Experiencing the unexpected is one of the things I love about live theater, so I would love to have been in the audience when the cast of Hamilton decided to explain their position to vice-president-elect Mike Pence the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Although I would not have been happy if it had been my first experience with the play.) I support the right of the cast to exercise their free speech, and I agree with those who say they were respectful and sincere. They even silenced the booing. Sort of.
However, I wish the cast had trusted their art more. Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play. Storytelling is a powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful way of expressing a message, because it touches the heart as well as the mind. It’s the reason I’m so passionate about film. And when you add music, the power increases exponentially. The lecture simply wasn’t necessary.
I remember the night I saw Hamilton — shortly after it opened, before I had heard the music or the hype. It was a transformative experience, and I’m glad it wasn’t marred by a post-performance lecture. I stayed at my seat until the last chord of the postlude and applauded one more time. The music stayed with me as I left the theater. The play ends with an epilogue focusing on the women in Hamilton’s life and what they did to preserve his legacy and his writings after his death, and I thought about their contribution to the cause of liberty during the Revolution.
Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play.
As I walked to the train station, I contemplated the rich heritage portrayed in the play, particularly as demonstrated in the casting of ethnic minorities in all the major roles and most of the ensemble. It made me think more deeply about those revolutionaries we usually see depicted in brocade finery and speaking the king’s English, men who were actually more like the Occupy movement of our day. It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before. It also helped me understand the royalists’ position better, and how hard it must have been to give up a way of life that had been comfortable and familiar to them. Would I have been willing to sacrifice all that I have for the ideal of freedom?
In short, I got it, in my mind and in my heart, through the storytelling and the music. The audience who saw the play with Mike Pence also had an unforgettable experience, but I doubt that it was focused on the music or the story.
It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before.
Like the characters they play onstage, the actors took a risk Friday night. It wasn’t a risk to their lives but to their livelihoods. I admire their courage and their sincerity. But they weren’t the only ones at risk that night. I can only imagine the consternation of the Secret Service agents as they tried to move their charge from the crowded theater before the curtain calls were ended, as they are instructed to do. Transitions are always the most dangerous time for a Secret Service agent, so it must have been a nightmare for them when the cast invited the audience to take out their cellphones to record the speech, and everyone reached into their purses and pockets! They put everyone at risk at that moment. Fortunately Secret Service agents have better training than cops, and no one was trigger-happy. I’m sure they surrounded Mr. Pence with their bodies, ready to take a bullet rather than use one. But there could have been a tragic outcome as everyone reached for those phones.
So yes, the cast of Hamilton had every right to say what they said, just as those who argued both sides of the issue that weekend had every right to express their opinions. I just wish the cast had trusted their art to tell the story and convey the message by itself. Perhaps they could have invited Mr. Pence backstage to talk to them about his experience and their hopes in a meaningful way. They knew he was coming, so they could have arranged it ahead of time. Then the news story might have been about Mr. Pence’s response to the play, instead of everyone else’s response to the lecture.