As Obamas host Broadway stars, Culture Monster commenters invoke Nero and Marie Antoinette
President Obama and wife Michelle are set to host an evening of Broadway performers in the East Room, to be taped for an October broadcast in the PBS "In Performance at the White House" series, and streamed live at whitehouse.gov starting at 4 p.m. PDT Monday. (When we first posted on this last week, White House officials weren't sure they could get the contractual clearances needed to stream the show live, but apparently they have).
Matt Drudge linked Monday morning to our previous report, using his own headline: "Another Party at the White House? What's on the Playbill Tonight?" The result, here at Culture Monster, was an outpouring of sentiment in our comments section that, in a time of high unemployment, war and a massive oil spill, playing host to the likes of Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald and Marvin Hamlisch is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, or Marie Antoinette advising the French populace that if they couldn't afford bread, they should just eat cake.
Fewer than a handful of Drudge-directed comments on our post said it's OK for the Obama White House to be a cultural showcase.
"Encouraging the arts and promoting American industries, including the theater industry, is part of an American president's duties," noted one dissenter to the Obama-as-Nero notion, while another wrote that "while I did not vote for Obama, nor do I support almost anything he has done as president, the idea of using the White House to showcase art and artists is a great idea and worthy of support from all sectors."
Meanwhile, a quick check of the White House Historical Assn. website yields the information that during the 1870s "President and Mrs. Rutherford Hayes inaugurated the musicale tradition that exists in the White House today." In addition, the site says, "during the four administrations of Franklin Roosevelt more than 300 concerts in the White House reached out to every corner of America," that the "Eisenhowers were the first to bring Broadway musical theater to the White House in an after-dinner program for Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958," and, perhaps most on point, that "President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan joined composer Marvin Hamlisch, an alumni cast of `A Chorus Line,' entertainers Shirley Jones, Stubby Kaye, Lee Roy Reams, and the Marine Band at the taping of `In Performance at the White House,' August 10, 1988."
While many of the comments on our earlier post assume that the taxpayers will foot the bill for the Obama-hosted entertainment this evening, that's only partly true. A spokeswoman for WETA, the PBS station in Washington, D.C., that produces "In Performance at the White House," said it will cover the costs, with the Annenberg Foundation as the series' lead donor.
Some tax dollars will be involved: overall, federal funds paid 16.4% of the combined $2.85 billion received by public television and radio in 2007-08, the most recent statistics readily available on the website of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Current federal funding for broadcasting is $430 million, up 7.5% from the Bush Administration peak of $400 million in 2007, with a boost to $445 million due in 2011-12.
While waiting for the curtain to go up in the East Room, we figured we'd throw open the issue of White House cultural offerings for a highly unscientific poll:
-- Mike Boehm
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Upper photo: The Obamas at the Kennedy Center last year. Credit: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News
Lower photo: Rutherford B. Hayes.