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How Political Is Theatre?

This article was originally submitted on the 27th March

Does politics have a rightful place in the theatre?


Everyone finds it challenging to talk about politics with families and friends. Controversial issues, upon which everyone is expected to have a fully-formed opinion, range from trivial scandals in the House of Commons to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: no one is immune.
“Did you see this headline?” “Did you read what this person said about what this other person said about what this guy in a suit said?” It quickly becomes repetitive and convoluted, but who knew it was easier to sing about it?


As it turns out, most musical composers did. Politics seem less daunting with stage directions, dance breaks, and an interval. Today, one would be hard-pressed to come across a show with no underlying political meaning.
Undoubtedly, musicals have highlighted the prevalence of historical issues in modern political debates. Billy Elliot, Newsies, Hamilton, and Les Misérables revolve around political action; their explicitly political nature successfully won over many, inspiring interest in prominent historical events and invoking modern-day parallels.


For instance, Hamilton increased awareness of historical racial injustice and is often cited during the removal or replacement of monuments and statues that glorified white supremacists, such as those of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.
Similarly, Rent and Falsettos addressed stigma surrounding sexuality, gay culture, and the HIV epidemic in the 1980s by adding nuanced narratives to a topic deemed an ‘issue of the past’ despite remaining a prominent topic today.


Beyond portraying revolutions and social movements, musical theatre also enters into philosophical and moral territory. Avenue Q, for example, promotes the virtues of acceptance and tolerance, stressing the importance of self-discovery through songs like “Everybody’s A Little Bit Racist”, “If You Were Gay”, and “Purpose”. Writers Marx and Lopez tell the story of Princeton, a twenty-two-year-old, fresh-faced graduate who struggles to find his purpose in life, armed with nothing but an English degree and unmatched enthusiasm. But within the first ten minutes of the show, he loses his comfortable grad job and ends up not on Avenue A but Avenue Q, a rough-looking outer-outer borough of New York City.


There is no forced attempt to create a false positive, no lightbulb moment in which Princeton grasps his true purpose and goes on to live in a utopia with excellent prospects and friends for life. Instead, he learns to accept reality–a tough pill to swallow when it involves a starved bank account, a stalling personal life, and an unclear career path. Everything, in the end, is temporary (apart from death and taxes, which the finale helpfully points out).


The plots of musical theatre don’t have to revolve around hating Margaret Thatcher or King George III to remain politically relevant – even if they take the form of Sesame Street-style puppets.


Some argue that the stage should be an escape from real life. But the worrisome facts of life should not be swept aside just because they’re anxiety-inducing. It is precisely because they are anxiety-inducing that their discussion is necessary. If you would like your theatre to be apolitical, you would have to avoid most successful mainstream and unsuccessful niche shows.


Theatre offers everyone the chance to discuss issues that might feel too nerve-wracking to approach at home or work. It provides spectators with much-needed time to perch on an uncomfortable seat for two and a half hours and reflect on important issues while simultaneously enjoying some excellent music, choreography, and acting. It brings politics out of the daunting, intimidating shadows and into the bedazzling spotlight, where salient issues, past and present, can be discussed and debated freely.

Avenue Q; Image Courtesy of Uark Theatre from Avenue Q, Wikimedia Commons.