Since the presidential election, private citizen Hillary Clinton has permitted herself two main types of recreation: hiking in the woods outside her Westchester County home and attending Broadway shows.
Long a devoted fan of musicals, Clinton has taken in quite a few since emerging from the painful defeat that resulted in the stranger-than-fiction reality of Donald Trump as commander in chief.
The first theatrical sighting this year was at the last performance of the Tony-winning revival of “The Color Purple.” The musical featured one of the most resplendent Broadway turns in ages — Cynthia Erivo’s emotionally raw, musically transcendent portrayal of abused Celie.
But before Celie had sung a note about her brutalized life, the audience at that particular performance had already undergone a catharsis. As she made her way down the aisle with husband Bill, the former secretary of State and first female presidential nominee of a major party was greeted by fellow theatergoers with the kind of cheering normally reserved for a baseball hero circling the bases after hitting a World Series-clinching home run.
The rousing ovation, recorded on phone cameras, went viral. The moment was bolstering not just to Clinton but to her profoundly disappointed supporters, who were relieved that their candidate wasn’t simply taking selfies in the woods with friendly strangers but was now finding solace and reconnection at the theater. The musical was a form of medicine.
Clinton has subsequently been spotted at “In Transit,” the a cappella musical set in the New York subway system; the new hot-ticket revival of “Sunset Boulevard,” in which Glenn Close is reprising her Tony-winning performance; and the new musical “War Paint,” about cosmetics rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, played by two of Broadway’s grandest divas, Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone.
Not shying away from more hard-hitting fare, Clinton caught the last matinee of “The Humans,” Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning drama about a white an Irish American Catholic family losing its grip on the middle class. Erik and Deirdre (played by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, both of whom won Tonys for their performances) have traveled from Pennsylvania to spend Thanksgiving with their daughter at her not-yet-unpacked New York apartment. Facing an economically bleak retirement, this couple represents precisely the kind of voters Clinton had difficulty persuading to vote for her.
The thunderous pre-show receptions — chants of “Hill-are-ee!” blown in on squalls of applause — haven’t died down. Broadway theatergoers are happy for the opportunity to show their love and gratitude to the woman who came closest to breaking the ultimate glass ceiling. But they’re also clearly moved by the way the theater has become part of her restoration and recovery.
Let’s hope the powers that be at the Tony Awards recognize an opportunity when they see one and invite Clinton to present at the ceremony that will be held at Radio City Music Hall on June 11 and broadcast as usual on CBS. Clinton has been the biggest unbilled star on Broadway this spring season, and there is no better endorsement than her heartfelt fandom.
Clinton was criticized during the campaign by New York Times columnist David Brooks for not having hobbies. “Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun?” he glibly asked. “We know what Obama does for fun — golf, basketball, etc.”
Brooks likely wouldn’t have written this embarrassingly sexist column had he sat across from Clinton and her family as I once did at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre for a performance of Bartlett Sher’s magnificent revival of “The King and I.” I could tell Clinton was as moved as I was by Kelli O’Hara’s haunting reprise at the end of “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” because when I looked over at her through tears I could see her own eyes glistening with poignant ecstasy.
Like all great lovers of theater, Clinton is delighted by virtuosity, the alchemy of preternatural talent and unrelenting hard work. You can see it in the way she gives herself over to performers — her expression beaming with astonishment and awe.
As a theatergoer with a burdensome professional life, Clinton no doubt wants to be transported from her own daily cares and woes and leave the theater humming a happy tune. But she seeks her escape not in mindless entertainment but in an art form that puts the human story front and center.
The theater brings us together not to conceal struggle but to allow us to acknowledge it as a collective body. It can be both spiritual in the way it invites us to reflect on the meaning of existence and political in the way it asks us to clarify the governing values of our society.
The day after catastrophe inaugurates a new act.
More to the point, playwrights and composers have long recognized that what unites us is the hard fact of loss. We gather to confront what is most challenging about our human situation and to discover how we can best meet — with dignity, compassion and grace — our common fate. The theater has been teaching variations of this lesson since Sophocles in “Oedipus at Colonus” had a messenger convey the final epiphany of the play’s long-suffering protagonist: “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.”
Few public figures have experienced as spectacular a defeat as the one Clinton experienced. It was a punishing personal loss for Clinton, whose character was mercilessly maligned. But the increasingly brutal race was also, no matter how you voted, a loss for our political process.
Clinton personalizes these disappointments and failures for us, which is why seeing her at the theater constitutes its own kind of drama. Her presence tells us that though the plot of our story might seem forbiddingly dark, life doesn’t typically follow the neat pattern of tragedy. The day after catastrophe inaugurates a new act.
Clinton’s Broadway cameos this season have also reminded us of the theater’s great gift of public solitude — the way it allows us to be contemplatively alone together, the way it renews our faith by discreetly connecting us to the stranger sitting beside us. “No one is alone, truly.” Stephen Sondheim, a famously unsentimental writer, wrote these lyrics to be heard in the one place he knew they would ring most true.
Inviting Clinton to present at the Tonys might be seen as too partisan a gesture. But the values of the Broadway community — diversity, equality, acceptance — were fundamental to the campaign she conducted, and having her there would be a reaffirmation of these ideals.
What’s more, at a time when Trump is threatening to scrap the National Endowment for the Arts, a strong statement by Clinton on the importance of governmental support for artists and cultural institutions would be galvanizing. Broadway may be a commercial marketplace, but much of the work showcased there (“Hamilton,” “Fun Home,” “The Humans,” among countless other recent Tony winners) springs from publicly supported nonprofit theaters, where these plays and musicals will return after taking their Broadway bows.
South African Athol Fugard, whose plays revealed the toll of apartheid on his country’s soul, understood, as Aristotle did millennia earlier, “the central importance of the theatre to the psychic well-being and sanity of a society.” The Tony Awards would provide a perfect platform for Clinton to communicate this idea to millions of Americans.
Broadway producers know as well as anyone the importance of casting. There’s no better messenger right now to deliver this arts advocacy message than our nation’s most resilient theatergoer.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty