Michael and Me: Moore Crashes Broadway With an Anti-Trump Political Rally, and a One-Man Show Like No Other
Michael Moore, whose one-man production “The Terms of My Surrender” opens Thursday night at the Belasco Theatre, is making history as the first progressive political icon to have his own Broadway show. Getting to the Great White Way suggests Moore is the most visible, marketable, lefty politico alive today. The show serves as both recognition and reaffirmation of Moore’s successes: an Academy Award for Bowling for Columbine; the highest-grossing documentary in history, Fahrenheit 9/11; and a collection of New York Times bestselling books. It’s a list of accolades that has turned Moore’s scruffy, baseball-capped visage into one of America’s most recognizable personal brands.
The couple of theater buffs I consulted agreed there’s never been anything quite like Moore’s show on Broadway. Who knows if they will fill the theater during its planned three-month run, but if the preview I attended was any indication, it just might work out.
Moore has a knack for engaging audiences. His call-and-response interactive style and ability to turn the audience into an eager foil reveal an almost Trumpian quality. Despite sitting at the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two have a few shared qualities. They’re both rather large men of a certain age (within a decade), who revel in talking about themselves. But let’s be clear: Moore speaks in full sentences and is in possession of a rich vocabulary (which includes an awful lot of swear words).
In fact, Moore starts the show by asking, “How the f**k did this happen?” The question effectively telegraphs to the audience that Trump trauma and Trump anxiety are on the discussion menu for the evening. Moore ups the ante by wondering aloud, “What is wrong with us?” He says Donald Trump “outsmarted us,” laments that 8 million Obama supporters cast ballots for Trump and points out that 53 percent of white women voted for the Crotch-Grabber-in-Chief. Though the theme of the show is how small political steps can turn into big events—at least, in Moore's life—it starts at a bit of a deficit vis a vis dislodging the current president.
But what the production lacks in Trump removal strategies, it makes up for in a host of other entertaining distractions. Moore’s play is festooned with soaring speeches, deskside storytelling sessions and even a five-minute sit-down with Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, who shares that she too receives a regular onslaught of hatred from right-wingers. Moore’s vignettes harken back to his high school heroics at the age of 16. There’s fun to be had with these accounts, and Moore capitalizes on the energetic feedback from the audience. He even sets up the idea that he might run for president in 2020, which is literally spelled out in a fancy sign made of beaming lights.
There are also unexpected moments. It’s a surprise when Moore expresses, twice, his love for Hillary Clinton. An American flag-draped presidential box sits empty, and Moore tells the audience he has extended an open invitation for Trump to drop in, anytime. He also mentions that he would welcome Clinton to sit in the box, because she truly won the election. When an anonymous voice yells that Clinton is in the audience, Moore appears to believe it for a moment, until reality sets in. It’s an odd scene, considering that Moore was a Bernie bro, nothing short of all-in for the 75-year-old Vermont democratic socialist. Yet there’s not so much as a mention of Bernie in this show: I wonder why.
Moore has long been the lefty the right most loves to hate. Like his arch enemy Trump, the fury Moore inspires is a key ingredient of his success. The vitriol went so far that Moore became a target of both verbal and physical violence, and Moore mentions his bodyguards bravely saving him from a handful of attacks. He also plays an eerie audio from Glenn Beck’s old radio show, in which the right-wing host talks about how he wants to kill Moore or maybe hire someone to do so. The death threat disclosure informs a somewhat bizarre skit later in the show, which I won’t spoil, but which I expect may be removed when the show opens for critics.
It’s well established that Moore is a polarizing figure, that his movies and books are in-your-face jeremiads designed to provoke and outrage. To say that the liberal political establishment has qualms about Moore is to state the obvious. Here’s New York Times culture columnist Dave Itzkoff after a visit with Moore during a rehearsal of the show:
Mr. Moore, this willfully disheveled, 63-year-old hybrid of Noam Chomsky and P. T. Barnum, expects theatergoers to pay Broadway ticket prices to watch him in a one-man show, “The Terms of My Surrender.” After his previous documentaries, books and television shows, does he have anything left to say, and does he really believe it will make a difference?
The Times piece carries a snotty and inaccurate headline that implicates Moore—erroneously, it turns out—for preaching to the choir ("Michael Moore Says He Wants to Change Minds, So Why Is He on Broadway?"). In fact, according to a report from the Broadway League, 63 percent of Broadway tickets are bought by tourists, 45 percent of whom live in the U.S., but hail from outside of New York City and its suburbs. Another 18 percent are from other countries. The average Broadway theatergoer is 44, and audiences average about 77 percent white. It’s likely that on any given night, a large segment of the audience qualifies as neither New Yorker nor liberal, and might still have an open ear.
Conversely, in this highly polarized political environment, perhaps it’s more important to rally your troops than to talk a Trump supporter out of his devotion, which many have reported is a near-impossible feat. If a discussion is not based on facts or logic, how exactly do change someone’s mind?
But, you may ask, is the show any good? That depends on who you are. My guess is that the majority of theatergoers the evening I attended went home happy and maybe even more ready to do battle with the right wing.
Theater critics and sophisticated progressives, on the other hand, may have a few bones to pick with Moore. Much of the material in the show, especially his feats as a teenager in Michigan and Bitberg, Germany, have long been covered. If you are a Moore aficionado or you’ve read one or more of his books, you might start feeling desperate for some new material.
However, one of the few pieces of new material sets up probably the weirdest part of the show. It turns out that—and I'm sorry if this is a spoiler—but Moore reveals that he was invited to perform on "Dancing With the Stars." Hard to believe, I know. Right, this seems a bit far-fetched in that you actually have to dance on that show. Sure, some number of oddball men have been brought onto the show, but most of them seemed at least modestly coordinated (hey, I hear that Trump can actually hit a golf ball). Moore declines, and this is set up in the narrative as one of the few challenges he sidesteps on his road to fame and fortune.
One of the conceits of the show is that Moore uses his life of small successes that were turned into major events—e.g., a speech as a 16-year-old that ended up as a story for Walter Cronkite—to show people that modest events and efforts can lead to major happenings. So let’s all think positive.
But back to the dancing. My guess is the writers/director, etc., had no idea how to end this one-man show. So they tried to add a little sexiness and excitement. At the end, Moore offers that he wants to rid himself of the demons that led him to run away from "Dancing With the Stars." Out of the blue, in steps Kylie Shea, who, it turns out, is a world-class ballerina. She is quite amazing. But imagine this woman trying to lead Moore through something resembling dancing. She tries hard, but it doesn’t quite work as theater. Then two “cops” come bolting onto the stage, ostensibly to arrest Moore, but instead rip off their clothes, showing physiques that would put Charles Atlas to shame. In a combination of Chippendale and the Village People’s YMCA, they prance around the stage, as Kylie gamely tries to dance with Moore. And this is how it all ends. What does it mean? Well yes, it is the only real “excitement" in the show. And no, it makes no sense in the greater scheme of “The Terms of My Surrender.” And by the way, who thought of this title? If you know anything, even a tiny bit, about framing, the last thing you want to be talking about is surrender in the time of Trump. It is all about resistance.
In terms of disclosure, I have a personal history with Michael Moore, which is also an obscure chapter in the historical machinations of the progressive left. I was the publisher of Mother Jones magazine when Moore was hired to be its editor in 1986. It did not go well. Moore was fired three months into the job, because he wasn’t ready, willing or able to fit himself into a functioning, complex organization with commitments and deadlines. But he blamed the firing on politics, which set off quite a row in the left press. Lefty stalwarts like Alexander Cockburn and Warren Hinckle rushed to defend the “working-class hero” Moore, while attacking the "elitist " Mother Jones and its wealthy “donor." Moore sued Mother Jones for $2 million for wrongful termination, having made the move from Flint, Michigan to San Francisco. Well-known litigator Guy Saperstein, with major victories against insurance companies for gender discrimination, became Mother Jones' lawyer.
But the insurance company defending Mother Jones balked at Saperstein’s price tag for a possible trial. They decided to make Moore go away for $50,000, which after sharing with his lawyer, he used to make Roger & Me, a strikingly creative, if flawed, documentary that captured the fancy of a batch of moviegoers and started an unexpected, unlikely journey into fame, fortune and political leadership for Moore.
As the editor of AlterNet, over time I more or less made peace with Moore as we blasted out his words and wisdom to millions of progressives over the years. He also benefited from the large audiences drawn to his work. Seems hanging onto old antagonisms is one way to help Trump.
So, if you need some anti-Trump tonic, want to share an evening with anti-Trump enthusiasts, or just wonder what the producers, director and Moore thought would work on Broadway in the time of Trump, head over to the Belasco and check it out.