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Opinion The Trump-‘Hamilton’ controversy shows why live theater still matters

The cast of "Hamilton" delivered a message to Vice President-elect Mike Pence from stage after he watched the show at Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. (Video: Twitter/Hamilton via Storyful)

It is a thoroughly surreal moment. But what a teachable one.

For the first time in our collective lives, a person who is going to run this country has gone to war with a Broadway production. Think about this. For whatever reason — an attempt to deflect attention from other looming scandals, an eternally itchy Twitter finger, a desire to defend a comrade — a president-elect of the most powerful country on Earth is using his pulpit to run down a Pulitzer and Tony-winning musical that is, it’s safe to say, far more beloved than he is.

“Hamilton” is now the subject of two days of carping tweets by Donald J. Trump, a response to the cast and creative team’s nervy decision on Friday night to tell a theatergoer, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, exactly what they think of the threatening path toward minorities on which this new leadership team seems to be headed.

“We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us,” actor Brandon Victor Dixon said from the stage at evening’s end to a departing Pence.

Trump demands apology from ‘Hamilton’ after cast’s message to Pence

That the words emanated from a cast dramatizing the American origin story — a set of besieged colonies rising up against autocratic rule — only heightened the irony. The celebrated musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who had a hand in the crafting of Dixon’s speech, along with producer Jeffrey Seller and director Thomas Kail, with input from the cast) is by design filled with black and Latino actors playing the Founding Fathers. This has proved to be a movingly theatrical way of affirming the notion that American history belongs to people of all colors, an ideal that the Trump circle, using the tools and language of racial and immigrant scapegoating, appears to be abrogating to a highly dangerous degree.

It is worth noting that Pence had enough curiosity about “Hamilton” to come to the show. But what ensued in his name was tawdry. Trump sent out an initial tweet on Saturday morning that characteristically demanded an apology, then followed with another on Sunday morning deeming “Hamilton” overrated. Which naturally reminded any half-awake observer who the musical’s most enthusiastic patrons have been: President Obama and the first lady. It was in the Obama White House that Miranda first performed what would become the embryonic musical’s opening song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at a spoken-word meetup in 2009.

What pettiness. And what an opportunity.

Broadway musical writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda performs "The Hamilton Mixtape" at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word in 2009. (Video: The White House)

On “Fox News Sunday,” Pence sought to quell the controversy. “Well, first off, my daughter and I and her cousins really enjoyed the show,” he said. “‘Hamilton’ is just an incredible production, incredibly talented people. And it was a real joy to be there. You know, when we arrived, we heard — we heard a few boos, we heard some cheers. And I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like. And — but at the end, you know, I did hear what was said from the stage, and I can tell you, I wasn’t offended by what was said. I’ll leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.”

The fortunate and no doubt inadvertent side effect here is to affirm that the world of artful metaphor — the world of the theater — deeply matters. Talk about revolutionary concepts! “Hamilton,” which traces the life of its namesake through the American war for independence and establishment of the United States government, is suddenly deemed such anathema by Trump supporters that it’s worthy of being boycotted. (Note to anyone who’s considering giving up their seats to the perennially sold-out show: surely, the ticket seller’s resale division would be happy to hear from you.)

The box-office-savvy producers of “Hamilton” may perhaps be a little anxious. As a cultural force, theater — and the live performing arts, generally — have been sidelined for so long, grown so accustomed to not figuring prominently in the national conversation beyond a passionate inner circle, that all this heat may feel a tad withering. (One of the larger ironies at play here is that federal funding for the arts is so embarrassingly paltry, at about $150 million a year, that a national administration can have only extremely marginal impact on the bottom line of a nonprofit arts institution.)

The wider the debate, though, the larger the opening for ignorant responses. You have only to look at my inbox since my first piece on this issue to know that this is the case.

Why Trump gets theater completely and utterly wrong

But theater makers of all ages should reflect — not gloatingly, but optimistically — on what this squabble has awakened. A musical that can be experienced by only 1,300 people a night on Broadway, and a similar number in Chicago, has ignited a nation. In other countries, with regimes that are overtly repressive, theater goes underground and becomes revered as one of the few outlets for free expression. One dearly hopes that we don’t get to the point where it would have to fulfill that role in this country. And yet, what this episode demonstrates hearteningly is that theater still has the power to hit a whole bunch of people where they live.