Michael Moore’s Broadway Debut Finds the Provocateur Where He’s Needed Least

Shambling and a little uncertain, Michael Moore frumps about the stage of the Belasco Theatre, drifting from a desk to a leather chair, reeling off greatest-hit stories from his life and attacking the politics of Right This Moment with all the vigor of an old dog gumming a chew toy. “Donald Trump outsmarted us all,” he notes early in The Terms of My Surrender, his new Broadway show, a mostly tepid entertainment best suited for people who enjoy nodding emphatically to the utterance of truths they knew walking in. Moore asks if the audience thinks the president is crazy and then cuts into its enthusiasm with this insight: “Yeah, he’s crazy all right — crazy like a fox.”

The show runs 110 minutes, without intermission. Moore and director Michael Mayer pad it out with crowd interactions; an if-I-were-the-president comedy stump speech held over from last year’s superior Michael Moore in TrumpLand film; a half-assed razzle-dazzle finale; and a sloppy game-show parody that might be more effective if Moore and his selected-at-random audience contestants exhibited greater command of the mechanics of the game’s rules and buzzers. And applause breaks: “Some of you still read real books, right?” he asks, inviting an ovation for our own proud discernment. The best line I heard all night came from the crowd (or a plant) when Moore asked us, for no clear reason, “How do I look?” Amid the predictable answers — “Casual!” “Dad-bod!” — came the priceless “Lost at Kohl’s!”

That moment of cheering for the idea of books themselves comes as part of Moore’s transition into the story of the time HarperCollins, right after September 11, vowed to pulp and not reprint his just-released Stupid White Men unless Moore softened its broadsides against George W. Bush. Turns out, though, that a librarian got wind of this and organized anti-censorship protests that spooked the publisher. Soon, despite the threats, Moore had a bestseller on his hands. The tale illustrates one of the recurring themes of The Terms of My Surrender: that one courageous person can create change. (It also nudges the audience into clapping for the great man’s book sales.)

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Moore confines the Trump material to the show’s first fifteen minutes. He points out, rightly, that 60 percent of Americans have less than $500 in savings, so of course they’re susceptible to Trump’s bring-the-factories-back promises. “He knew what they wanted to hear, and he just said it,” Moore tells us. And he’s persuasive in his countervailing insistence that Democrats and liberals greatly outnumber conservatives, Republicans, and the Trump-curious, and that all it would take for the progressive majority to reclaim power in America is individual action. Call your reps, run for office, hold rallies to get Michael Moore books into stores.

That one-person-can-change-things argument serves as justification for the show’s most assured and engaging passages: his recounting of highlights from his career as rabble-rouser. Always more a prankster than a polemicist, Moore can spin a tale, especially when the topic is his own escapades. He dishes two beauties, one about entering an Elks Club speech contest at age seventeen and then using the forum to denounce the Elks’ whites-only membership policies. That leads to his running for the school board of Davison, Michigan, at eighteen, and becoming the youngest elected official in the country. Another caper of note finds Moore and a pal sojourning from Detroit to Bitburg, Germany, in 1985, to mount a furious protest of Ronald Reagan’s decision to lay a wreath commemorating the U.S. and West Germany’s friendship at a cemetery filled with German soldiers, including 49 members of the SS. These stories both climax with well-timed projections of vintage photos, one funny and one beautifully defiant, but I regret to report that the quick context I just dashed off about why Reagan was at “a Nazi cemetery” is more than Moore bothers with.

In “The Terms of My Surrender,” Michael Moore leans on truths his audience already knew walking in.

Moore closes with a jeremiad against Michigan governor Rick Snyder and the pitiless dollars-and-cents decision-making that led directly to the water crisis in Flint and the poisoning of thousands of residents. He declares that Snyder and his government are, in his view, criminals for their initial actions and murderers for their later ones, for allowing the crisis to persist and working to cover up the facts. (“Fuck him!” a woman in my row shouted, about Snyder.) Moore calls Snyder’s Michigan the forerunner of Trump’s America and concludes, “Now we all live in Flint, or some version of Flint.”

Do we? Is the enthusiastic throng in a Broadway house — most of whom probably have $500 in savings — truly living in the same America as the people of Flint? Moore’s work has always edged toward advocacy of action, inspiring change through his muckraking but also through the example of his everyday Midwestern moral reasonableness, so it takes some effort not to demand more from him than we might from other entertainers. (Michael Moore in TrumpLand, that quickie 2016 film, was explicitly crafted to help convince suburban and rural America to vote Clinton.) This question is unfair, but it tugged at my brain throughout the show: If Michael Moore’s life has proved that one person can make a great difference, why is he here, now, balming the spirits of the converted, rather than back in Flint — the city Moore chronicled in Roger & Me — making the film that might actually save lives?

The show’s most suggestive line is a throwaway in its weakest segment. After recounting the death threats he got throughout the 2000s from Americans who have pickled in the brine of right-wing hate radio, Moore laughs about having once been invited to compete on Dancing With the Stars. He mentions that he could have used the money, that at the time he was depressed and hadn’t made a film or written a book in quite a while. But rather than let us in at all, or elaborate on why this pop-political documentarian mostly sat out the Obama years, Moore quickly moves on to the next bit. It’s not as if America wasn’t troubled before the 2016 election. Yet here he is now, returning just when the left is hungry for resistance entertainment, showing up like he’s Gandalf at Helm’s Deep, the hero here to save us all. He’s prepping a new film (Fahrenheit 11/9) and a TNT TV show. Will they be urgent exposés and briefs for change, or just more playdates with your old pal Mike?

The Terms of My Surrender
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
Through October 22