Michael Moore Trains His Satirical Sights on the Presidency

Michael Moore Trains His Satirical Sights on the Presidency

If anyone can weaponize humor, you can bet Michael Moore could do it. Making his theatrical debut on Broadway, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, writer, and provocateur is aiming for no less than taking down a sitting president with his theater piece, The Terms of My Surrender, which begins previews in a limited engagement at the Belasco Theatre on July 28.
Famous for his subversive documentaries, in which he eviscerated the Bush administration (Fahrenheit 9/11); dissected America’s gun culture (Bowling for Columbine); and skewered the pharmaceutical and managed health industries (Sicko), Moore is expected to wield his sharp satirical scalpel on the Broadway stage in a passionate, thought-provoking, and angry response to the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump. The incendiary theatrical event is directed by Tony winner Michael Mayer, whose previous work on Broadway includes vivid portraits of disaffection and revolution: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, American Idiot, and Spring Awakening.

Broadway Direct recently listened in while director Mayer interviewed the writer-star of The Terms of My Surrender; we followed up with few questions of our own as well.

Mayer: You first had an instinct to go on stage solo and talk to the audience many years ago, didn’t you?

Moore: Yes, many, many years ago, probably when I was 5 or 6. I would write little plays and get my sisters to perform them with the kids in the neighborhood. It was a lot of fun. I had very specific plans and I had theme music and everything. I went to Catholic schools, where there was a Christmas pageant every year. In the fourth grade, I convinced the nuns to let me write the Christmas play, which I did, but they would not allow us to perform it.

Terms of My SurrenderMayer: Why? Was it subversive?

Moore: I didn’t think it was. It just didn’t have the virgin birth in it. I wrote a play again in sixth grade and they shot that down as well.

Mayer: So, from an early age, you have a history of being perceived as subversive and of attempted censorship. This a great story for the show: you are standing on a Broadway stage and you are telling us this is something that you have wanted to do since you were five years old…

Moore: Yeah, long before I thought of film or anything else. You know, I saw the original Zero Mostel version of Fiddler on the Roof; this was in 1965. My mother used to bring us to New York as little kids — we used to come every summer to Staten Island because her sister lived there. We would tell the people back in Michigan that we were summering on Staten Island. It sounded very exotic because nobody knew what Staten Island was!

I went to college for one year — I dropped out of University of Michigan, Flint, branch — but while I was there I entered a one-act play in a competition and I won the prize. It was called The Tunnel and it was performed at a public school. But there was such an outrage in the town after the performance that I was banned forever from this school. It is the high school I graduated from, and to this day I have not been back. Basically, the part that got me into trouble — there was a huge crucifix made of aluminum foil with Jesus nailed to it; he decides that he doesn’t like what people are doing in his name so he pulls the nails out and comes down off the cross. This angers people in the audience, because in our Catholic homes we like our Jesus nailed on the wall. I had actors in the audience with knives and guns shouting at him to get back up on the cross; they rush the stage and drag him back to the cross. That upset people.

Mayer: That would upset people today.

Moore: Yes, it would. And now there is this thing we are doing now. I have warned you, there will be the occasional walkout, but for all the right reasons.

Mayer: You know you are doing something right if you are engendering a passionate response one way or another. Getting to The Terms of My Surrender, didn’t you start to put together something similar in London several years ago, before the emergence of the nightmare that we are living at the moment?

Moore: Right. I did a show in London just after 9/11 — different nightmare, different president. I had never done anything like it before, and it moved me. It also gave me a whole lot of appreciation for people who go out and do this every night on a stage. It was emotionally and physically grinding; I needed 12 hours’ sleep to recover every night! But also, I was really in another place. We got great reviews and sold out, and so, a couple of years ago, I thought I should try this again and see how it feels, but I’m going to rewrite it for the current time we are in. I did it at this little comedy festival that I put on where I live in Traverse City, Michigan, and it went well. My agent had been bugging me for years to do a show in New York, but I was a little afraid — there’s something daunting about doing this here. And then, sometime last summer, I became convinced that Trump was going to win. But remember: I’m not Cassandra here. I do live half the time in Michigan and I had one Obama voter after another say to me that they were going to vote for Trump. Then it hit me: Oh, shit! This is going to happen.

I started thinking I’d have to go into training. I’m going to fire on all cylinders: I’m going to make a film [Fahrenheit 11/9, in theaters by the end of the year], try to get my series back on TV [Michael Moore Live from the Apocalypse, on TNT in 2018], and I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, do something live in the theatre, a piece for the Trumpian era. And so when everybody woke up on November 9 shocked and depressed and whatever, I had gone through my five stages of grief back in the summer and was already in motion. But the trick with anything political in the theater — we both know we have been to things where we have gone, “Oh, no, please get me out of here. …”

Mayer: … sledgehammer …

Moore: Yes. Because for the politics to work, they have to be introduced in ways that are sometimes nuanced, sometimes subtle, sometimes layered, but in a way that reaches us as human beings and not as a political placard beating us over the head.

Broadway Direct: Can you describe for us what the show is going to be like?

Moore:  What you are going to see is something that you are not used to seeing on Broadway, and it is something that is unique to the moment that we are in. I would say this: The show is not stand-up comedy but I think it’s pretty funny.  It’s not 700 Sundays — I’m not going to regale you with stories of what it was like growing up in a family of auto workers– but there will be some stories you haven’t heard. I’m not taking on the persona of a number of characters, like Anna Deveare does so well, and yet, by the end of this, the Michael Moore that you think you know — you will leave the theater having seen a number of “characters” that you didn’t expect.  I was talking to Harvey Fierstein the other day and I asked him what advice he had for me, and he said “be authentic and be honest because the audience can smell a lie.”  I think what you are going to get are 90 minutes of some brutally hilarious truths.

Broadway Direct: What would you both like for this show to be for the audience?

Moore: Well, the same thing with my films: I’d like at the end of the performance for people to skip up the aisle full of vim and vigor and saying to each other, “Wow, that was a great way to spend an hour and a half,” and they can’t stop talking about it on the way home. I know that is so rudimentary but it really is, you know. You were expecting the answer that I hope for this political change or that, whatever. But I take the position that people work really hard all week and nobody earns what they really should be paid these days. We have not seen the increases that we should have seen, so they work really hard for their money and it takes that money for them to come to Broadway to see me. The No. 1 thing I want to do for them is to give them a reprieve from that world that they have to live and work and struggle in. And to have some great laughs, and maybe think a little bit, maybe cry a little bit, and not be able to shake out of their heads a week later what happened at the Belasco that night. That would mean everything to me.

On a secondary note, through our discussions with the Shubert Organization and the people who are financing this, we have essentially made the entire balcony available to people for $29. I would like young people from the working class to see a big welcome sign on the door of live theater. I want them to come in and experience a Broadway show, maybe for the first time, and come back again and again and again.

Mayer: For me, I know that after working with you and talking with you, Michael, I always feel a little bit more powerful. I feel like this despair that I have felt since November 9 doesn’t lift, exactly, but I do feel like it’s a tonic. I feel that I am not alone with that, that there is something to be done, and I feel capable of doing it. I feel empowered as an individual, as a citizen, as a member of the theater community, and as a New Yorker.

Moore: Everybody has to do their thing. We work on all fronts. The lawyers are doing their thing — they tied up this travel ban for six months. We need to run the right candidates next year and win, average citizens need to continue the mass actions, whether it is demonstrations, calling a congressman, or going to town halls, whatever. And the fourth thing — this is my addition to it — we need an army of satire. I believe that humor is Trump’s Achilles’ heel. He has such a thin skin that if we took the nonviolent comedy shiv and just insert it slightly under his skin, this guy will implode, he will get so discombobulated or he will be up all night sending tweets. It is the worst thing to him to be laughed at. I don’t know what happened to him in that military school at age 14 but we need to use it. An army of comedy and satire is the fourth front to attack this guy. We need to tie him up in a thousand knots.

Photo by Darren Cox.

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