A nightmare on Broadway

From The Wizard of Oz to Rent, the political pulse of post-September 11 America can be felt in the glitz and glamour of New York's blockbusters, says Johann Hari
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"Who needs Marx and Engels when we have Rodgers and Hammerstein?" asks the American performance artist Tim Miller in his new show, Us. He's not kidding. "If you want to understand my country and the way we view ourselves, don't look at the novels of Norman Mailer or Edward Hopper's paintings or Ralph Nader's speeches. Go see a musical. The Broadway musical is America's most truly political art-form."

At first this sounds ridiculous - the Communist Manifesto vs The Sound of Music? Chomsky vs Sondheim? "But look at the political figures Broadway has to offer," Miller replies. "That little anarchist Oliver. Jesus as a sweet queer hippie who hangs out with prostitutes. And you know, South Pacific was banned across most of the Deep South because it showed an inter-racial love story way ahead of its time. And, yes, look at The Sound of Music. It shows we should quit organised religion and fight fascism through song and dance."

It's a strangely infectious way of looking at the United States. I decided to check out the politics of Broadway's current box-office breakers - and I learnt more about post-September 11 America than in a thousand yellowing copies of The New York Times.

First stop Wicked, the bizarre political fable that has sold out the massive Gershwin Theatre until the summer of 2005. It's a prequel to The Wizard of Oz - a reinterpretation for everybody who instinctively despised that self-righteous little bitch Dorothy, a retelling for all those kids who sided with the lonely, bitter, brilliant Wicked Witch of the West.

Wicked begins where Wizard ends. The Wicked Witch Elphaba has been melted into a pool of green gunk by the Kansas crusader; Dorothy has returned to the black-and-white banality of home. "Isn't it nice to know that good really does conquer evil?" witters Glinda - the Good Witch of the North - with a dim-witted twinkle. The Ozian masses dance around their new queen, congratulating themselves on living in "the most wonderful place on earth".

But something is wrong. "Is it true you knew the Witch when you were young?" somebody yells from the crowd. Glinda's beaming smile droops - and in flashback we begin to learn how these women became polarised witches pining for each others' deaths. It turns out that it's not easy to be a girl with luminescent green skin in Oz. Elphaba repulsed her own parents, and she had been shunned by the other kids. She was only sent to school at all by her pompous father, the Governor of Munchkinland, to look after her paralysed, idealised sister Nessa Rose.

As she waded through the insults and bullies, Elphaba gradually realised that Oz was not the Paradise its citizens endlessly, brainlessly chant about. The talking animals who performed all the tough, tedious jobs in Oz were being increasingly blamed for everything that went wrong, from the Great Drought to vague "subversive activities" known only to the Wizard. The ordinary residents of Oz reassured themselves by deferring to the Wizard and muttering: "No, no, it couldn't happen here. Not in Oz."

Oz is not, the audience slowly realises, the Munchkin-filled land of magic that Dorothy imagined; it is a Technicolor tyranny. The dictatorial Wizard tried to co-opt Elphaba - and her magical powers - into his police state. "The way to bring people together is to give them a really terrible enemy," he told her. Elphaba rebelled - and became the perfect propaganda foe, an Emanuel Goldstein for the Yellow Brick Road. The Wizard falsely accused Elphaba of having elaborate weapons and evil intentions - but far from being "wicked", the late Witch was a freedom fighter trying to rescue the people of Oz. Confronted with his crimes, the Wizard insists: "[You can call me] a traitor or liberator/ Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?/ It's all in which label is able to persist."

Wicked is not perfect. Stephen Schwartz's score doesn't match the brilliance of the concept ("Defying Gravity" is the only really hummable tune), and the script is a weak adaptation of Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel. But this is a show that is connecting with American audiences today, and it's not hard to see why.

If South Pacific was a musical for an America finally confronting its racism, Wicked is a musical for a frightened, confused, suspicious America that can no longer believe its leaders. Is the grand Wizard in the White House lying to us? Is black, white and green good? Whatever you think the answers are, it is revealing that this is the Great White Way's sell-out success of 2004.

Americans can, it seems, bear to hear subversive messages so long as they are told to them by cartoon characters, storybook witches or puppets. Isn't the most politically subversive show on American TV The Simpsons? (Compare it to the saccharine propaganda of The West Wing.) This is the lesson not only of Springfield and Wicked, but also of the show that collected an Aladdin's Cave of awards at the Tonys this year: Avenue Q, playing at the John Golden Theatre.

Avenue Q is, basically, a puppet porn-show. A series of puppets (and, even more strangely, Gary Coleman, the tiny actor from Diff'rent Strokes, who plays himself) living on a Sesame Street-substitute, present a series of uncomfortable truths in musical form. A blue puppet - clearly based on the Cookie Monster - has the show-stopping number, "The Internet is for Porn". Forget all this guff about the new economy or amazon.com, he sings: "Why do you think the net was born?/ Porn, porn, porn."

Meanwhile, another set of puppets is singing a sad duet, "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist". They explain: "Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crime/ Look around and you'll see no one's really colour-blind/ Ethnic jokes might be uncouth/ But you laugh because they're based on truth."

Yes, Avenue Q is quite strange. Student bars across Britain are filled every freshers' week with students saying: "You know Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street? I reckon they were, like, gay. And I reckon Kermit was a really dirty shag." This musical is, essentially, that joke stretched out over a couple of hours. It's a one-gag show, but it's a very funny gag, and well-executed enough to sustain the audience's attention.

But how does Tim Miller's thesis stand up? Is Avenue Q filled with daring political comment? Well, it plays on (and plays to) the puritanism of Middle American culture. Mainstream US culture - even in New York - is much more conservative than Britain's. There is no nudity and little swearing on TV; there are no ladettes; and asking where the "toilet" is seems rude and obnoxious. Avenue Q's blatant comment on sexual politics is, in this climate, refreshing. At the start of a relationship, one male keeps saying: "Come." His girlfriend adds: "Mittment." And so it continues: "Come." "Mittment." "Come." "Mittment."

In a culture that is relentlessly, gloriously, maddeningly upbeat, it is also strangely radical to have a musical whose recurring theme song is "It Sucks to Be Me". Gary Coleman describes himself as "on a slow, tiresome walk to the grave". No sugar-filled, diabetic-slaughtering romance here; a couple in love sing: "The more you love someone, the more you want to kill them/ The more you love someone, the more you want them dead." And it leaves the audience with a final number that tells them: "Everyone's a bit unsatisfied/ Everyone goes around a little empty inside." In a society where "the pursuit of happiness" is a constitutional right - in a society soaked in Seroxat, a society where a moment's misery is seen as a crime - Avenue Q is quietly political.

It's much more revealing, however, to revisit Rent, the biggest Broadway hit of the Nineties, still packed every night at the Nederlander Theatre. The show's premise is simple; it's La bohème relocated to the East Village, with Puccini's tubercular (syphilitic?) lovers replaced by HIV-positive heroin addicts who are "dying in America at the end of the millennium". Worried about the growing American underclass? Rent shows the reaction of most Americans: "Leave your conscience at the tone," honey.

Roger - "the pretty-boy front man who wastes opportunities" - hasn't left his squat in over a year, not since the morning when "his girlfriend April left a * * note saying 'We've got Aids'/ before slitting her wrists in the bathroom". One evening Mimi - a Hispanic girl who lives downstairs and is famous for having "the best ass beneath 14th Street" - knocks on his door to ask if he has a spare candle. In classic musical style, it's love at first sight, but even here - as the ballad "Will You Light My Candle?" begins - there is a dark subtext undercutting the romance. On one level, it's a typical Rodgers and Hammerstein falling-for-her number - but Mimi needs Roger's candle so she can melt down her smack.

The show is at its best when this Arctic cold remains close to the surface. Roger and Mimi fall in love in a New York gradually being swept clean of junkies and homeless people by Mayor Rudy Giuliani's programme of social cleansing. Bohemia is slowly becoming Calcutta. Rent begins and ends at Christmas, but its author Jonathan Larson insists on cruelly undercutting the sentimentality of his own scenario. Carol singers jeer: "Christmas bells are ringing/ Christmas bells are ringing/ Somewhere else. Not here."

Rent still has a blunt emotional power. Larson died of Aids during the rehearsal process, before he knew that his tiny off-Broadway show defined Nineties New York. This autobiographical coda makes Roger's determination to write "one great song/... before the sun sets on another empty life" all the more bitter.

Yet, if anything illustrates how New York has changed in the past three years, it's watching Rent again. This was a great musical on 10 September 2001, but many of its themes have melted as surely as the Wicked Witch. One of Rent's central ideas is the complaint that America has become a husk, an empty and artificial country obsessed with logos and tranquillisers and Diet Coke. One character complains that Americans live in "Cyberland", where "they've closed everything real down/ And replaced it with virtual life". Americans can only escape this insulated bubble of unreality, she says, by making "a leap of faith".

I remember really agreeing with that when I first saw Rent. Has there ever been better proof of that arthritic cliché, "Be careful what you wish for"? Somebody did make a "leap of faith" in New York, somebody from far beyond the land of logos and Diet Coke. Suddenly artificiality seems attractive, and nobody pines for the sting of hard-edged reality any more.

The production is still amazingly fresh, including a (surprisingly) terrific performance by Melanie "Scary Spice" Brown as Mimi. But nothing seems as dated as the recent past. Rent's score and script are full of those self-consciously neurotic we're-tough-us-New-Yorkers lines you just don't hear since September 11. One character declares: "I'm a New Yorker. Fear is my life." Another says, in a line that was greeted with pained silence the night I saw the show: "New York City. Times are shitty, but at least they can't get worse."

These days, New Yorkers live like people whose houses are built on a fault line. They know one day - maybe tomorrow - something terrible will happen to them again, but they carry on regardless. That's why, if you watch Rent today, its centre of gravity seems to have shifted. Roger doesn't feel like the show's central character any more. He has been displaced by his best friend Mark, who once seemed to be a minor presence. Surrounded by dying friends, Mark is HIV-negative and numb. He tells us: "I don't buy emotion/ I rent." He watches everything bewildered, not quite sure how to react or how to fend off the looming loss and fear. At moments, he curses that he is "the one of us to survive". Mark gets the biggest cheer every night, an usher at the show told me. New Yorkers are all Marks now.

Political theatre is always best when it is subtle. David Hare's hectoring big-P political plays are never as powerful - or effective - as his small plays such as Amy's View; the ones that seem at first to touch on politics only incidentally.

So it's no surprise that the most overtly political show on Broadway at the moment is easily the least politically interesting. The musical adaptation of Aristophanes' play The Frogs, playing at the Lincoln Center Theatre, doesn't just suggest analogies between ancient Greece and the present day; it rams them into every single orifice of every single audience member until they howl, scratch and beg for mercy.

Dionysus (played by the comedian Nathan Lane) is appalled by the Peloponnesian War, "a war we can't win, a war we shouldn't be in... and even the simplest words fail our leaders". He decides to venture into Hades in order to bring back either William Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw to write a play that will "convince the populace of the folly of the course we are embarked on".

Cue a plague of jokes about as funny as being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "Hades - it's a hell of a town!" declares Lane, mugging and gurning in desperation at the comatose audience. There are then slow rhapsodies about the power of art to change society - and more lame jokes. He is warned to watch out for the huge and dangerous Bush-frog. "It makes pre-emptive strikes and then forgets why it attacked in the first place," he's told. And on it goes, each lame joke greeted with feeble, self-regarding applause and laughter that comes like a slow belch.

Unlike Wicked and Rent, there is nothing here to discomfort the unthinking Gucci-clad audience members who simply want to bask in the reflected glory of their own mild liberalism. This is everything political theatre shouldn't be. And perhaps that's the most obnoxious thing about this show: that it preaches about the transformative power of art when it is such a desperately mediocre work of art itself. But the producers of The Frogs deserve credit for one thing: they have managed to stage a show about a descent into the underworld that really is a journey into hell.

So, after four Broadway musicals and four political worlds, is Tim Miller right? Is the Broadway musical a good map through US politics just three weeks away from a presidential election? The only way to answer that is by posing another question. Does anybody really think I would have learnt more about American politics by reading a triumvirate of speeches by George Bush, John Kerry and Ralph Nader?

Tim Miller's show 'Us' is at the Drill Hall, London WC1 from 17 to 27 November (020-7307 5060)