Is Broadway's Trump Obsession Good for Business? Beau Willimon Is Next Up
Michael Moore’s 'Terms of My Surrender' may not be profitable (yet), but a slew of new high-profile plays like 'The Parisian Woman' are looking to capitalize on Trump's electoral win.
Does politics play on Broadway? Donald Trump is top of mind in New York theater circles, with a glut of Broadway plays aiming to capture the political zeitgeist. But whether his electoral victory translates to a win at the box office remains to be seen.
The latest production to try on Trump is The Parisian Woman, opening Nov. 30 and playing through March 11. Written by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon and starring Uma Thurman, the 90-minute dark comedy — loosely inspired by Henry Becque's 1885 play La Parisienne — also features Josh Lucas, Blair Brown, Phillipa Soo and Marton Csokas. It originally debuted in 2013 but has since been updated to be set after the 2016 election and can be tweaked further as real-life political events unfold. Trump’s frequent tweeting and legislative inaction are topics of discussion, and phrases like “locker room talk” and “fake news” are crowd-pleasing punchlines. Chief of staff John F. Kelley, defense secretary James Mattis and former chief strategist Steve Bannon are offscreen characters — the latter gets very drunk at a cocktail party and vomits all over the sofa.
“This play speaks to all of us who took what we had for granted, to maybe think about what we can do to make a difference. It’s just astonishing what’s going on — every day it’s another circus, it’s literally dizzying — so it’s a time when a little positive catharsis goes a long way,” says Tom Viertel, who is producing The Parisian Woman, centering on a couple navigating their powerful Beltway friendships. He believes it will appeal to a bipartisan audience: “It turns out there are a lot of Republicans who have either deep misgivings or serious dislike of what’s going on in this administration. And for a lot of them, I don’t know that they’ll be all that offended by this, if at all.”
The Parisian Woman is the third (and starriest) politically related, commercially produced play of the current Broadway season, which kicked off this past summer with a bold and visceral adaptation of 1984. Starring Olivia Wilde, Tom Sturridge and Reed Birney, the eerily relevant production transferred to Broadway after four hit U.K. runs, debuted to strong reviews and made headlines for its extreme effect on audiences (Jennifer Lawrence briefly left the theater to vomit in the lobby, and others have fainted and interrupted the show in anger). It grossed a solid $6.8 million from more than 112,000 ticket holders during its 21-week run ending Oct. 8, though that show didn’t recoup.
This season also includes the Broadway debut of Michael Moore, with his Trump-roasting one-man show The Terms of My Surrender. Part political rally and part autobiography, the play also earned solid reviews and welcomed a roster of onstage celebrity guests that included Gloria Steinem, Stephen Colbert, Rob Reiner, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Olbermann and Maxine Waters. One notable show was followed by a protest at Trump Tower with Mark Ruffalo, Wilde and Zoe Kazan. The show wrapped its 12-week run Oct. 22 with a respectable combined total of $4.2 million from just under 74,500 spectators. Though it also did not recoup on Broadway, Moore plans to take the show on tour next summer, which should help nudge the production closer to profit.
Generally, a production has to play to at least 80 percent capacity for most of its run to recoup. And plays — touching on current events or otherwise — are usually a tougher sell, as the bulk of Broadway bank is consistently made by blockbuster musicals like The Lion King, Wicked, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, and interspersed with A-list star-driven shows usually debuting in the awards-ripe spring months. Even earning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama — won by 2014’s Islamophobia-centric Disgraced and last season’s Rust Belt drama Sweat — doesn’t necessarily make a show a must-see, especially with undecided ticket holders eyeing more lighthearted fare. And unless it’s a sui generis blockbuster like Hamilton, which has grossed over $280 million since July 2015, a political production isn’t exactly escapist entertainment in today’s Trump-drenched, 24-hour news cycle.
In fact, spotlighting Trump so prominently in the marketing of Moore’s Terms of My Surrender “may have been a misstep,” says producer Meghan O'Hara. “When we started building the play in the spring, people were still reeling that he was the president,” she says of the show’s initial announcement in May, when Moore unveiled the tagline, Can a Broadway show take down a sitting president? “That turned out to be only one idea in the show — there’s so much about Michael’s life, and how every one person can make a difference. But Michael has always won by being bold, and [that tagline’s] boldness served us well: people said, ‘You’re preaching to the choir,’ but sometimes the choir needs a song to sing.”
Despite the commercial challenges, there’s no sign of political content on Broadway letting up. Given Trump’s incendiary comments about our Mexican neighbors during the campaign, the president unsurprisingly earns a mention or two in John Leguizamo’s latest solo show, Latin History for Morons, which just opened on Broadway after a hit run at the Public Theater earlier this year. And politics will be at the center of two more plays to come this season: Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, a scathing comedy about town council bickering as a reflection of real-world power; and An Enemy of the People, rising-star playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' adaptation of the classic Ibsen drama about a town whose civic leaders are willing to ignore the health risk of a contaminated water supply in favor of business concerns.
But it is possible for a political play to be a critical and financial success, as seen with last season’s Oslo. The Tony-winning ensemble play, which included Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, grossed over $10 million in its sold-out, extended 17-week run and will be adapted into a film with producer Marc Platt. The production just opened in London with a different cast. “Who would have thought that a three-hour play about the Oslo peace accords would win every prize?” laughed Andre Bishop, the producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater (who also produced Disgraced and this season’s Wall Street skewering Junk). “Good plays are good plays — that’s the way it’s always been. Oslo gave people hope because it was about the possibility of opposing forces actually getting along and achieving some kind of understanding with each other. It’s funny, [playwright] J.T. Rogers used to say, ‘When it premiered off-Broadway before the election, it was a play about Israel and Palestine. And when it hit Broadway, I saw it as a play about Democrats and Republicans.’”
Though politics onstage remain risky business in the Trump era, Broadway will continue to save space for boundary-pushing work, especially with nonprofit theater organizations that aren’t specifically beholden to investors. “America right now is hungry for stories that will help explain us to ourselves," encouraged Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. "Given what is happening in our national politics, that has to involve politics. We have to be talking about how did we get here in this country that’s so horribly divided against itself in so many ways. If somebody can write a play that sheds light on that, there’s gonna be a huge appetite for it.”
David Rooney contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.