As a frequent stage director of musicals, I am so glad this didn’t happen to me in my more excitable days. I may have done something rash that would have had me running ethics seminars from inside a jail cell.
When school administrators combine laziness, absence of diligence and common sense, ignorance, blatant disregard for fairness and abject stupidity, it is remarkable the amount of damage they can do. The administrators at Loveland High School in Cincinnati fired the teacher, Sonja Hanson, who directed its student production of the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde” and cancelled the show because her staging was “too racy.” I have not seen the production, obviously, but I know the Broadway show and the movie, neither of which has material in it that would corrupt the morals of any high school student not home-schooled in Carlsbad Caverns. Similarly, the staging that appears in a YouTube video of the show indicate nothing inappropriate for a high school in 2012.
The many students who labored long hours on the production saw their efforts go to waste; the parents and friends of the performers, techies and orchestra members never had the chance to see the musical performed; and the teacher lost her job. All of this was for one reason and one reason only: the principal who initially approved the show had neither the courage nor the integrity to stand up to critics when they began their attacks, and rather than accept responsibility for the production that had been approved and stand by the students and their teacher, the pusillanimous administrator allowed the show to be cancelled and the teacher to be made a scapegoat.
“Legally Blonde,” like most school theatrical productions, held open rehearsals. The principal had an obligation to check on the proceedings if there was any chance that the show might cross lines of appropriateness. Come to think of it, I did have an experience like this in a professional show, where I was hired to write and direct a musical satirical revue by the head of a D.C. theater company. At the dress rehearsal, my producer told me that my staging was “vulgar,” and that she was going to exercise her right to cancel the show before opening night, and not pay the performers, since they were to be paid once the show started selling tickets. We had rehearsed the revue for a month at her home, and she had never bothered to watch a second of it. She had read the script before we began and approved it, and I had accurately told her my concept, which she also approved. When she tried to pull this, I threatened to sue her and more, eventually forcing her to allow the show to open. It was a big hit with reviewers and audiences, too. She probably should become a high school principal, though she would have to stop drinking first.
A school can exercise its own judgment regarding what is appropriate fare for high school drama efforts. There are plenty of wonderful musicals that are entertaining and as pure as a Disney movie, though a surprising number of old Broadway classics—“Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “Oklahoma!,” “South Pacific,” “How to Succeed in Business…,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and many more—have sexual subtexts and potentially racy numbers that might give Rick Santorum the vapors. It would have been absurd to ding “Legally Blonde” for risqué content, when it is no more sexually provocative for its time than high school standards like “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Grease” were for theirs. Still, if a school wants to restrict its drama club to “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “Oliver!” so be it: it’s not a tragedy. Such shows are safe from controversy, great entertainment and fun to perform. If a principal approves a show like “Legally Blonde,” however, that principal is obligated to stand behind the production if some misguided parents express shock at 16-year-olds shaking their booty in faint approximation of the original choreography. If the principal allowed the show to be rehearsed and never exercised due diligence by observing its progress, cancelling the show after rehearsals are complete is unfair and unconscionable.
What’s going on here (the threshold question that should be asked before analyzing any ethics dilemma)? Just this:
- A principal approved a school show, perhaps without reading it (Incompetence; breach of responsibility)
- No school administrators checked on rehearsals. (Irresponsible; lack of diligence; laziness)
- When the show opened, a parent or parents complained about its content and style, and perhaps demanded that the show be stopped (If so, displaying lack of proportion, prudence, caring, and fairness; also cruelty to the students and the teacher)
- Rather than take the honorable and ethical course and say, “I approved the show; the students have worked hard on it. I take full responsibility, and we can discuss any criticism after the production,” the principal capitulated to pressure from the school board, and allowed it to punish the kids and use the teacher/director as a scapegoat.
Thus did the students of Loveland High learn about cowardice, incompetence, feckless bureaucracies, injustice, and the preponderance of human weasels in the world. And all they wanted to do was sing and dance for their friends, feel like Broadway stars for a weekend, and have some sweet memories to cherish.
Facts: Daily Mail
Graphic: Elation Creations