September 18, 2023
How failed theater kids are destroying a great art form—and American politics.
On September 10, members of a Denver audience hoping to enjoy a performance of a musical adaptation of the movie Beetlejuice found themselves witnessing a spectacle of an unexpected kind thanks to the antics of Lauren Boebert. The rude and unruly ghost who is the main character of Beetlejuice could hardly compete with the Colorado congresswoman’s rowdiness. Boebert and her date were ejected from the theater for disruptive behavior. After Boebert’s staff initially denied any misconduct, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts released a security video.
As reported by Kyle Clark of Denver’s 9NEWS, Boebert was clearly vaping during the performance, despite claims by her staff that the smoke came from an on-stage fog machine: “The pregnant woman sitting behind Boebert told the Denver Post she asked her to stop vaping, and Boebert refused. Her one-woman show continued: taking flash photos, raising her hands and dancing, often the only one clapping or standing up in the crowd. Boebert occasionally took a break from being disruptive to enjoy the company of her male companion. He briefly had a grasp on the situation, before ushers returned and told Boebert she had to leave. The theater’s incident report says Boebert pulled the ‘don’t you know who I am’ card on the way out, giving theater employees the single finger salute.”
The New York Post added more damning details, including the allegation that Boebert referred to the pregnant woman as “a sad and miserable person.” With the evidence mounting against her, Boebert issued an uncharacteristic apology, citing as a mitigating factor that she was going through a difficult divorce.
Boebert’s escapades caused a predictable social media firestorm, with very few people accepting her doleful show of remorse. She’s a hard person to forgive. One of the loudest MAGA voices in national politics, Boebert is known for pushing for Joe Biden’s impeachment and for her vicious homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. She’s tweeted that “drag queens” should stay away from “the children of Colorado’s Third District.” There were some cogent feminist critiques of the attention given to Boebert’s public lewdness (the mutual groping she engaged with her boyfriend was her least objectionable actions). But the more pervasive sentiment was that this is a case of a hypocrite getting her well-deserved comeuppance.
But Boebert’s performance was noteworthy not just for her personal boorishness but also as part of a larger pattern of right-wingers vandalizing musicals. Strange as it may sound, one of the cultural symptoms of the Trump era is the hard right’s affinity for musicals—an art form they also repeatedly desecrate.
Donald Trump himself is a prime example. No president has had such an intense love for musicals. In the White House, music was key to calming down Trump during his frequent outburst of anger. As The New York Times reported in 2021, White House official Max Miller—nicknamed the “Music Man”—was tasked with playing show tunes like “Memory” from Cats to “pull [Trump] from the brink of rage.” This is truly a case of music having charms to sooth the savage breast.
As a candidate, Trump had “Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera on his campaign playlist. In his 2005 book Think Like a Billionaire, Trump enthused, “My favorite Broadway show is Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber…. I saw it six times, mostly with [his first wife] Ivana. Evita is not on Broadway right now, but I’m hopeful that they’ll bring it back. Also, The Phantom of the Opera was great!”
The extreme right is rich in figures who can be described as failed theater kids. These are people whose sensibilities are clearly shaped by a love for the expressive power and excess emotions of musical theater. But they haven’t been able to make a name for themselves in the area of their true passion, so instead they bring their thwarted theater-kid energy to partisan agitation.
Trump’s on-again-off-again crony Steve Bannon is a quintessential failed theater kid, writing a long string of movie scripts that went nowhere. In the 1990s, with cowriter Julia Jones, he worked on a hip-hop musical titled The Thing I Am. A bizarre hybrid, this musical tried to mash together the plot of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus with the story of the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. One line of the play reads, “You call him noble that was once your enemy, then you dis your king. You cry against the ‘other’—crackers, Blood, Crip, popo, Pol, the rich—it doesn’t matter, N—–; awe keeps you feeding on each other.” Another line reads, “You are a pair of strange ones. More of this busta a– n— talk would infect my brain. Peace now, let’s parlay.” Needless to say, Bannon hardly offered competition to even Lin-Manuel Miranda, let alone Stephen Sondheim.
James O’Keefe, founder and deposed head of Project Veritas, is yet another failed theater kid. Founded in 2010, Project Veritas specializes in creating deceptively edited entrapment videos that showed progressives allegedly saying or doing compromising things. These include videos falsely purporting to show workers for the voting rights group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) advising O’Keefe and an associate on how to avoid paying taxes while supposedly engaged in child sex trafficking. These videos resulted in lawsuits ending in O’Keefe tendering apologies and paying a settlement.
O’Keefe was ousted from Project Veritas earlier this year. According to an internal audit, he often focused on his true love, musical theater, at the expense of the organization’s political agenda. As The Washington Post reports, in September 2021:
Hurricane Ida floodwaters threatened to destroy the Project Veritas office in Mamaroneck. The staff scrambled to save equipment and their own lives—one elderly employee was briefly pulled underwater and had to be rescued by colleagues. But O’Keefe had already left the scene, asking employees to prioritize his own evacuation so he could make it to Virginia for a performance of the musical Oklahoma! in which he had the lead role.
The newspaper report adds, “In 2022, Project Veritas admitted in a tax filing to improperly spending $20,500 moving some staff operations to Virginia during O’Keefe’s time with the musical production for his convenience.” O’Keefe also allegedly misused funds to stage dance routines. Of course, Project Veritas itself can be seen as a form of theater—albeit ineptly produced theater with crude and melodramatic plots.
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Even a successful theater person, if their career goes haywire, can find a second act in right-wing politics. That’s the story of Brian Clowdus, the impresario who in 2009 founded the Serenbe Playhouse in Atlanta, Ga. According to a 2021 American Theater report, in 2019 the Serenbe Playhouse fell apart as “allegations of racial insensitivity, unsafe work environments, and abusive behavior soon became so persistent that the Serenbe Institute—whose divisions included Serenbe Playhouse, as well as an artist residency program and Terminus Modern Ballet Theater—announced in the summer of 2020 that they would be closing the theater company, laying off all staff, and forming a new, equitable, welcoming, and diverse playhouse.”
Deposed from Serenbe Playhouse, Clowdus reemerged as a born-again Trumpist. As American Theater notes, Clowdus started “to mix MAGA politics with entertainment. Now residing in Panama City, Fla., he has declared himself a Trump-loving Republican, started GOProductions as part of Brian Clowdus Experiences, and is running for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.” The production of Oklahoma! that starred James O’Keefe was organized by Clowdus.
One could extend almost indefinitely the list of right-wing provocateurs who had theater-kid backgrounds to include figures like Steven Crowder and Mark Steyn (who recorded a truly dreadful album titled Feline Groovy where he croons, in a faux-Sinatra fashion, cat-themed songs against a background of pastiche soft jazz). Even Gore Vidal or Mary McCarthy would struggle to find the vocabulary to describe how terrible the results are.
With her disorderly rampage during a performance of Beetlejuice, Lauren Boebert was following this dismal tradition of mangling musicals and adjacent art forms. This tradition is evidence of how much right-wing politics today is a misapplication of aesthetics (frequently bad aesthetics) to the political realm.
As students of German history know, the story of failed artists entering right-wing politics can end tragically. But this trend isn’t confined to the right; there are plenty of liberals trying to synthesize catchy show tunes with activism.
All politicians are performers, of course, but traditionally they are also crafters of law and policy. In the age of Trump, the performative dimensions of politics have metastasized. Trump is a former reality-TV star who always needs to be the center of attention. Figures like Lauren Boebert and Vivek Ramaswamy have followed that model: They are entertainers first and foremost, with policy an afterthought.
There is a saying, often attributed to Bill Clinton crony Paul Begala, that politics is show business for ugly people. That no longer seems to be absolutely true. As the entertainment quotient of politics goes up, conventionally attractive people (such as Boebert and Ramaswamy) are starting to run for elected office. It’s truer now to say that politics is a good Plan B for people possessing show business energy.
Right-wing policy making does still happen—but it’s done by activist groups like the Federalist Society or the hired guns of plutocrats such as Charles Koch or Peter Thiel. The main instrument for pushing forward the right’s agenda is the courts. Actual elected politicians such as Trump just exist to keep the populace amused and to make sure plutocrat-friendly judges keep getting nominated and confirmed.
Ironically, politics and theater are merging at the exact same time that actual theater—whether musical or not—is in financial crisis thanks to the lingering impact of Covid. The critic Isaac Butler warns, “The American theater is on the verge of collapse.” Butler’s solution is a massive bailout of theater along the lines of the Federal Theater Project of the New Deal era. The migration of failed theater kids into right-wing politics suggests an added side benefit to this proposal. Surely we want future Steve Bannons and James O’Keefes to be working on productions of West Side Story in Peoria rather than shaping national politics.
Since politics has fused with entertainment, we shouldn’t be surprised when would-be or failed entertainers thrive as political leaders and pundits. Frank Sinatra once sang of New York, “If I can make it there / I‘ll make it anywhere.” A modern update might be: If you can’t make it on Broadway, there’s always Washington.