julia foulkes

When Musicals Become Politics

Recently the musical Hamilton became a political hot potato–again. Brendon Victor Dixon of the cast read a statement directed to one audience member, Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence, a plea that the musical’s vision of a diverse America be the vision of the new administration who would “work on behalf of all of us.” President-Elect Trump denounced the statement as rude and asked for an apology.

Since leaving the leading role of his hit Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has stumped for Clinton and made music of Trump’s tweets. The political impact of the musical is going beyond its creator, though. Many musicals have been bestselling phenomena, staying on stage for many years, spawning multiple tours and making enormous profits: Cats, Les Miserables, Chicago, The Lion King, Wicked, Book of Mormon. But it is a rare musical that not only is an artistic and commercial success but enters—and changes—political debates.

Before Hamilton, there was West Side Story. And the use of West Side Story in political battles is a cautionary tale about how one message on stage may become another in politics.

West Side Story debuted in 1957 and immediately became part of the national conversation about juvenile delinquency. Unlike Hamilton’s fresh perspective on the past, West Side Story was up-to-the-minute, taking an old tale of youthful love and dropping it into 1950s New York. The musical was less about Tony and Maria—the updated Romeo and Juliet—than the Jets and the Sharks.

Gangs combined the long-term troubles of continued segregation and inequality with the new trends of changing migration and demographics at the beginning of the postwar baby boom. Just two years prior to West Side Story’s debut, Rebel without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle dramatized the sense that youths were careening out of their parents’ control and were increasingly in control of the streets.

West Side Story changed the perception of these youth by recognizing that they were not isolated troubled teenagers but the result of continued discrimination and representative of larger social problems. The showstopper “Gee, Officer Krupke” skewered social workers, lawyers, and psychologists for the bureaucratic circles that failed to address the longing and aspirations of growing numbers of young people. And the show eviscerated the idea of the American dream of self-reliance and open opportunity. The wizened Doc berates the Jets that “You make this world lousy.” “That’s the way we found it, Doc,” a Jet replies.

All this attention to gang members prompted more concerted political action. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy initiated a commission on youth crime; in September, Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act, which gave additional resources to state and local communities to combat crime among youth. When later asked why such attention and money was given to the issue, the Kennedy administration official in charge gave one brief answer: “West Side Story.” What began as a sympathetic portrayal of wayward youth resulted in a greater focus on crime and the bolstering of police presence, a consequence that is still with us.

Every night, there is one line of Hamilton that gets more applause than any other. The Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton begin the renewed effort at war that would result in the colonists’ victory with the statement: “Immigrants. We get the job done.” How Hamilton’s take on immigrants will fare in the age of Trump may be less easy to predict than the creators and cast believe. One of the wonders of Hamilton-the-musical is the way in which Alexander Hamilton—an elitist who believed in a strong federal government—has been revitalized as an immigrant populist speaking for a diverse America. We may watch in wonder, too, as a strong endorsement of the contributions of immigrants becomes subverted in a new political era.