Ryan Murphy Wants to Build a Very Large Prom (Podcast Episode)

THTR 3333’s Melissa Dunn is joined by her friends Emma Danziger and Jessica Edelson to discuss Ryan Murphy’s movie musical adaptation The Prom premiering on Netflix December 11. Topics covered include diversity & representation, casting choices, and the significance of Ryan Murphy producing this story.

Podcast host Melissa Dunn pictured in 2016 with her friends and esteemed guests Jess and Emma (left to right).

How Hamilton Became the First Musical of the Trump Era

Hamilton: An American Musical is a triumph of a production and an era-defining musical that embodies the hope, resiliency, and inclusivity of the Obama years. In 2015, telling the story of America’s very white Founding Fathers while using a cast of non-white actors felt, dare I say, revolutionary. The significance of the casting felt possible too. After all, America had a Black President representing us in our most powerful elected office. Hamilton: An American Musical’s rise in mainstream popularity practically coinciding with the divisive 2016 election made the musical’s message feel all that more poignant. But the election’s outcome, and the President changing from an ardent art supporter to a notorious art hater, represents a shift in the lens audiences are able to view the story through. The rise in negative critiques to the Disney+ version, even though it is just a filmed version of the original production, underscores a noticeable narrative shift: Hamilton (2020) is the first Trump era musical.

The critiques of Hamilton (2020) are, of course, only possible because of the widespread success of the original staged production. Audiences became enamored with the way Lin Manual-Miranda made the story of America’s establishment fun and flirty, with the added wokeness of non-white actors portraying our Founding Fathers through rap music. Now that the initial hype has died down and the casting gimmick has worn off, watching Hamilton on Disney+ is a new, different experience. Released in the midst of a summer defined by social unrest and the affirmation that Black Lives Matter, the problematic ways Hamilton (2020) used black bodies to white-wash American history cannot be ignored.

Hamilton’s use of black actors to frame the Founding Fathers as figures more progressive than they actually were is best analyzed through lyrics presenting Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with slavery as deliberately one-sided. The early Act I song “My Shot” features Hamilton and introduces the audience to his fellow Revolutionaries (Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan). In the song Hamilton raps the lyric “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists” to describe the cohort, framing them as a group of staunch anti-slavers. In reality, the Founding Fathers’ relationship with slavery was much more nuanced, with Hamilton actually owning slaves himself and generally sacrificing his personal distaste for slavery when it could benefit him politically. However, because Hamilton intentionally surrounds Hamilton with Black bodies, the audience is lulled into accepting the anti-slave narrative put forth in “My Shot.” 

The call to violence that’s made in “My Shot” is another aspect of the Hamilton experience that does not translate well to today’s sociopolitical climate. The lyric immediately following the reference to abolitionists has Hamilton practically shout “Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!” The lighting immediately cuts to blue, magnifying the significance of what Hamilton just rapped. In essentially a call to revolt against the government, Hamilton doubles down on the song’s gun and violence references in the next refrain apologizing that he sometimes “shoots off at the mouth.” After the tragic instances of police officers shooting unarmed Black people this summer, there is something unsettling about a group of Black actors, especially Black actors portraying historical white figures, singing that it’s “time to take a shot!” When Hamilton: An American Musical initially premiered in 2016, this song and it’s call for martyrs came across as the revolutionaries being brave and courageous. Instead in 2020, the recklessness of the white characters basically begging to incite violence and fire their weapons doesn’t sit quite as naturally.

Despite slavery being a defining issue of America’s formative years, slaves are practically erased from the Hamilton narrative. In Act I, Daveed Diggs portrays the French Lafayette who helps the Americans fight against the British forces. His last words in that character are “I give freedom to my people if I’m given the chance.” That conclusion makes it particularly ironic when Diggs is reintroduced in Act II as noted slave owner Thomas Jefferson. This affirms that the quest for freedom and independence sought throughout Act I was only really ever for white people in America. The problem with Hamilton (2020) is that it doesn’t seem willing to tackle this double-standard head-on besides featuring a cast of Black actors. 

On the rare chance slavery is actually acknowledged in Hamilton, it is never the show’s focus.  Act II opens with the song “What’d I Miss” that introduces Jefferson while he descends from a lofty staircase back to the “ground” at his Monticello plantation. The ensemble resembles Jefferson’s slaves, who are already lined up on the stage-level ready to serve their master’s every need. At one point, Jefferson commands “Sally be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it?” in reference to a letter he’s received. The irony in the phrasing is that it suggests Sally, notoriously one of Jefferson’s slaves he impregnated several times, had any sort of choice in the matter. It also equates Sally to an animal, implying she was nothing more than something pleasurable for him to consume. That lyric also represents the only instance in which an enslaved person is directly referred to throughout the show. Occasionally throughout Hamilton, an ensemble member takes on a small solo to play a bit-part like Samuel Seabury or James Reynolds. Every time this happens the ensemble member is portraying a white character, and there are no instances where an ensemble member speaks or sings while performing as an enslaved person. 

Later in “What’d I Miss,” Jefferson climbs up on the staircase structure he arrived on and boasts “Lookin’ at the rolling fields I can’t believe that we are free.” He says this ironic line to the ensemble playing his dutiful slaves, and it furthers cements the one-sided narrative regarding slavery Hamilton (2020) imposes on its audience. Since the audience never hears from a Black character, Jefferson’s implication that Americans are free is accepted even though it only applies to the country’s whites. This ignores that for a large number of Americans, “freedom” from Britain meant nothing. Furthermore, Digg’s positioning on the staircase has him elevated above the ensemble who are working on the ground-level to push him forward. Positioning Jefferson above his slaves shows that his social status as a wealthy, white man places him above his Black slaves in the social hierarchy. The ensemble pushing the staircase also suggests that Jefferson’s legacy has been pushed forward by this historically disenfranchised population who received no recognition for their own contributions but instead elevated their white master in a way that placed him in the best position to succeed. 

Lastly, the choice to release Hamilton (2020) in accordance with the July 4th holiday represents more of the tone deafness that accompanies the Disney+ version compared to the theatre production. Commonly referred to as Independence Day, the holiday celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the colonies subsequent freedom from British rule. But as mentioned earlier, freedom from Britain really only represented “independence” for the white community. Disney+’s decision to release Hamilton (2020) on the holiday white washes the reality of July 4th, which is that July 4th 1776 was a relatively meaningless day for enslaved, Black Americans. 

It’s not that the Hamilton released on Disney+ is a bad musical. In fact, it’s still just as brilliant as before. But now the performance, crafted and built during the Obama years, exists as a non-changing entity in an incredibly changed world. In its original iteration as an Obama-era musical, Hamilton: An American Musical allowed white consumers to conflate the color-blind casting of diverse actors portraying historically white figures as proof that equity existed in America. But the tragic events that have unfolded since 2016 prove that is simply untrue. Audiences’ faith and general optimism for American institutions, like the government, has eroded markedly, which makes it difficult to construct a musical where the basic idea of America serves as one of the primary motivators. A product of its release environment (cough *global pandemic where the government horrifically botched its response* cough), Hamilton (2020) opens itself up to this next-level of analysis in the Trump-era.  Maybe this is unfair to Lin Manual-Miranda and the Hamilton team. But when you sell your show to a multinational mass media conglomerate for a record-setting $75 million, you should expect some additional critiques. 

It’s the Subtle Racism for Me: How Miss Saigon Fails Minorities

Originally debuting in 1989, Miss Saigon tells the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers, a 17 year-old Vietnamese girl and an American soldier, who meet in the midst of the deadly Vietnam War. Think of it like Romeo & Juliet meets the Viet Cong, but with racist undertones and a storyline crafted to intentionally assert white superiority. Much of the diversity conversations regarding Miss Saigon revolve around the initial casting controversy of Jonathan Pryce using yellow-face, but the recent 2016 West End revival shows that the racism in Miss Saigon goes far beyond that.

In classic American imperialistic fashion, Miss Saigon is rooted in our belief that Vietnamese people need and want saving. It perpetuates the narrative that the Vietnamese are victimized, and this begins the process of stripping the Asian characters of any agency. The entire second act revolves around Kim’s failure to evacuate Bangkok and her efforts to have her child avoid the same fate. However, the audience never gets to hear Kim talk with another Asian character about why she feels it’s necessary to give up her child. It’s just an unstated fact that as audience members we’re already supposed to believe that America is superior to any country in the Eastern world.  This choice by the creative team further emphasizes that Miss Saigon is a musical designed through an imperialistic lens. Even though the story heavily features minorities, it’s clear that didn’t happen because the creative team was actually interested in elevating minority voices. Instead, Miss Saigon uses Asian characters and countries because they’re a unique commodity for consumers to derive entertainment from.

The stark divide white privilege provides is prominent in the late act II song “Room 317” that features Ellen and Kim meeting for the first time. The lyrics primarily work to move the plot about Chris and Kim reuniting forward, yet the story is told almost entirely through Ellen’s (white) eyes. Ellen, as a white American, can never understand the pain and trauma Kim has experienced as a native Vietnamese living in a warzone. The intentional choice to have Ellen be the one who delivers this pivotal, crushing blow to Kim’s optimistic expectations exemplifies the fact that Miss Saigon was created for white consumption. Despite being a secondary character for the majority of the show, Ellen’s role becomes elevated and “Room 317” becomes about showcasing her own feelings. 

All the while, “Room 317” strips Kim, arguably the story’s most central character, of her agency. From the moment she enters Chris and Ellen’s hotel room, Kim is thrown into the unexpected. Her role becomes about responding to comments Ellen has already initiated, and therefore her role becomes mostly reactive in nature. Near the beginning of the song, Ellen wonders, “I don’t know how I’d feel if our roles were reversed.” It’s a fair question, and certainly something audiences must be keen to explore as well. Perhaps Kim would practice more empathy if she finally found herself in a position that wields power? We’ll never know.

Alas, much like the rest of the musical, the song continues without exploring much of Kim’s perspective and concludes with her fleeing the hotel room in an emotional haste. Audience members are never given the chance to hear Kim genuinely answer some of Ellen’s questions, and are instead only able to debrief the moment through Ellen’s lens. Even the songs there were written to further Kim’s narrative arc manage to completely block her from achieving any agency.

The costuming choices also accentuate the role race plays in creating agency. In anticipation of seeing Chris again, “Sun and Moon (Reprise)” shows Kim gracefully unpacking her wedding dress. The outfit is oriental, and the delicacy she unpacks and dresses with suggests to the audience that this is a valuable possession of hers. However, when Kim enters Chris’ hotel room wearing this outfit, Ellen immediately mistakes her for the maid. The comment is subtle and more of a disrespectful microaggression than a deliberate jab, yet it embodies the racism that plagues Miss Saigon throughout. It helps show the audience that Kim, even when wearing her finest outfits, will always be perceived as lesser than Chris’ American (read: white) wife. 

Several blocking choices in Miss Saigon also work to further the white supremacy communicated throughout the musical. Towards the end of Act I, Ellen is introduced to the audience for the first time during the song “I Still Believe” that shows her laying in bed with Chris as he struggles to sleep through a nightmare. The bedroom is staged in a way that it appears raised over Kim in Vietnam. The sets appearing concurrently shows the audience the totem-pole rankings of Chris’ lovers. It also communicates to the audience how Chris would be perceived in society if he had stayed in Bangkok with Kim. He would still be on the ground level, probably wearing tattered clothes with dirt on his face just as Kim was. Instead, the audience sees how coming home has already benefited him. His new wife wears clean pajamas, and they sleep in a fancy bed. “I Still Believe” puts in little effort to characterize Ellen beyond the fact she’s Chris’ American wife, but it perfectly communicates all the ways Kim pales in comparison to an American (read: white) bride.

In terms of staging, “Room 317” also acts as a prime example for the musical’s themes. Towards the end of the number, Kim recognizes that she’s fighting a losing battle with Ellen. Laurence Connor, the director, could have reworked this key moment in the revival to show Kim empowered by knowing the choice she now needs to make. Instead, the audience sees Kim continue her submissive ways. Noblezada lowers herself to her knees and bends over in a way that communicates how desperate Kim has become. This staging choice frames Ellen in a position of power (which she, of course, possesses) and accentuates Kim’s weakness. Noblezada’s positioning also vaguely resembles someone praying, which serves as subtle commentary on the overall plot that a white family (Chris and Ellen) can serve as literal “savior” to a non-white child (Tam).

As a white spectator, consuming Miss Saigon in 2020 and excusing its blatant racial misgivings because “the music is catchy” and “the story is so good” is a privilege. Even though the musical is technically diverse in nature and employs a large number of minority actors, it’s evident that the narrative conjured in the main story is full of harmful microaggressions. Continuing to revive this musical and consume it as theatre-goers makes us complicit in perpetuating the harmful, racial narratives associated with it. Miss Saigon commoditizes Asian culture and insists on telling this tragic, diverse story through a white-only lens, oftentimes unabashedly roping the audience into accepting the superiority of white culture. 

Miss Saigon has a crucial role to play in musical theatre history, but we’ve reached the point where it’s time to move on and retire the harmful narrative the story perpetuates. The music, book, and staging (hello, helicopter!) are theatre triumphs that deserved to be celebrated at one point in time. But we can acknowledge these once remarkable accomplishments while still admitting that the musical provides little to no cultural benefit in 2020.

This all being said, the continued fanfare for Miss Saigon and consistently sold out engagements proves that there is an active and eager market for more Asian-led stories. There is an entirely new generation of extremely talented Asian performers looking for their big break, just how the original production boosted Lea Salonga into the mainstream with opportunities they previously might not have had before. Asian stories are marketable, and it’s time for Broadway to retire its outdated tropes and start producing new, diverse stories featuring people of color.