The Shadow
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The Shadow

The Neoliberalism of Musical Theatre

One of my most avid interests in middle school was musical theatre. It had been a burgeoning interest for as long as I can remember. When I was 8, my mother and father rented Hairspray, and watching it, something clicked inside. I felt a sense of internal joy and rapture seeing numbers like You Can’t Stop The Beat for the first time. I remember memorizing all the songs in Dreamgirls and verbally telling the world of the genius of West Side Story and the nostalgic bliss of Grease. My love of musical theater solidified in middle school, which was the era that musicals like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen burst onto the scene and created a brand new young audience of Broadway fanatics. Being a young queer Afro-Latinx kid from NYC, Lin-Manuel Miranda became my idol. He was a renaissance man to me, the blueprint of who I wanted to be.

Now times have changed. I haven’t properly taken an interest in a Broadway musical in many years and I now much prefer creatives that can articulate my experiences. Being cognizant of my standing in society, I crave more substantive representation. To add insult to injury, it’s 2021 and now we are looking at our past selves through a different lens now that we’re more aware of the power that art and individual creatives can have on us. So with that being said, I think it’s time we begin to admit that Broadway is not as revolutionary and not nearly as progressive as it paints itself to be.

I feel like nowadays prefacing articles such as these is necessary so that my intentions are not falsely speculated, so I’d like to start by making one thing clear. I am NOT trying to “cancel” Broadway or musical theatre. I am but one person with not a single ounce of power in this country as far as wealth, my race, gender identity or my sexual orientation, and would not be able to “cancel” Broadway in my wildest dreams. On top of that, there are many amazing Broadway musicals that do not fall into this trap such as Dear Evan Hansen, Hadestown and Wicked. I am simply asking people to think more critically about the media and entertainment they consume on a daily basis. In this case, I’m asking those open to listening to what I have to say, to reconsider putting Broadway on this pedestal of artistic subversiveness that it’s often placed in.

One example that I wanna use as a case study is the iconic musical West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950’s New York City. The Montagues and the Capulets were replaced with the white gang, the Jets, and the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. The overarching message of the musical is articulated by the female lead Maria when her love, the male lead Tony, is shot dead. She tells the characters and the audience: “You all killed him, and my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets and knives, with hate! Well I can kill now too, because now I have hate”. At the end of the musical, we’re led to believe the real villain was prejudice on BOTH sides of the aisle.

Now one could argue that this was the late 1950’s when Jim Crow started to come into question and the Civil Rights movement had been born. Messages of racial equality and egalitarianism were rare which might explain why the mostly white liberal audience was so inspired by West Side Story for decades. But was severely lacking in the conversation around West Side Story for so many years was an analysis based in intersectionality. Now that this perspective is more widely accepted, we come to realize that the struggles of the Jets and the Sharks are not equal in the slightest. I think back to a scene in the musical where the two gangs stage a war council to plan a rumble to settle their issues. An argument ensues where Riff says: “Who jumped Baby John this afternoon?”. Bernardo responds with: “Who jumped me the first day I moved in here?”. I have no doubt that the individual Jets might have had broken families and tough upbringings. But that doesn’t change the fact that they abused the power dynamics between White Americans and immigrants of color to unleash racial violence on them. The hate rooted in the actions of the Jets were based on a power struggle, the hate rooted in the actions of the Sharks however, were based on survival. Painting this false equivalence allows white racists to escape accountability for the way they assert their privilege to marginalize BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) on a systemic level.

This ignorance on the writers’ part becomes more worrying considering the musical number “America”, a song denouncing Puerto Rico as a boiling hot rock in the middle of the Caribbean. The song was remarkably improved upon in the film adaption, but knowing that this song was written by three white men is concerning to say the very least. I grew up in a neighborhood of Caribbean immigrants who cherished their home countries and often dreamed of returning with wealth for all of their family. So to see a group of white creatives write about those islands as desolate wastelands is not only deeply offensive, but it shows how disconnected these white writers were from people of color.

Broadway’s tone deaf take on important social issues is not isolated, it seeps into so many of our favorite musicals. Another one that immediately comes to mind is Rent, a musical inspired by the late 19th century opera La Boheme. This show portrays the downtrodden struggle of the lowly Bohemian artist living in the East Village of NYC. The backdrop of this musical is the peak of the AIDS crisis, and several of the characters are LGBTQ+ and HIV Positive. In the show’s peak popularity, it was heralded as a revolutionary, transgressive piece of art that was anti-establishment.

But this becomes quite confusing when considering that the musical uses a pandemic in which millions of people died, mostly members of queer and trans communities that were completely ignored by all existing political establishments, to paint a false equivalence to those victims and the artistic integrity of Bohemian artists. It becomes even more concerning considering that one of the only queer people of color in the musical, Angel, is eventually killed off by the AIDS virus, while one of the cis-het HIV Positive characters Mimi is saved towards the end of the musical, and even has access to AZT, which for those who don’t know was an extremely exclusive, expensive, and often times toxic drug available in the 80’s to treat HIV/AIDS. Had I been alive during this period, me and my community would’ve been largely affected by this pandemic, and those who lost entire chosen families from the virus feel seeing a musical use the AIDS pandemic as a backdrop for privileged Bohemian kids to not sell out so they can “stick it to the man”.

Another example I think of is one of my childhood musicals, Hairspray. The story of a “pleasantly plump” teenage girl set in the early 1960’s who gets the chance to dance on her favorite variety show, The Corny Collins Show, and is able to single handedly end her town’s century long history of violent anti blackness and Jim Crow through the power of… dance. If that isn’t already sounding alarms in your head, consider this. The musical will often put the fatphobia that Tracy experiences as a white woman at the forefront while putting the racism and segregation that the black characters face as a subplot. Similar to Rent, it minimizes the very specific experience of racism experienced by black people in the sixties in favor of a washed out, idealist, liberal fantasy of racial equality. Their failure to execute this message properly is even more so shown with the character Penny, who eventually develops a sexual fetish for black men. This writing choice would’ve been lambasted by most black people had it been released today, and yet this choice was seen as comedic and progressive at the time.

One of the most sinister offenders of tone deaf neoliberalism is the massive success of the musical The Book of Mormon. A musical that should’ve worked by all means considering that it’s satirizing a backwards, homophobic, racist Christian cult. But the problems began once we discovered that the musical was to be written by the creators of South Park. What we receive is a story of two Mormon missionaries shipped off to Uganda for a mission trip to convert new members. Uganda is portrayed as a barbaric, disease ridden land ruled by a murderous warlord. Most of the population has AIDS, many of the Ugandans are committing human atrocities to get by, and all of this is played for laughs. It’s interesting how a musical that is supposed to satirize the Mormon religion unironically reinforces the religion’s core beliefs. I was raised in a religious background where preaching abroad was emphasized, and Christian mission trips have a long history of violence and colonialism in an effort to erase black and indigenous culture. In a way, they treat the main character’s goals as noble because of the way they portray Ugandans.

The fact that this musical was as successful as it was in the “progressive” and “inclusive” Broadway circle is very telling. It’s telling how a community that prides itself on its liberalism would allow a musical that perpetuates so many stereotypes about black people and Africans that go back centuries. No actor spoke out, no theatre critic pointed out the obvious racism, and it was able to achieve legendary status. Cheryl Hystad wrote for the Baltimore Sun about the musical’s antiblackness: “Wouldn’t it have been a better critic of religious proselytizing if the villagers had taught something to the young white men? Or if the white men had learned to value a different culture, even a little? But instead, the show plays fully into the white savior complex — that whites are superior to blacks and that only we can save blacks from themselves. This is a storyline that white America apparently has a hard time giving up”. What this as well as West Side Story does is once again center the West as the ideal, civilized standard, and painting black and indigenous lands

The last musical I want to use as a case study is one of the biggest runway successes in recent memory, Hamilton. Last year, the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton was released on Disney Plus. Between July 3rd and July 13, within its first ten days of being released, the film was watched in 2.7 million households. The film even beat out Beyoncé’s boundary breaking visual film, Black Is King, in streaming numbers. The shocking thing is that those numbers don’t even compare to the amount of money made when the Broadway musical was still running. The show became an inescapable phenomenon. One of the biggest discussions I heard going around about the musical was the revolutionary aspect of it all. The fact that it was a musical about colonial America set to hip hop and R&B sang almost entirely by Black and Latinx actors. For many of the white and/or young fans of the musical such as myself, that was enough for us. The show was promoted as a story about “American then, told by America now”. White progressives on social media have memorized the musical and quote it constantly during major political events in history. But we have to ask ourselves, is Hamilton as radical as we perceived it to be?

I think as the years have gone by, we’ve had to confront hard truths about the musical despite the talent shown in the score, songwriting, and the original cast. Truths such as the realization that the Revolutionary War in it of itself was never a revolution considering that it only served to benefit white male landowners and to uphold a capitalist system that has suppressed mass democratic movements. Truths such as maybe we shouldn’t create art that glorifies figures such as Alexander Hamilton who owned slaves himself and supported imperialism. Miranda is not ignorant to these issues either. He makes a reference to Sally Hemmings in a song from the musical sung by the character of Thomas Jefferson. To those who need to be caught up to speed, Sally Hemmings was a slave who was raped repeatedly by Jefferson and birthed six children from him.

When the film was released and the discussion around the film turned critical and negative, Lin Manuel responded on social media. He wrote in a subtweet: “All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game”. It’s interesting how while writing a musical about the founding fathers in an age where we’re becoming more critical of their contributions to the nation, that those criticisms were all but left out in the musical. In my opinion, it speaks volumes to Miranda’s political priorities and moral stances. It explains why in the original broadway production and the upcoming film adaption of In The Heights, there is little to no Afro-Latinx representation. It explains why him and his father Luis Miranda supported the PROMESA bill which had devastating impacts on Puerto Rico’s economy and pushed nearly 40,000 public school students out of school. It explains why in response to the disastrous Hurricane Maria in 2017, Miranda’s solution was to put on a production of Hamilton in Puerto Rico to attract tourism, against the wishes of many people on the island. Miranda is painted as a revolutionary while being a purely establishment figure.

In an age where even Hollywood can produce anti establishment movies such as Parasite, Get Out and Judas and The Black Messiah, why hasn’t Broadway caught up? Broadway has prided itself for decades on being a liberal, progressive community. A safe haven for queer people, trans people, and people of color from all walks of life. Why then can it not understand the nuances of the lives that they portray on stage? The truth is, Broadway can’t, not without the loss of their core audience at least. The late Brazilian theatre practitioner and drama theorist Augusto Boal took note of this when developing the concept of The Theatre of the Oppressed. Having lived through a regime change in his country and rampant anti communist propaganda, he argued that the state used theatre at the time to maintain the status quo. The techniques Boal developed in The Theater of the Oppressed had been used to create a more radical approach to theatre that would create more thought provoking discussions around society.

Boal’s analysis of “Bourgeois/Finished” Theatre has only grown more relevant over the years. Broadway is housed in the heart of Times Square, the tourist capital of New York City. It’s where privileged tourists come to bask in the glory of decadent, bland consumerism. Anyone can go to a movie, or watch a TV show, but even native New Yorkers aren’t the core audience due to the steep prices of Broadway tickets. At the height of Hamilton’s fame and success, tickets would sell for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. While a lottery system was set up for ten dollar tickets, that’s only twenty one tickets per show. The people who have the wealth and access to these shows are the ruling class. With that came the exploitation of many of Boal’s techniques. Think of musicals like Hair, Les Miserables, and the aforementioned Hamilton and Rent. All these musicals contain vague themes of uprisings and revolutions, but fail to challenge any existing power structures. This is because the establishment controls the access to musical theatre, meaning that the themes will cater to their interests before anything. These themes might include relevant topics and social issues, but it won’t go far enough in its critique that it’ll cause the audience to think critically about the way they consume and move about in society.

Would Hamilton be as successful had it addressed the colonialism, reactionary politics and violent anti blackness of the period? Would Rent be as beloved by Broadway audiences had it been centered around Black queer and trans people in the heat of the 80’s crisis? As long as the accessibility to Broadway stays a gated community, we will continue to see musicals like Hamilton be the golden standard for revolutionary art in theatre.

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Blue Monday

Blue Monday

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(THEY/THEM) I'm a Queer Afro Latinx Non Binary writer who writes about media, entertainment and black queer/trans issues