Ethics Quiz: Which Musical Comedy Censor is More Unethical?

How could anyone predict that this show would be risque?

Rick Jones brought these sorry tales to my attention, and they are perfectly suited to an Ethics Quiz.

Your challenge: Explain which of the censors in these two incidents was more unethical.

Censor A: The mayor of Carrollton, Georgia, Wayne Garner, who ruled last week that a city-funded professional production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was not suited for a community production. The city council had contracted with a theater group of actors, singers, dancers, musicians and crew, and had committed $2,500 of taxpayer funds in up-front production costs to prepare for four performances in October. The mayor’s spokesperson said that the production was going to contain racy choreography,despite the fact that it was supposed to be a “PG show.”

How a counter-culture musical specifically about gender bending, kinky sex and transvestites was supposed to be “PG” is anybody’s guess.

Censor B: Thomas Fleming, Superintendent of Schools in the Richland School District in western Pennsylvania.   He prompted District officials to veto the high school’s choice of the classic 1950s Broadway musical Kismet as a 2012 production, because it suddenly occurred to him that the characters in the play, which takes place in old Baghdad, are Muslims.

I can honestly say, having seen the musical many times on stage and the movie version many more, that what the religious preferences of the “Arabian Nights”-style characters never occurred to me, any more than I ponder what church Curly goes to in Oklahoma!, when he isn’t singing about corn and elephants’ eyes.

Rick, on his blog, gives the nod to Fleming, but Rick is choosing the biggest idiot, and surely Fleming wins that distinction in a walk. Now Muslims aren’t even welcome on stage—even when they are singing elevator music like “This is My Beloved” and “Baubles, Bangles, Bright Shiny Beads”? Even when Kismet is about as Middle Eastern as “The Mikado” is Japanese, which is to say, not at all? Will Fleming ban Fiddler on the Roof because all those Jews are potentially controversial while the Palestinian controversy rages? Did the Catholic Church child molestation scandal make The Sound of Music too hot to handle?

Yes, Fleming’s an idiot, all right, but not a particularly unethical one. The result of his decision, dinging Kismet, is not an abuse of his office, and he could have justified rejecting the show on legitimate grounds: it’s boring.

The winner of the Most Unethical Musical Censor has to be Censor A, Mayor Gardner. There were good reasons not to hire a company to do The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a small Southern town, because it’s a raunchy musical that is calculated to offend people; in fact, I don’t know what the City Council was smoking when they chose it. If the mayor was going to object, however, the time to do it was when the show was being considered. He was lazy. He didn’t know the show, and didn’t check it out. He didn’t have to wait until the show was rehearsed to know it was going to be risqué, because the show is risqué. He didn’t do his due diligence, and now, after many people have put work and resources into the production, he suddenly pays attention and says, “Hey! You can’t do a show like that here! It’s about sex!” Other variations from an alternate Mayor Gardner in parallel universes where different shows were chosen…

•    “Hey! You can’t do Sweeney Todd here! It’s violent!”
•    “Hey! You can’t do Les Miserables here! It’s French!”
•    “Hey! You can’t do The Producers here! It has Hitler in it!”

Not only is Gardner injecting his own personal tastes into a decision made by others; he is doing so unconscionably late, causing unnecessary damage. His actions were irresponsible and unfair. He was more unethical than Fleming.

Superintendent Fleming can take solace in the fact that he is the bigger idiot, though.

That’s something.

18 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Which Musical Comedy Censor is More Unethical?

  1. I reached the opposite conclusion. Garner is the bigger idiot for not knowing that you can’t have a PG Rocky Horror Show. Fleming is more unethical because of his rather blatant Islamophobia.

    Might I suggest that the Richland School District mount a production of Borodin’s Prince Igor? As far as I know, there are no Muslims in that opera and it would cut down on the amount of new music the performers would have to learn.

    • That would be right if everything else was equal. The difference is timing. Garner made his stupid decision late, harming everyone involved, when he could have made it in a timely fashion, watched the damn movie, and been in the clear. Fleming rejected Kismet for a stupid and perhaps biased reason (we don’t really know his thinking—he seems to have worried about “controversy”, which could be based on the theory that the character are offensive ethnic stereotypes–the “Flower Drum Song”-“The King and I” complaint, also stupid. In the end, while Garner’s dilatory consideration wasted money, insulted his board and inconvenienced the production staff, what harm did Fleming do? The kids will probably get to do a less stodgy musical, and the girls might even get to do something more dignified than slink around in “I Dream of Jeanie” costumes. The audience won’t have to wince through High School voices trying to sing operetta music designed for trained singers, and the cast hacking its way through every Arabian Nights Middle East stereotype known to man (the fat Caliph, the wily peasant-poet, the sex-obsessed middle aged vamp, the helpless young thing, bartered around like a goat. Even the fact that Fleming outed himself as a moron is a beneficial result. People have a right to know.

  2. I also want to list Fleming as more unethical because of the reason he pulled the plug. Instead of standing up to idiocy, he bowed before the alter of irrational community hate. Garner, on the other hand, actually believes the play he cancelled is wrong.

    Garner is a complete idiot with no sense of decency, while Fleming is a wimp, scared of his own shadow.

        • I didn’t say I thought that, just that this would be an equally valid (which is to say, NOT) “justification.” The conduct itself, dinging the show, is not unethical—the motive is, but motives are thoughts. Maybe he thought the show was boring AND he was anti-Muslim. Maybe if it was the Muslim Music Man and he really loved the show, he would have ignored his darker motives.Between the two conducts compared, Fleming’s was more defensible. His motive may have been worse, but I try to avoid judging motives as much as possible, because it is always a quagmire.

          • His motives were (as explained in that report and various other reports) that there were complaints and he wanted to avoid controversy. At best, he’s a spineless weasel unable to stand up for a postion he believes in. At worst, he’s a closet bigot. Whatever his motives, his actions show him as a waste of space.

  3. Tell me about it. Our local theater company was not allowed to premier my play because it featured someone smoking. Never mind the character was smoking her last cigarette before quitting, which she did. The play was set in the restroom of a bar. Because adult beverages were served that was taboo also. Never mind it feature the reunion of families, etc. Because of the beverages and smoking, it was not allowed. That is the only local facility usable for a small production. Think of the great literature that must be banned because of smoking and drinking. What ever would Tennessee Williams do?

    I was treated like something of a pervert, trying to corrupt the theater in the local high school, where we all know zero tolerance prevails. It was not being produced by the high school, but the school board refused to allow my play to be staged. Evil me!

    The Pink Flamingo

  4. Having seen Rocky Horror many times (yes, I’m one of those) I can attest that the raunchy sexiness is really pretty harmless with adult audiences. The real crime, as you point out, was cancelling this show so close to opening. The risque subject matter is well known to everyone so a reasonable decision should have been made long before this. And yes, Kismet is pretty boring.

  5. If you think KISMET is boring (I don’t), be glad you didn’t see TIMBUKTU!, a disastrous 1978 re-staging of KISMENT set in pre-European West Africa. Somehow, “why is the nightingale singing at noon from the mulberry bough?” becomes almost inconceivably clunkier by the change of just one word: “why is the nightingale singing at noon from the baobab bough?” (Answer: because he’s not very good at tongue-twisters.)

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