“The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” — President-elect Donald Trump
I’m not sure what kind of “safe and special” theater the president-elect is alluding to in his tweet on Saturday, following the imbroglio involving Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the Friday night performance of Broadway’s “Hamilton.” Maybe by “safe and special” he means the theater is supposed to be docile, an innocuous landscape filled exclusively with chorus girls and holiday pageants.
But let’s be clear: “Safe” theater is dead theater. Conflict is what drives drama, and sometimes, emotions in that public space become intense and things get messy. Some of that exuberance spilled over into the peanut galleries Friday night: As he returned to his orchestra seat after intermission, Pence was greeted with applause — and boos.
Broadway protocol would dictate that an incoming vice president go backstage after a performance and greet the cast. In this case, though, Pence reportedly was being ushered out of the theater as Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor portraying Aaron Burr in the acclaimed musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, began his curtain-call remarks. According to media reports, Pence stood just outside the auditorium door, listening to the full speech. It is rare indeed for a company of actors — and especially those in what amounts to one of the biggest hits in Broadway history — to address a single public official at the end of a performance.
“Thank you so much for joining us tonight,” Dixon said, on behalf of the production. “You know, we had a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here, sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir, and we hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post, because this message needs to be spread far and wide, okay? Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men, women, of different colors, creeds and orientations.”
Some observers on social media see Trump’s tweet as an attempt to grab hold of a minor culture-war issue and deflect attention from objections being lodged against several of his initial appointments. Indeed, he seems to be trying to make the case here that it’s not the incoming administration that poses the greatest threat; it’s the dissenters who are threatening him. Still, the challenging words by the “Hamilton” cast and the contretemps surrounding them portend a contentious relationship between the Republican-led government and an arts community that may be preparing to take it on publicly.
In the context of a musical about a revolution, the events of Friday night look like life imitating art.