Over the pre-Thanksgiving weekend, the American Internet erupted in outrage, faux consternation, and streaks of halfhearted bickering. It was, in some ways, the perfect storm, stirring up several incendiary ingredients, including Donald Trump’s Twitter account, vocal public shaming, earnest onstage activism, and a musical that people just can’t stop talking about. What freshly heated scandal set the digital tubes aflame?
In short, Mike Pence, our vice president–elect — a man who has appeared mysteriously sanguine, at least on the outside, during what must be the wildest political ride of his life — was booed and lectured when he attended a Friday-night performance of America’s best-loved, most annoying Broadway show. That show, of course, would be Hamilton.
In case you haven’t seen it: Hamilton, a hip-hop take on the life of our nation’s first Treasury secretary and a founding father, is “miraculous” — this is from Vogue, last year — driving critics “mad with joy, drawing insanely starry crowds,” and “setting off a frenzy for tickets.” (At press time, the best seats for the New York show officially cost $849, but good luck getting a ticket that’s not second-hand and marked up. In the real world, a nosebleed seat at the Chicago performance costs $200 or more.)
“I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times last year, tongue three-quarters in cheek, “but ‘Hamilton’ . . . might just be about worth it.” Sheesh. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? In its own way, Hamilton might be the Texas of musicals: Sure, if you’re a fan, it’s fantastic and amazing and genius and all that, but people tend to get irritated when you bang on about it too much.
But for beleaguered Mike Pence, at least on Friday, the Hamilton review that hit closest to home might have come from David Brooks, written upon the musical’s debut in 2015. “Every once in a while a piece of art brilliantly captures the glory, costs and ordeals of public life,” Brooks wrote. Hamilton, he continued, is the “sort of production that strips things down and asks you to think afresh” about such things.
On entering Manhattan’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, Pence certainly met with one such ordeal: enthusiastic boos. On the show’s closing, Pence hightailed it to the exits, but not before getting a personal lecture from the stage. “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, announced to the packed theater. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
This is all perfectly within the rights of the Hamilton cast, of course. Was it a touch sanctimonious? Perhaps. Slightly infuriating, if you paid northward of $2,000 for your family to attend a musical only to have The Worst Election Ever™ come back to haunt you like a B-grade movie villain on an otherwise pleasant Friday night? Certainly.
Alas, things only went downhill from there. President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter the next morning, as he loves to do: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” Next up: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
In Chicago, a drunken Trump supporter decided to turn the tables, shouting profanities and ultimately getting the boot. In short, the great American Hamilton brouhaha had begun.
Spoiler alert: The cast did not apologize. Journalists gnashed their teeth about Trump’s tweets; over at CNN, an op-ed argued that America should be “chilled” by their sinister content. #BoycottHamilton trended on Twitter. At a performance of Hamilton in Chicago, a drunken Trump supporter decided to turn the tables, shouting profanities and ultimately getting the boot. In short, the great American Hamilton brouhaha had begun.
With the weekend in social-media shambles, the nation needed a hero. Less dramatically, in an era inundated with “How to Explain to Your Family That They’re Wrong About Politics at Thanksgiving (No, Really, They’ll Love It!)” think pieces, the nation really just needed someone to act like a normal, well-adjusted human being. That person turned out to be Mike Pence.
“I can tell you I wasn’t offended by what was said,” Pence told Fox News on Sunday, calm and matter-of-fact. On being booed, he said, “I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.”
Pence went on to praise the show as “just an incredible production, incredibly talented people. It was a real joy to be there.” Regarding the cast’s concerns, he went on: “I know this is a very anxious time for some people. . . . I just want to reassure every American that in the days ahead I am very confident that they are going to see President-elect Trump be a president for all of the people.”
Regarding that last line, we’ll have to wait and see. For now, in these great United States, we have yet to reach what social scientists call Peak Hamilton. On Monday, just when it seemed safe to dip back in the social-media waters, the usually staid Economist leaped into the fray: “According to @realDonaldTrump,” it tweeted, “‘Hamilton’ is ‘highly overrated’. In last year’s review, our critic disagreed.”
Egad! A glowing review of Hamilton? It’s shocking, I know.
— Heather Wilhelm is a National Review columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.