Bad Ethics Chess: The Insufficiently Diverse High School “Sound of Music”

The real mystery here is how the school administrators and teachers could not have seen this coming. Thus the ethical value at issue is, as it often seems to be with public education, competence, or rather the lack of it.

In April of 2016, Marshfield High (in Wisconsin) presented its annual musical.  The production involved a cast of 40 students with 30 more in the crew and orchestra. Students from two elementary schools were in the cast. The show? Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” based on the story of the Von Trapp singers and their escape from Austria when the Nazis took over.

In March 2016, a complaint was received from a parent alleging that  the musical’s casting violated the district’s non-discrimination policy.  The parent asked why the cast did not “represent the demographics of the school district” and why a deliberate effort was not made “to ensure diversity in the cast.” The parent further said that even if the organizers of the play did not intend to discriminate, they did so “in the most overt and egregious manner.” For more than a year, district officials tried to keep the complaint and the resulting investigation out of the news. Now the investigation is out, and it found that indeed the casting did violate the policy.

I didn’t have to read the whole article, or much of it at all, to guess what happened. All I needed to know was that a high school with a diverse student body had chosen “The Sound of Music” as its annual musical. Everyone has seen the movie, and knows that it is about the cutest Austrian family on Earth stocked with a group of brothers and sisters whose ascending ages and heights constitute the most vivid visual image of the play.  High schools seldom produce this musical, for exactly these reasons. A theater department barging ahead with this Rodger and Hammerstein classic will be instantly risk appearing to exclude anyone who isn’t so white that their brilliant gleam will blind the audience (and African-American Nazis are even more jarring than  Hispanic-American and Asian Austrians), or it must commit to the most show-undermining non-traditional casting imaginable. There isn’t even a true choice: if you produce this show in a public school, you have to be ready to cast a black Maria, brown Nazis, Asian Austrian nuns and a brood of Von Trapps that suggests that the Captain was rather naughty in his travels, if admirably open to amorous affections regardless of race, color or creed.

If ever there was a need for school administrators to play ethics chess, this was it. Before the choice of musicals was completed, from the second some dolt raised his or her hand and suggested “The Sound of Music,” the fact that this choice was almost certain to create ethical conflicts and dilemmas should have been apparent. Isn’t simply selecting  this show inherently discriminatory, or at least controversial? Can it not be doomed to fail, one way or the other? Surely the artistic goal of making all of the Von Trapp children look like plausible siblings must be discarded at the outset. If not, does that mean that if the five most talented auditions by any measure are African Americans, they won’t be cast as a Von Trapps? Wouldn’t that mean that the casting would be dictated by color? What word does that scenario suggest? Come on, think. It begins with a “d.”

As so often happens when I examine ethics breakdowns in a school setting, I find myself wondering how adults this devoid of ethical decision-making skills and common sense can possibly be trusted to educate children. Huh! I didn’t think it would hurt to walk into that spinning propeller!” “Wow! Hitting myself in the nose with that hammer was really unpleasant!”  “Damn! Who would have thought using real fire in my kid’s Human Torch costume would turn out so badly!”

“Who would have thunk it? Our insisting that the Von Trapp kids look like a plausible Austrian family like the kids in the movie caused some parents to accuse us of discrimination!”

This fiasco didn’t even require advanced Ethics Chess, just the beginner’s version. From the earliest age, we need to begin mastering the knack of thinking ahead about the likely or possible ethical consequences of our conduct. That “The Sound of Music” risked making children feel discriminated against on the basis of their race was, or should have been obvious.

Two words: “South Pacific.”

Pointer: Rick Jones.


33 thoughts on “Bad Ethics Chess: The Insufficiently Diverse High School “Sound of Music”

  1. Scale.

    For a high school musical, where it’s less about absolute accuracy to the details (though it still must be close), it’s a more tight night community where ideally most people know each other and understand. Yes, it’s about talent and acting skills, but it’s also a community event.

    Cast a mixed family. It won’t hurt the art.

    Expand this to the national scale, when are larger pool of talent and needs for an accurately told story may increase in value, and one can be a little more exacting.

    • I agree with tex. I was in a school production of “South Pacific” with a Hispanic Nellie and a white Bloody Mary. No one cared.

      On the flip side, after I graduated a new director took over and did “West Side Story” one year and “Hairspray” the next. Our community is about 90% Hispanic, and has no black population to speak of. So in WSS, the Puerto Rican gang and the white gang were indistinguishable from each other. I never saw “Hairspray,” but I can’t imagine it got the themes of racial segregation across very well. These were terrible ideas.

      True, South Pacific does deal with Nellie’s racism, but it’s not the entire point of the show in the way it is with WSS and “Hairspray,” and I was able to suspend my disbelief enough to accept Hispanic Nellie debating whether or not to accept white Emile’s dalliance with a Polynesian woman. Harder to do when Maria and Tony are both Mexican, and I can imagine doing so with this version of “Hairspray” would have been impossible.

  2. Otherwise, a reverse destruction of the arts could occur–

    No stories ever told that may be Euro-centric. No, that might hurt the fee-fees of some minorities, since we need to treat them like children who can’t handle reality.

  3. High school plays and musicals surely have an extra consideration or two. The most talented students need to have a fair chance to perform, the cast should be from the school, the production should be at the highest level possible, the director and administration should be competent. The cast and crew are students. The job of education professionals is to provide high quality learning experiences. Choosing a script that meets the requirements for educating the most students possible should be the important first step. I suppose the next scandal will be about a school performing the Vagina Monologues.

  4. Well, you chose The Sound of Music as your high school musical, knowing that you had a diverse student body. The fairest thing to do, in an amateur educational setting is to cast without regard to color. If people want true verisimilitude then they probably shouldn’t be going to high school plays. The focus here is on the students, and giving them the training and experience in a variety of roles, even ines that they are not likely to play as professionals. Though I recently saw an all-white production of Hairspray, which was unfortunate, though at least they avoided blackface. The job of any semi-competent producer is to know the composition of your company, and tailor your production choices around them. To not do such a basic step seems to be either flagrantly discriminatory or flagrantly stupid. Probably both.

  5. Has no one in this theater department come across Hamilton — you know, one of the most groundbreaking musicals ever? Aaron Burr — Black; Alexander Hamilton — Latino; George Washington (Black).

    Unless race is integral to the plot (South Pacific), just cast whoever does the role best. Who knows? Maybe Von Trapp adopted those 7 kids. And who cares anyway?

    Our school cast a girl as the lead in Music Man. It made the love story interesting to say the least, but she had the best audition so she got the part.

    • “Our school cast a girl as the lead in Music Man. It made the love story interesting to say the least, but she had the best audition so she got the part.”

      Love it. I would have done that, I hope. better a mind-bending romance than a crappy “Trouble in River City”!

      • I should have clarified that I was referring to my kids’ school. Cross-casting would NEVER have happened in my school growing up!

          • I thought it was standard practice for girls in high school productions of Oliver! to play the Artful Dodger and Oliver. It’s difficult to find high school boys who can hit those notes. A milder version of the castrati problem in opera.

  6. I read a music critic who said that you can have either identity politics or you can have art. You can’t have both. I wasn’t sure what he meant when I first read that, but after a series of articles here (and elsewhere) I believe that I will have to agree with him.

    • When has “identity politics ” not been part of art, especially the performing arts? It’s rather built in to the subject matter.

        • Your position is only true if you think that “identity politics ” is some sort of modern invention that those durn minorities keep bringing up to bother “regular” people. It’s always been present. It’s just that before, there were no influential public voices to say any different.

            • All art communicates a message. The message may be a bad message or the communication may be awfully done. But nonetheless, art conveys a message.

              If it doesn’t, it’s just decoration (which can be equally as awful as awful art…and some awful art, that the artists hoped desperately is so poor at communicating a message, that it may as well be decoration).

              • And, yes, to be pedantic, decoration technically probably communicates the bare essential of some message…in the case of aesthetic decoration is communicates a message of beauty…

                But still…there is a useful distinction here.

          • Eh. It’s mostly white people who make everything about identity politics now. The average minority person on the street wouldn’t know or care what they’re banging on about.

  7. I’d like to add that I was the only brown skinned girl in my schools production of The Sound of Music. Of course I was Gretel & the joke at the time was Mr. Von Trapp’s youngest kid was a result of an affair with the the “help.” For me though, it was an honor to be in it, and what mattered was being the best Gretel I could be. “Representing” for the minorities in the audience never occurred to me then, and I’m glad for it.

  8. For what it’s worth:

    My high school put on a performance of “Oliver,” where the main character was played by a 16-year old girl (playing it as a boy, of course-did not think that would need explanation, but it does these days). She had a boyish-look (short hair) and was a competent (maybe even talented (what did I know: I was 16 too)) singer/actress. No one cared; we did not think we were ground-breaking; it just made sense, all things considered. It was probably like Sandy Duncan (?) playing Peter Pan.

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