Theatrical Uprisings: Presentation Takes Closer Look at Broadway’s Revolution Narratives

  • This story is for OutFAU, our student publication covering Florida Atlantic University. To see more from OutFAU click here

    Teddy Valentine before the “Broadway and Radical Politics” presentation at Solidarity’s Feb. 6 meeting. Photo courtesy of Kayla Barnes.

    Every time Teddy Valentine hears the song “God Draws Straight” from the musical “Here Lies Love" – he bawls. As a Filipino-American, he feels connected to the “ordinary people who participated in the People Power Revolution and freed themselves from the Marcos regime together.”

    However, Valentine has major critiques regarding how “Here Lies Love” and other Broadway musicals portray radical politics and revolutions.

    “I think there’s something to be said about how Broadway is made with an elite audience in mind, that likely isn’t very interested in changing the status quo,” he said. “Because of that, I think that consumers of Broadway musicals should think critically about their political messaging.”

    This is the basis for Valentine’s presentation, “Broadway and Radical Politics,” where he asked two main questions of the audience: How do Broadway musicals choose to portray revolution, and how do these narrative choices shape our understanding of revolution in popular culture? 

    Valentine, an English major and public history minor, defines revolution as “a change in the way a country is governed, usually to a different political system and often using the violence of war.” He critiqued various Broadway musicals — “Les Misérables”, “Newsies”, “Hamilton”, “Here Lies Love”, “Miss Saigon”, and “Hadestown”— for their portrayal of revolution and radical politics.

    He repeatedly cited the following PBS, NYT, New Socialist, and CNN articles and urged the audience to explore the topic further. 

    One example he highlighted was Fantine’s characterization in “Les Misérables”. He argued that Fantine is depicted as being preyed upon and lured into sex work in the song “Lovely Ladies.” In “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo, the book that inspired the musical, Fantine becomes more complex. 

    “[Fantine] seeks them out and makes difficult choices. It is the act of choosing that both show a complex sense of agency and self-worth while highlighting the genuine and systemic evils of poverty,” said Valentine. 

    Once the presentation ended, the roughly 30 people in attendance applauded and began discussing the presentation’s points. Most seemed to be longtime members of Solidarity and had no problem speaking on friendly terms with each other. Attendees shared their favorite musicals and expressed frustrations with how certain events or groups of people were portrayed on Broadway, and overall they seemed receptive to Valentine’s presentation. 

    “Broadway and Radical Politics” is explored further in the following Q&A with Teddy Valentine: 

    How do you define radical politics?

    I’d broadly define radical politics as politics that challenge or change the status quo in a serious way, such as through revolution. My presentation covered a range of revolutions: the American Revolutionary War, the 1832 June Rebellion in France, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines. Each had different goals and were executed differently, so a lot of different things can fall under radical politics.

    Which of the musicals included in your presentation is the least radical, in your opinion? Which is most radical?

    Les Misérables” is up there for me as one of the least radical. I take a lot of issues with how much the musical flattens and weakens so many important themes and nuances regarding poverty and the police that are portrayed in the book. I also take issue with its portrayal of revolution as something destined to fail rather than something that is organized, planned with specific goals, and intended to succeed. I think it’s telling that Les Misérables” has been on Broadway for a very long time, and its messages have become watered down with time.

    I’m not sure what the most radical musical I covered was, but I think “Hadestown” is one of the most creative and compelling musicals that tries to include radical politics. It has a compelling critique of capitalism, and it grapples with the possible climate apocalypse. It creates a beautiful story, and that’s why I’m drawn to it, even as I criticized it. Its themes of love and labor build each other up, but in the end tears itself apart: the revolution and the freedom of the workers ends with Orpheus’s failure. I like to imagine other ways that “Hadestown” could end on a more radical note yet still stay true to the tragedy that it is intended to be.

    What are your thoughts about musicals as a medium for political messaging? How does it compare with other mediums, like books, movies, and (non-broadway) songs?

    A lot of good Broadway songs become anthems for people, and I think that’s the power of Broadway. For the longest time — as much as I do not fuck with the musical “Here Lies Love” — the song “God Draws Straight” made me bawl every time I listened to it. As a Filipino-American, the song makes me feel connected to those unnamed, ordinary people who participated in the People Power Revolution and freed themselves from the Marcos regime together. But I think there’s something to be said about how Broadway is made with an elite audience in mind, that likely aren’t very interested in changing the status quo. Because of that, I think that consumers of Broadway musicals should think critically about their political messaging.

    How important do you believe it is for musicals to be historically accurate?

    It’s complicated. I recognize that musicals are in the business of telling stories, and they live in the realm of fiction. I also understand that historical details often need to be condensed, or that details are added or moved around to build a dramatic storyline. But if you’re retelling history, I think there’s a level of responsibility there. People can do whatever they want, but we’re living in a time and place where people are angry and uncomfortable enough about the realities of slavery and systemic racism in our country that they’re trying to remove it from public education. So I think that how history is portrayed is important, in the classroom and in fiction. 

    My partner (Note: Teddy’s partner uses both she/her and he/him pronouns) wrote the section on “Les Misérables” in my presentation: all those words are hers. When he described the realities of the June Rebellion to me, it was exciting and inspiring to hear about, and much more compelling to me than how it is portrayed in the musical. I guess what I want to offer is the idea that historical realities can be a source of inspiration, rather than something boring and holding creativity back.

    You critiqued the included musicals for various reasons. For example, “Les Misérables” does not include the ideology, politics, and philosophical debates included in the books. “Hamilton” did not include historical people of color who fought in the Revolutionary War. “Here Lies Love” focuses on the face of the era (Imelda Macros) and not the many other survivors whose stories remain untold. “Miss Saigon” portrays Vietnamese women as passive and reactive victims of the Vietnam War. In “Hadestown,” the workers don’t organize their own strike, and instead find it brought to them by Orpheous, an outsider. Overall, you state that Broadway is not a revolutionary institution and that they tell easy stories. All of this said, are there any musicals that don’t fall into the traps you just mentioned? Any musicals you can recommend for readers of OutFAU?

    I’m not sure if there are any musicals that don’t fall into these traps. I think that every musical is subject to critique about the ways it portrays radical politics, due to Broadway’s position as an institution. 

    I always recommend the earlier, live version of “Hadestown” to people. It’s one of my favorite albums, its lyrics are beautiful and intricate. “Hadestown” went through significant revisions when it came to Broadway, and I feel like earlier versions of the musical carried its themes better. The live album was released in 2017 and is available on Spotify. I also personally love “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — it’s dark and funny and tragic. It’s one of my favorite stories, and I love analyzing it.

    But as I ended my presentation: write your own shit! If Broadway isn’t telling the stories that we want to hear, why wait? Writing your own stories is a liberating and empowering experience.

    Lastly, do you identify with being in the queer community? If so, how has your queer identity shaped your relationship to (radical) politics and musicals? 

    I do identify with being in the queer community (I am a gender-fluid trans man). I think my queer identity has shaped my relationship to radical politics, especially in a time like now when living as a trans person in Florida is becoming much scarier. I think a lot of us feel helpless right now, our fates are in the hands of a state government that doesn’t give a shit that their decisions make us suffer. I think I put together my presentation hoping to show people that fighting back is not as futile as it is popularly portrayed. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary, and we would be joining a long tradition of resistance that so many different people in history have taken part in, in so many different ways. We can learn from their example, and we can take care of one another.

    This event was hosted by Solidarity, an FAU political club that aims to build “socialism and anarchy through direct action, mutual aid, and education at FAU.” Meetings are held at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays in the College of Education Building, typically in room 113. Check Instagram for meeting details.

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