What the hell does Michael Moore want now?
Is it not enough that for nearly 30 years, this cinematic provocateur has used his movies to harangue us about gun control, the George W. Bush administration, single-payer health care and his myriad other bleeding-heart causes? Didn’t we just spend an election season enduring this man — a bold truth-teller to some, a tedious self-promoter to others — and his Cassandra-like warnings that President Trump was going to win?
Now Mr. Moore, this willfully disheveled, 63-year-old hybrid of Noam Chomsky and P. T. Barnum, expects theatergoers to pay Broadway ticket prices to watch him in a one-man show, “The Terms of My Surrender.”After his previous documentaries, books and television shows, does he have anything left to say, and does he really believe it will make a difference?
“I am not going to take up people’s time or this valuable space to lecture people,” Mr. Moore said, sitting in the orchestra level of the Belasco Theater. “I’m not coming to this stage every night to conduct a political rally.”
Instead, he said, he wants to tell stories that will make audiences feel better about this fractured nation, in a show from which they will emerge rejuvenated after a monthslong period of feeling beaten down.
“This is not a kumbaya piece of theater,” he said. “I’m not looking for everyone to hold hands. I want people to leave with a sense that they’ve been moved in a profound way.”
In some ways, his timing couldn’t be better. His show arrives amid a period of liberal soul searching, when any vaguely oppositional voice, whether a left-leaning columnist or late-night host, has gotten a second wind in the Trump era. Perhaps Mr. Moore, with his rumpled baseball hat and Midwestern bona fides, can offer some answers.
But why take his act to Broadway? If it’s true that he preaches to the choir — as his detractors on the right and the left say — speaking to a self-selected group of New York theatergoers seems to restrict his message to a rarefied bubble. What does Mr. Moore, who is known for a biting, sarcastic politics of outrage, think he can do differently, talking to about 1,000 people who have paid as much as $149 a seat?
He has made big promises, but sometimes it’s hard to determine if he knows what he wants to do and just won’t reveal it in advance, or if he’s still figuring it out as he goes along.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Mr. Moore was admiring the set for his show, in previews here beginning Friday, July 28, and opening Thursday, Aug. 10.
The stage was dominated by a gigantic structure made to look like an American flag, painted white, á la Jasper Johns. At various moments, video from that day’s news, usually involving Mr. Trump, was projected on it.
Though he is known principally for his politically pointed nonfiction films, like “Bowling for Columbine,” his Academy Award-winning exploration into the 1999 high school shooting, and American gun culture, Mr. Moore has past experience with solo stage shows.
In 2002, he brought a cantankerous, post-9/11 monologue to London’s Roundhouse Theater. In October, he gave a more urgent performance at theaters in Ohio counties that were strongly pro-Trump.
That show, recorded in his documentary “Michael Moore in TrumpLand,”was not so much a screed against the Republican presidential nominee as Mr. Moore’s attempt at a positive argument for why voters should choose Hillary Clinton.
Despite the fact that he ended that show with a vow to hold Mrs. Clinton accountable if she did not fulfill her promises in the White House, Mr. Moore (who supported Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary) said he always expected Mr. Trump to win the general election.
The “TrumpLand” film and show, he said, was his best effort at staving off what he believed was inevitable. “If you were in a leaking lifeboat and all you had was a Dixie cup, would you just sit there, or would you at least start bailing?” he asked.
After Mr. Trump won, Mr. Moore said he made two phone calls: one to the film producer Harvey Weinstein, to make another documentary; the other, to the director Michael Mayer, to get started on a Broadway show.
Mr. Mayer, a Tony Award-winner known for musicals like “Spring Awakening” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” said he and Mr. Moore had been discussing a collaboration for about three years but were unable to align their schedules.
Over the summer, the two have been shaping Mr. Moore’s material and anecdotes, trying to determine what belongs in the show and how to segue from segment to segment.
“Very little of it is written where it won’t change night to night,” said Mr. Mayer, who called Mr. Moore “a natural raconteur.”
“What he wants to say and the things he has witnessed are so familiar that he has 30 different ways of telling the chain of events and drawing conclusions from them,” Mr. Mayer said.
If Mr. Moore decides one morning that he wants to respond to news developments in his show that night, Mr. Mayer said, “We will do everything we can, with the handful of tools we have at our disposal, to be as responsive as possible.”
Mr. Mayer added, “It’s going to be a challenge.”
“The Terms of My Surrender” is one of a few post-Trump theater projects that have come to New York stages this year. There was the Public Theater’s controversial production of “Julius Caesar,” with a Trumplike title character, which conservatives condemned as a near-literal wish for the president’s assassination. Elsewhere, a Broadway adaptation of “1984” is doing modest business, while Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall,” set in a time after Mr. Trump’s imagined impeachment, closed quickly Off Broadway.
It’s hard to gauge how much of Mr. Moore’s show will be on-the-nose Trump critique or address broader ideas. On a recent visit to his rehearsal space at the New 42nd Street Studios, he was sitting in a recliner in the center of the room. In a corner was a bulletin board with index cards bearing the brief, tantalizing titles of potential segments: “Dead Peasants”; “Soccer vs. Football”; “What I Got Past the T.S.A.”
He was working on a routine about Mel Gibson and a series of interactions they have had over the years, beginning when Mr. Gibson’s company withdrew from financing his film “Fahrenheit 9/11” and ending when Mr. Moore voted for Mr. Gibson for best director at this year’s Academy Awards. (Mr. Moore said he plans to project his Oscar ballot onscreen to prove he did it.)
Later, Mr. Moore practiced a bit in which he will invite a conservative theatergoer from each show onto the stage to talk with him, with Mr. Mayer standing in for the audience member. Speaking to Mr. Mayer in this capacity, Mr. Moore told him not to be afraid of liberals: “They wouldn’t even know how to hit you, if they could throw a punch.”
Mr. Mayer gave Mr. Moore instructions on how to use his hand-held microphone. “Let him lean in if he has to,” he said. “You are in control of this.”
At the Belasco, Mr. Moore described his lifelong appreciation for the theater, going back to his upbringing in Flint, Mich., and his brief time as a student at its University of Michigan campus.
On summer trips to New York, Mr. Moore said he and his family often attended Broadway shows, including the original 1964 production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and that he got mugged outside “No, No, Nanette” in the early 1970s.
In the same way he hopes viewers approach his films, Mr. Moore said that when he goes to the theater, “I want to go and be challenged. I want to leave better, smarter, angrier, happier than when I came in.”
But political conservatives have long argued that in his films and other media, Mr. Moore seems less interested in getting to the truth of a matter than inserting himself into the middle of it.
“His role is to scold and discipline,” said S. E. Cupp, the conservative commentator and HLN host. “If you were truly interested in any of the causes he supports, you could find truer heroes who are less self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing.”
Matt K. Lewis, a conservative columnist for The Daily Beast, said that while Mr. Moore was once a prominent lightning rod for hostility directed at the left, he has been eclipsed by figures like Mr. Sanders and Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, who wield actual political power.
“I think the truth is, the right doesn’t think of him,” Mr. Lewis said of Mr. Moore. “He’s a hard worker and an entrepreneur. I just don’t think persuasion is his game.”
Chris Lehmann, the editor in chief of The Baffler, a left-leaning publication, said that Mr. Moore had provided “a necessary voice” and credited him for being an early, prominent critic of the Iraq war.
Mr. Lehmann, who has known Mr. Moore since they worked together at Mother Jones in 1986, described him as “a person who, almost by virtue of his temperament, is a true outsider and can hold up a mirror to the powers that govern our world.”
“The problem with being an outsider,” Mr. Lehmann added, “is you can sometimes confuse truth-telling with self-indulgence.”
Mr. Moore made no apologies for his subjective documentary style — “as a filmmaker, my first job is to make a great film,” he said — or for frustrating his opponents on either side of the aisle. “I don’t come from the Church of the Left,” he said. “I come from the Midwest.”
Though he splits his time between homes in New York and Traverse City, Mich., Mr. Moore said he still shared the values of the people he believes are his audience, and could be their avatar.
“I’ve been given a peek behind the curtain that I wasn’t supposed to have, whether that’s in Hollywood or in politics,” he said. “I want the average Joe and Jane to know I’m really just their stand-in and we’re all in this together.”
Mr. Moore would not disclose how much he is being compensated for “The Terms of My Surrender,” except to say, “I thought of taping off the 12 seats each night that are my pay.”
Asked whether he ran an ongoing risk of having his celebrity overshadow his message, Mr. Moore did not exactly plead humility.
“That’s a question you should ask Hamilton or Washington or Jefferson,” he answered. “As great and as smart as they were, they could only convince 25 percent of the colonists to support the revolution.” (Some sources put the number of pro-revolution colonists much higher, while others say the figure is essentially unmeasurable.)
So what is the aim of his show? If Mr. Moore believes he is calling for radical action in his own time, what does he want his audience members to do when they leave his show that they can’t do already?
“They will, I think, realize that they can do it and feel empowered to do it, and I will help create some pathways to that,” he said. “Not just with rhetoric.”
But what is it, exactly? Mr. Moore turned coy, saying that these elements were “part of the show” that he didn’t want to give away.
Mr. Mayer said there was a unifying theme to the segments in the show, “which is that one person can make a very big difference, by doing something that isn’t necessarily tremendous — small, individual actions can have very large reactions.”
After “The Terms of My Surrender” concludes its limited run, Mr. Moore has his new documentary film, which he is calling “Fahrenheit 11/9,” a reference to the day after the 2016 election. (He would not describe the film, except to say, “I don’t think the question of how did this happen has been answered yet.”) He is also preparing a new nonfiction television series for TNT this fall.
For all the opportunities that the new Trump era seems to have created for him, Mr. Moore said he would have much preferred an alternate scenario.
“If I could just sit in my La-Z-Boy and watch ESPN and not have to do any of this?” he said, incredulously. “Are you kidding me?”