If you worry about the vitality and visibility of live performance in an increasingly screen-centric culture, Michelle Obama deserves a prominent spot on your list of people to be thankful for this weekend.
In the past four years, she hasn’t just given her regards to Broadway; she has repeatedly lent her headline-making presence to the theater — that indispensable yet perennially embattled art form — while embracing challenging fare, not just safe, escapist hits.
The nation’s first black first lady has also made a point of attending plays and musicals that predominantly feature African-American performers, and that directly or indirectly deal with race — precisely the kind of work that often faces an uphill battle at the box office. Moreover, the most closely watched mom in the country has made sure that theater has been a significant part of the cultural education of her daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11.
Talk about making the most of the bully pulpit.
What’s been so encouraging about Obama’s emergence as a high-profile champion of theater is that the role seems to spring from a genuine affinity rather than one of those let’s-find-the-first-lady-something-to-do forays into image-sculpting. Then again, she grew up in Chicago, which has an exceptionally dynamic theater scene, then returned to live and work in the Windy City after law school. So Broadway may be the beneficiary of the fact that the first lady has spent much of her life in a city where going to the theater is as natural as breathing.
Equally appealing, in a way, is that she can still succumb to theater magic just like the rest of us. Consider her July visit to “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ on Broadway. After the performance, she reportedly thanked Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, and the rest of the cast for “blessing my soul.’’ She told them that “Porgy and Bess’’ had been on her “bucket list.’’ That’s suggestive of good taste — she didn’t say “Cats’’ was on her bucket list — and of a theatergoer who follows both head and heart.
By example, she has underscored a fact that can’t be emphasized enough: that parents of young children can, and should, play a crucial role in nurturing a love of theater. Anyone who’s seen the shining face of a child experiencing live performance can attest to its transporting power. At such moments a parent can sense, or at least hope, that a door to a deeper and richer life has opened.
Obama clearly thinks that way about theater and other performing arts. Speaking to The Washington Post two years ago about the importance of arts and culture in the development of young people, she said: “If I’m giving those experiences to Malia and Sasha, and I think it’s important to them, then I can’t pretend it’s not important for everyone. . . . The more experiences kids have, the more things that they see, the more things that they know to want.’’
A year ago, addressing artists and educators, she made a more practical case: “If they can deliver a monologue up on stage with all the grandeur that goes along with what you do, then maybe they can make a presentation in front of the classroom on something not so dramatic. If they can conduct a quartet or direct a play, then maybe they can lead a student group. Maybe they can, one day, run a business or a city or a state or maybe even the United States of America, right?’’
During a sightseeing tour of London in 2009, the first lady took Malia and Sasha — who was turning 8 — to “The Lion King’’ in the West End. Speaking as one who introduced his own daughter to theater at about that age with that same exhilarating show, I can tell you that she chose well, because “The Lion King’’ is a gift that keeps on giving.
The next year, perhaps needing a break as the debate on health-care reform was reaching a fever pitch in the capital, she took her daughters to Broadway. They saw “Memphis,’’ a musical that chronicles the early days of rock ’n’ roll through the relationship between a black singer and a white disc jockey in segregated 1950s Tennessee. They also caught “The Addams Family,’’ starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.
That nod to fluffy spectacle was an illustration of the common sense the first lady has shown with regard to her children’s theatrical education. An eat-your-spinach approach doesn’t work with kids when it comes to theater or anything else. So last July, while she was seeing “Porgy,’’ she let Malia and Sasha attend “Sister Act.” Afterward, the girls got to meet the show’s star, Raven-Symoné, backstage.
A day later, mother and daughters went to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.’’ During the performance, Christopher Tierney, an aerialist playing Spider-Man, descended near Michelle Obama’s aisle seat and saluted her. She responded with a wave and a laugh.
The Obamas signaled early on that they had eclectic taste — and a sense of humor. In 2007, when then-Senator Barack Obama was running for president, Michelle Obama showed up at a Second City satire called “Between Barack and a Hard Place’’ with her in-laws: Barack Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her husband, Konrad Ng. The Chicago Tribune reported that the trio “laughed uproariously all night’’ at the show, which spoofed the worshipful attitude of many Obama supporters and featured an Abraham Lincoln character who persistently referred to the candidate as “B.O.’’
A few months after the inauguration, the night before the president nominated Broadway producer Rocco Landesman to head the National Endowment for the Arts — a position that Landesman announced Tuesday he will leave at the end of the year — the Obamas hosted a program called “Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word.’’ It featured an excerpt from “Othello’’ performed by James Earl Jones and rapping by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics for the Tony Award-winning “In the Heights.’’
A couple of weeks later, the Obamas made a splash by attending a Broadway performance of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’’ about African-Americans in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, making their way to new lives as part of the Great Migration. The play’s ticket sales climbed in their wake.
At the time, some Republican critics squawked, suggesting that the president shouldn’t be taking in a Broadway show with the country in the midst of an economic crisis. That the first couple’s date night was so swiftly turned into a political football offered an early sign of how partisan the atmosphere had gotten in Washington.
Of course, the Obama administration does not represent the first, or the most famous, convergence of Broadway and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the public mind.
In December 1960, a month after John F. Kennedy was elected president, “Camelot’’ opened on Broadway. JFK grew so enamored of the show that he would often play the cast album before going to sleep at night. In an interview with the journalist Theodore White shortly after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy likened her husband’s presidency to Camelot, telling White that JFK’s favorite song from the show was the reprise of the title tune, with King Arthur’s plangent line: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.’’ It became a defining image of the short-lived Kennedy administration, a famously culture-friendly period at the White House.
In the Obama White House, Broadway has been very much in the mix of cultural events. In 2010, McDonald, Lane, Marvin Hamlisch, Idina Menzel, Brian D’Arcy James, Karen Olivo, and Tonya Pinkins performed in “A Broadway Celebration: In Performance at the White House,’’ later broadcast on PBS. The Obamas have also dipped into regional theater as honorary chairman and chairwoman for the 2010-11 season of Washington’s Arena Stage.
But Michelle Obama’s spirit of theatrical adventure is best measured by occasions like the evening a couple of years ago when she showed up at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre with half a dozen friends to see “Fela!’’
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, “Fela!’’ is an exuberant and politically pointed musical about Fela Kuti, an Afrobeat pioneer and activist in Nigeria. Kuti’s nickname was Black President, and when that phrase was uttered onstage, the audience erupted. During the performance, cast members danced down Michelle Obama’s aisle. At show’s end, it was she who led the standing ovation.
It’s not likely to be too long before theater artists and audiences see her in their midst again. When they do, they might want to bestow some applause of their own on a first lady who has done an awfully good job at playing the role of first fan.