ve all gotten used to seeing at awards shows.
(As anodyne as the comments were, we assume no one invited input from the people who own the building or the ushers or concession staff working the event.)
Since ancient times the theatre has been an important place for political pot-stirring, deploying the vehicles of comedy and tragedy to explore matters of war and peace, justice, poverty and wealth. Hamilton itself obviously covers some of the most impactful politicking in human history.
A kind of professional line is crossed, however, when an audience is subjected to the extracurricular opinions of one guy holding the mic. Such freelancing is a presumptuous breach of both etiquette and the implicit contract that exists between audience and entertainer: people expect to see what has been advertised.
While individual actors, musicians, artists and athletes can certainly pontificate in their free time like every American, there are two problems with the “I have a special message I want you to hear” strategy: Generally speaking, the sentiment conveyed is, 1. entirely predictable in point of view (e.g., when’s the last time an actor took the podium and called for a cut in the capital gains tax? Or an overthrow of the communists in Cuba?), and 2. quite ineffective in influencing any desired outcome.
One could argue that John Wilkes Booth was the first star of stage to take on Republicans, but that would probably be unfair. It is possible, though, that his extreme form of political activism might have spooked the Actor’s Guild into a fit of excessive patriotism for a century that carried through the two World Wars.
At the dawn of the Cold War, the Hollywood pendulum swung considerably to the left, and fellow-traveling screenwriters caught the attention of Red-hunting politicians with some blacklisted as a result. Discontent with the Vietnam War extended big time to the showbiz crowd and supporters of the US role in Indochina did well to keep quiet less they damage their career, the exception being players of a certain vintage like a Bob Hope or John Wayne. Jane Fonda took things a bit far when she visited Hanoi and stupidly posed for photos on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, forever damaging her reputation with many Americans but not her casting callbacks.
Vietnam was the context for one of the most surreal “Hamilton-esque” moments recorded on film, and it happened at the White House in 1972. At a dinner celebrating the founders of Reader’s Digest, President Richard Nixon took the stage to introduce the evening’s entertainment, a Lawrence Welk Orchestra type-group called the Ray Coniff Singers.
“If the music is square,” said Nixon in teeing up the act, “that’s because I like it square!”
No sooner had the singers taken their places when one of their number, 30-year-old Carol Feraci, unfurled a small banner that said “Stop the killing” while speaking into a microphone, saying, “Mr. President, stop the bombing of human beings, animals and vegetation … Bless the Berrigans and Daniel Ellsberg.”
Talk about brass. In a phone call recorded the next day, Nixon confided that the evening never really recovered. “It was awful after that first number.”
A year later, Marlon Brando raised the awards-show-I-have-a-point-to-make-bar to a level that hasn’t really been threatened since. Not only did the enigmatic actor not deign to attend the 1973 Oscars where he’d been nominated for Best Actor for his role in the Godfather, but Brando dispatched a Native American woman known as Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his award. Littlefeather went on to read Brando’s message dissing the Academy of Motion Pictures – the event’s hosts – for the “treatment of American Indians by the film industry.”
(A noble sentiment, that, but The Godfather’s characterization of Italian Americans as bloodthirsty mobsters apparently didn’t deter Brando from cashing his check.)
Things have gone downhill from there. Most recently we’ve seen concerts featuring Kanye West’s increasingly incoherent ramblings and comedienne Amy Schumer’s nuance-less campaigning, the latter — where a couple hundred people walked out of a Florida show — demonstrating how difficult it is to pull off being simultaneously funny and overly serious.
Most impressive to me are the big-time stars who have managed to steer clear of any terribly public political activity. The Rolling Stones come to mind. Mick and the boys are well into their 70s and other than a few obligatory political nods the Stones figured out early their commercial viability would most effectively endure if they stuck to what their fans were paying them to do: live it up and crank out the tunes.
Now that’s satisfaction.