The heart of Donald Trump's strategy to win the Republican presidential nomination is his massive, electric, occasionally violent campaign rallies.
Using tactics that owe a little to church revivals and a lot to insult comedy, Trump skillfully directs his audience's excitement (toward himself) and their resentment (often toward the members of the media in attendance).
Reporters have gotten used to this by now. But here's still one thing that befuddles them: Trump's pre-rally playlist. Specifically, many of them wonder: Why does Trump play so many songs from British Broadway musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber?!
The Trump rally playlist includes "Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera AND "Memory" from Cats, and I desperately want to know why.— Jordan Rudner (@jrud) January 15, 2016
just not sure what to make of the number of Phantom of the Opera jams on this Trump event playlist— Phil Mattingly (@Phil_Mattingly) January 3, 2016
When MSNBC had its beat reporters for the Democratic and Republican primaries swap beats for a week, Trump's Webbermania was the thing that reporter Alex Seitz-Wald thought America most needed to know about the race:
how does the world not know that Trump, who seems eager to end the GOP primary with a testosterone-measuring contest, chooses to score his raucous mega-rallies with Andrew Lloyd Webber? All of his events begin and end with "The Music of the Night" from the "Phantom of the Opera" and "Memory" from "Cats" (a song about a former "Glamour cat"), along with some Adele tunes. Perhaps that’s real authenticity? Easily the most surprising bit of my week.
Business? Nah. Trump's been a Lloyd Webber fan for decades.
Some pundits have speculated that the reason Andrew Lloyd Webber features so prominently at Trump rallies is that he, like fellow Trump-playlist favorite Elton John, owns an apartment at Trump Tower.
But those pundits are making a mistake that pundits often make with Trump: They focus too much on his identity as a "businessman" and forget just how much of his business success relies on his outsize personality.
For one thing, the theory isn't even correct. Andrew Lloyd Webber famously sold his Trump Tower apartment in 2010 — ending a 17-year saga in which Lloyd Webber tried to sell his apartment four times, at prices ranging from $7.95 million to $22.5 million, before finally finding a buyer at $16.5 million. (His wife, Madeleine Lloyd Webber, now owns a smaller apartment in another Trump building in New York.)
More importantly, even before Lloyd Webber bought the Trump Tower apartment to begin with in 1989, Trump was a fan of his shows. In his 2004 book Think Like a Billionaire, Trump gives a shout-out to Lloyd Webber's early-1980s hit Evita:
My favorite Broadway show is Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber, starring Patti LuPone. I saw it six times, mostly with Ivana. Evita is not on Broadway right now, but I'm hopeful that they'll bring it back. Also, The Phantom of the Opera was great!
The simplest explanation is the most likely: Donald Trump just really, really likes Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.
Why Phantom is a perfect match for Trump's aesthetic
Not only did Trump personally choose the songs that he plays before and after rallies, he really cares about hearing them — arguably more than his audience does. This anecdote from an October rally in Florida (retold after the fact by ABC News's John Santucci in a video segment) sums it up well:
Donald Trump actually takes a lot of pride in telling people he picked the soundtrack. Last week actually when we were in Jacksonville, he’s going around signing a bunch of autographs for people post the speech, and Phantom of the Opera comes on. Okay, Phantom of the Opera, at a rally. And they’re playing it softly, because you know it’s not really a good song to get people motivated, but he’s there saying ‘Turn it up! Turn it up! Let me hear it! I want to hear the music!’ He really gets into it. Some people have their ‘workout tracks,’ if you will — for Donald Trump, it seems to be ‘The (sic) Music of the Night.’
If you think of Donald Trump as a political figure, it's baffling that he'd insist on playing "Music of the Night" (not to mention Pavarotti arias!) even when it's clear his crowds don't like it. After all, shouldn't he be carefully calibrating his music choices to pump up the crowds and buttress his anti-elitist cred?
But if you think of Donald Trump as a lifestyle brand — which is what he is, both now and in his previous careers — it makes all the sense in the world.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is a tremendously melodramatic and overwrought musical theater composer. He's often been accused (fairly) of caring more about spectacle and bombast than about characters that audiences care about — more interested in impressing audiences than in moving them.
That was a perfect fit for the New York City of the 1980s, which was dominated by an aesthetic quite heavy on spectacle and impressiveness. And the New York City of the 1980s was a perfect fit for Donald Trump.
"Classy" has become a punchline during Trump's campaign, the lazy man's shortcut to an impression of the candidate. But it's been his defining characteristic for his entire career. Donald Trump cares more about impressing people than anything else, and the way he impresses them is by telling them how impressive he is.
The private plane with 24-karat-gold-plated belt buckles, the opera and Broadway torch songs at campaign events — it's an overdrawn caricature of Richness, with a distinctly 1980s flair because the 1980s were the last time that particular kind of overstatement was cool.
And it works! The majority of Trump's (self-inflated) net worth, he claims, is the value of his "name" — largely self-branded product lines for brands BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins once described as "discount luxury." Coppins wrote in 2015 that it's key to Trump's political appeal as well:
On the day after the 2012 election, one of Trump’s advisers described for me the billionaire’s appeal to blue-collar voters: "If you have no education, and you work with your hands, you like him. It’s like, ‘Wow, if I was rich, that’s how I would live!’ The girls, the cars, the fancy suits. His ostentatiousness is appealing to them." That may be crass, but it didn’t strike me as elitist: Trump’s political advisers see themselves as descendants of this same tribe.
The musical that really explains Trump 2016
This is why it's so interesting that Trump's favorite musical is one that hasn't shown up on his campaign playlists. Evita is about Eva Perón, the wife of the Argentinian populist (but not quite fascist) dictator Juan Perón, who was wildly beloved of the people of Argentina. The musical treats Eva as an entertainer first and a politician second — with some derision for her cheap populism and grandiosity, but also with some respect.
In case the parallel isn't yet clear, check out Tim Rice — who wrote the lyrics to Evita — writing about "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," one of Lloyd Webber's most famous songs:
It has been slammed by many for being a string of meaningless platitudes, but that is precisely what it was meant to be in the first place. As a speech by a megalomaniac woman attempting to bamboozle half a million people, it is right on the button; it is meant to be low on content and high on emotion, just like Evita herself. That doesn't stop it from being a beautiful song, nor Eva from being an irresistible icon. If millions around the world love the song at face value, we are delighted, but maybe they have been fooled as Eva's adoring descamisados were.
So keep your ears open. If the crowd fills in at Trump's next rally to, say, the lesser-known Evita song "Rainbow High" — which includes the line "I came from the people, they need to adore me, so Christian Dior me from my head to my toes/I need to be dazzling" — you'll know he's ready to step into the role he was born to play.