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Pop Stuff: Drama Queen

The stage is possibly the only widely accessible performance venue that won’t tolerate cell phone glares

Soleil Nathwani Feb 20, 2018

Palais Garnier Auditorium in Paris. Photo: FHKE (Flickr: Palais Garnier)/CC BY-SA 2.0

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One of the matchless things about living in New York is that great theater is on my doorstep, wonderfully accessible from rushtickets to Broadway spectaclesto diamonds in the rough Off Off-Broadway, for less than the price of a movie ticket. In the last few years, Broadway, the 41 theaters in and around Time Square, has flourished. 2017 was another record year. Broadway took in over $1.5bn in revenue, the GDP of a small country. The theater has been a beacon for creativity, freedom of speech and shifting politics, carrying the torch lit in the public stages of Shakespeare and the communal theater of ancient Greece. So it seems fitting that Broadway is thriving in this moment. As rage fuels our politics, the curtains lift on a place to work out hostilities. As the Internet envelops us in a din of alerts, the stage gives us room to breathe. And if the immigration line at JFK feels like a hotbed of exclusion, theater in the Big Apple is more inclusive than ever.

The spark that most notably fired up theater’s boom time was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, the story of one of America’s founding fathers. Adored and lauded, Hamilton became the best-selling show in Broadway history. Miranda subverted a host of norms by casting non-white actors and using music rooted in soul, blues and rap to recount the birth of a nation charged with racial tension. It was as though Miranda knew Trump was coming and made a pre-emptive strike. Just days after U.S. elections left us gasping, the actors in Hamilton used the playhouse to speak directly to Vice President-elect Mike Pence who was in the audience. Standing for rights instead of an ovation they proclaimed, “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your administration will not protect us.”

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The angst has been palpable on stage since. From being lucky enough to watch Hamilton in previews, almost every performance I’ve seen has addressed the ills of the body politic. Activist filmmaker Michael Moore made his Broadway debut in The Terms of My Surrender to bolster the Trump resistance. Central Park’s annual Shakespeare production saw Caesar and Calpurnia get Trump-Melania makeovers. Beau Willimon, the creator of House of Cards, turned to the stage to address right versus left, casting Uma Thurman as a woman who embodies the debate. Director Julie Taymor, whose genius brought The Lion King to Broadway, chose to remake M. Butterfly at a time when LGBTQ rights are under attack. Pakistani playwright Ayad Akhtar tackled the one percent in Junk. Not every performance was stellar but all of them made me examine my beliefs.

And therein lies the greatest gift of the theater. In a hightech age that has narrowed our focus to the echo chambers of individual leanings, distracted us with scrolling feeds, advanced by a reality TV leader that powers of reasoning need only be tweet sized, the theater brings diverse view points to a sanctuary where we can digest them. The stage is possibly the only widely accessible performance venue that won’t tolerate cell phone glares, as stage maven Patti Lupone recently displayed when she stopped mid-performance, snatching a phone from an audience member to rippling applause. Art requires us to submit and absorb. It is an antidote to the sensationalism that quashes the capacity for debate and a place to exercise our most important muscle—empathy.

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The author is a film producer and journalist, and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @soleilnathwani

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