And speaking of Donald Trump…
In South Orangetown, New York, the school superintendent stepped in and cut the swastikas from Tappan Zee High School’s student production of “The Producers” less than a week before the production. Of course, the Mel Brooks musical satire based on his film “The Producers” employs swastikas on Nazi flags and armbands during its famous campy “Springtime For Hitler” number and at other points in the show. Before someone posted a picture of the swastikas on the stage on a Facebook page, this aspect of “The Producers” had somehow escaped the attention of school administrators.
Some parents were shocked, and complained. After checking out the stage, the superintendent cut the costume details and set dressing.“There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate,” South Orangetown Superintendent Bob Pritchard told CBS. Pritchard consulted with local rabbis before making his decision.
Rabbis, of course, would be a natural audience for “The Producers.” (Reports that the rabbis suggested a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” instead have not been confirmed.)
Your spring-is-in-the-air Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…
Is this example of school censorship of the performing arts fair, responsible and ethical?
Before I weigh in with my assessment, some preliminary points:
- It is grossly unfair to students who have rehearsed a theatrical production as large and complex as “The Producers” to force them to make material changes so late in the production process.
- This is the scourge of cultural illiteracy in America. “The Producers,” the 1967 film starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, is a classic and part of the fabric of American popular culture. The musical was a 2002 Tony winner and ran for more than 2000 performances. If adults in the administration and the faculty didn’t immediately realize what was being put on stage as soon as they heard that students were doing the musical adaptation, they are uncultured boobs and ill prepared to educate the young.
- “If someone scrawled a swastika on a desk at it would be treated as a potential hate crime. That helps explain why the stage will be devoid of swastikas when high schoolers present the Mel Brooks’ musical this weekend,” CBS notes, stupidly. No, it doesn’t. A lot of the lines in “Schindler’s List” would get a student suspended if he shouted them in class too, but context matters.
- “There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate”-–really? How about a history book? How about a school project? This is the hole the United States dug itself by its Confederate flag freak-out last year, with the park service even banning depictions of the flag in Civil War battlefield gift shops. Symbols are just symbols, after all. The same symbol can be threat, art, history, or a joke. Some Americans lack the sophistication and perspective to comprehend that. Frightening.
- Would this same result have occurred if the show was “Cabaret,” in which swastikas are indispensable to tell the story of the rotting moral culture that spawned the Nazis…or “The Sound of Music,” where the Nazis are the villains? Presumably so, since it is predictable that someone will make a political correctness stink just to bend everyone to their narrow, juvenile, easily offended will.
- This episode is another example of how poor decisions and the inability to play ethics chess can lead to a situation in which no fully ethical course remains, and the best option is still a wrong one.
All of that said, I conclude that striking the swastikas was the best of several bad options.
Whoever the drama club’s faculty advisor is, he or she is a fool. “The Producers” is an adult comedy, and indeed too satirical for many adults. Mel Brooks, bless him, is a Jew who understands, as so many of his culture and faith have understood through many centuries of oppression and tragedy, that the best way to rob evil of its power is to laugh at it, and show no fear. His wisdom is not a universal gift, however. To many, mocking the Nazis is to make light of the Holocaust, and allowing children to engage in such edgy satire will never meet with approval in all quarters. A musical that relies on shocking bad taste to make its point is going to create inevitable opposition at a time when foes of humor, satire, controversy, and even free speech itself are causing Americans to self-censor and be hesitant to utter anything but bland sentiments and consensus opinions.
“The Producers,” like all of Brooks’ work, is blithe and silly, and cannot survive before an audience that looks furtively around to see if laughter will be taken as a dire offense. Since the joke is on the Nazis, Nazi trappings are necessary to make it work. The hollowed out, slightly less tasteless “Springtime for Hitler” is unfair to Brooks and unfair to the cast, but it was also the best alternative remaining.