In Burlington, Vermont, the wind doesn’t gust off Lake Champlain in a blustering violence and slam into the sides of buildings like it does in most lakeside cities. It rolls off, sails even, and meanders through the streets in an embracing breath, politely.
Here, in the land of Bernie Sanders, there’s a man named Conant who owns a metalwork shop downtown and who sometimes drives around with a big rocket-ship welded to the top of his car. The Town Center is currently undergoing development to become the tallest building in the state, fourteen stories, and the Hotel Vermont has a beer concierge and a hotel-wide philosophy of Vermont-only products.
At night, you can hear the city’s music scene incubating in taprooms and pubs, and when I stepped out of one around 11 p.m., I was quickly swept away by a group of Christmas-season carolers under the direction of a man with a top hat and a pitch pipe. Jingle bells in hand, they led me to the town square, where they sang under the Christmas tree. “Hey man, merry Christmas. I’d like to think I’ll never forget you,” said the top hat when I left.
It’s a week before Christmas, and all through the land Democrats have made their last stand, calling it a day, and an orange-haired Grinch has slithered down from his tower to promise us gifts. But here in Burlington, in the sleepy neighborhood of the North End, inside a community performance hall that’s sometimes rented out for “salsa socials” or once a month by a Polish family who make dinner for anyone who comes, that dream of a Bernie Sanders utopia is still alive.
The 150 folding chairs are almost all filled; some latecomers have gathered against the back wall. Multicolored Christmas lights dangle from the ceiling tiles, and the stage is set up like a cozy living room, equipped with a couch and a coffee table and a lamp and a gigantic blue wind turbine that’s dressed with lights and garland.
Tonight, Feel the Bern — A Musical Of the People, By the People, and For the People is making its one-time-only debut. And in the front row, wearing a bright blue Bernie T-shirt and carefully watching her actors’ every move, Meira Marom nervously pulls at her hair.
She’s watching as her cast sings to the tune of “Santa Baby”…
Please slip some healthcare under the tree, for me…
Been a pauper all year;
Santa Bernie, so hurry to the White House right now!
…and an actor places a “Birdie Sanders” ornament on the windmill and plugs in its lights. Her actors are trickling onto the stage, gathering to celebrate their holiday. Two characters are engaged in hanging a banner on the back wall that reads “Joyous NotMeUs.”
Performed by a cast of eight, Marom’s musical is Christmas themed. Bernie Sanders is Jewish, but that doesn’t matter. “Like Santa, Bernie is kind of the ultimate giver. No one gets left behind. No matter your means or background, you get a visit from him. Only his gifts are the exact opposite of Santa’s consumerism-fest,” says Marom. Her spectacle is also postapocalyptic and takes place in the year 2132: Global warming has washed away the eastern coast of the United States, and the characters have gathered for their holiday on the new shore — in Cleveland.
Christmas is obsolete in 2132; instead the characters assemble to celebrate NotMeUs, a festival fixated on Sanders, who has returned to Earth in the form of Sanders Claus. Elders gather the children around to recount the legend of this winter celebration — the story of how our country fell into ruin after failing to heed Bernie’s warnings, but after adopting his policies returned to prosperity — and to sing carols about the decline of corporate greed.
The musical seems to suggest the world we might have had today, if only things hadn’t gone so wrong. It’s a world where posterity does, in fact, thank us for the things we’ve done. A world where single-payer healthcare is common sense. Where windmills and turbines and big solar panels are lawn decorations. It’s also a world that looks an awful lot like Burlington, Vermont.
I first met Marom in a café in Greenwich Village in August, where she was wearing a Bernie tee and carrying a laptop plastered with Bernie Sanders stickers. By that point in the summer, Bernie had already abandoned the race, but Marom had not. She was still writing a daily poem, “Bard for Bernie” as she called it, in praise of the Vermont senator. It started with a limerick back in July of 2015 and by Election Day would number 488 lyrics. On her Bernie-stickered laptop was the musical that would become Feel the Bern.
“There’s room in the Revolution for rhyme and whimsy,” Marom told me in August. A 36-year-old after-school program teacher, she had spent much of the previous months traveling around the country, canvassing and door-knocking for her candidate. A fourteen-hour bus ride to South Carolina here, a weekend trip to New England there. Along the way Marom had assembled a team of equally passionate and concerned voters with whom she could form a theater company.
During a blizzard in New Hampshire she met a stage manager from Harlem, and in Coney Island she met a seven-year-old with blue hair and an innate love for crotchety political candidates. On a bus she met Skittlez, a professional fire-breather with a Bernie tattoo on his elbow; in Boston, a filmmaker named Jeremy Kaplan, a dead ringer for circa-’69 John Lennon, who agreed to document her musical.
Marom and I stayed in touch through the election. In mid-November I met with her again, in that same coffee shop. I was loath to bring up Bernie’s loss. It was, and still is, very much a sore subject. “Oh. I’m probably going to accept that any day now,” she told me.
“It’s a blow,” she went on. “I would say that 2016 for me…in personal ways and in political ways, was like the year of disillusionment.” We were sinking into the same couch where we’d sat in August, and now she shifted her weight a little and cleared her throat, her voice more emphatic than it was before.
“I know — and I don’t know if you accept this or not — but I know in my heart that there was voter fraud like nobody’s business. ‘Cause I was out there, door-knocking like you wouldn’t believe. And I hardly ever ran into any Hillary supporters. I know that Brooklyn was ours. I know what happened in Arizona with the six-hour-long waits. We saw the WikiLeaks. It was his. And it was taken from him.”
Though the election was over, the show would go on. Marom invited me to watch the rehearsals for Feel the Bern in late November. So it was a few days after our Greenwich Village meeting that I found myself in Brooklyn, at the house of Lew Friedman, a retired teacher and perennial Park Slope political activist.
Lew had offered up his brownstone and his piano to the band of Merry Bernie-ites for rehearsals, and to me he had offered a spot on his pillowy, well-worn couch. I shared the couch with a book called Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul. The coffee table was strewn with scripts and sheet music and occasional pops of blue from biodegradable Bernie buttons. Over me towered bookshelves and bureaus, and in the center of the room loomed a closed-up fireplace whose mantel was filled with family photos, save for a framed picture of Bernie Sanders in the center.
In front of the fireplace, Meira’s company gathered around the piano, trying to fix the harmonies in the opening number. Over and over again they sang “and a thousand people stood and followed as they’d sworn they would…they knew it was time to heal the bern,” but the harmonies kept accidentally going minor.
Staring at Marom’s company moving around their makeshift theater, I realized that sharing the couch and sitting next to the book and me was a gigantic elephant.
The company sang:
And as the days went by,
Not a one could deny
There was cray-cray excitement in endless supply.
From city to city,
Time flies when you’re giddy
And those kiddies were pretty high…
The actors belted out their song from the Gospel According to WikiLeaks, what I assume is the 22nd-century Bible, and they marched in circles around the coffee table with a big Bernie flag. From her station by the cheese plate, Meira jumped in with notes: The seven-year-old with the blue hair needed more enthusiasm. That lyric about fracking and corporate greed? Spoken, not sung.
As I looked around for evidence that anyone else saw the elephant in the room, I found none. In that room Bernie hadn’t lost. The louder the company sang, the more enthusiastically they marched in place, the more tightly they grasped each other’s hands as they raised them in song — the easier it was to pretend. Because Bernie did lose, and confronting that reality is like reaching for a door handle and recoiling in pain because it is searing-hot and because there is a fire behind it.
A week before Christmas I flew to Burlington to see the world that was stolen from Bernie Sanders in its final musical form. I went in part to see what Marom’s Revolution might look like in the land of its birth, and in part to see whether her troupe of Berners might have made their peace with reality.
They hadn’t. In the darkened performance hall, the children gathered onstage, dressed in their regulation flannel, to hear the story of Sanders Claus and NotMeUs. They sat on the floor of the stage and on couches, doing their best imitation of rapture, hushed to hear the story from their elders. It went something like this:
In 2015, the masses had been fooled into thinking we lived in a democracy, drugged by the billionaire class and the media. The billionaire class managed life in the 21st century, opposed only by Sanders and his supporters. But the “Protectors of the Revolution” were betrayed by neoliberals at the Democratic convention, ushering in a long period of troubles (which seems to have ended with Sanders Claus arriving with the gift of socialism).
The betrayal in Philadelphia was the climactic moment of the play, because inside Bernie-world the problems of this election don’t begin with Donald Trump; they start with Hillary. By far the most egregious sin was the ousting of Bernie Sanders from the general election.
Here, even in this artistic moment of triumph for the Revolution, on Bernie’s own home turf, no less, the sense of aggrievement was as bad as ever. Worse even, because in the cold air of Burlington, that utopian world that the Bernie Revolution was supposed to bring into being is just out of reach.
On the stage, the actors sing:
O little town of Burlington
You rare, enchanting gem
Secure from real estate tycoons
The Bern hath vanquished them
Enlightened and progressive, so hip and full of spunk…
And in this little bubble of a town, somehow protected, hidden away from conservative America, these carols ring true. Bernie has already laid his blessed, sacred hands here. It’s not a city on a hill, but a town with beards and microbreweries on a lake.
“There were so many Republican voters who were like, ‘We already voted for Trump, but we’ll put a Bernie sign on our lawn for you,’ ” Marom’s director, Nicole Press, told me after the show and over dinner at the Radio Bean Café. “There was this one guy in New Hampshire who was still undecided, and he was dead-set not voting for Hillary, and we ultimately swung him towards Bernie. I can’t tell you how many people like that I encountered.”
The Radio Bean is the kind of angsty restaurant/music venue that you find in college towns around the country. Squeezed around a dimly lit table in the back room, Press and a handful of the actors vented their anger toward Democrats who were surprised by the results of the election. “When the results came in for how it all ended, I was not the least bit shocked. It’s like, we’ve been telling you for months,” Press said. “I mean, I wasn’t happy about the election results, but there was certainly an element of, like…” But then she paused and, lowering her voice, told me to turn off my recorder.
Feel the Bern ends by reviewing the devastation that befell the United States after we failed to elect Bernie Sanders. In a call to arms, the actors sing a solemn ballad.
It’s called “We Blew It.” Standing on the stage, they join hands and hum an unsmiling, mournful melody to the accompaniment of a lone piano, a slideshow of carnage, and a narration of Sanders speaking to Congress.
But what a crime
We thought we had more time
We chose to shut our eyes
We were in for a surprise
And just before the actors sing their finale, the lights dim just a little on the stage and turn to console the audience in a cradling warmth.