Assuming high schools can still do musicals, will be allowed to or want to, I wonder how the four classic high school musicals (all about high school) will fare. I’ve seen ’em all. “Grease” is tied with “Hairspray” for the worst (but is arguably the most fun). “Mean Girls” had its Broadway run prematurely killed by the pandemic, but the show is pretty slick and the book is the best of the four. That show’s biggest problem is the problem of the majority of hit musicals since the Seventies: the technical requirements to make it work are beyond the capabilities of most high schools (and community theaters as well).
That leaves “Bye-Bye Birdie,” the oldest of the shows and over-all, probably the best. But the Elvis craze is ancient history, high school girls don’t scream and faint any more (that’s progress at least), and much of what makes the show funny are references to Fifties cultural touchpoints (Ed Sullivan?) that today’s teens won’t appreciate or even understand. “Bye-Bye Birdie” also has a movie version that has aged badly, and was never that hot despite a great cast. Ann-Margret was never believable as an innocent high school girl. Not for a second.
All four shows are also very white—can’t have that! Rated by diversity points, the shows stack up as “Hairspray,” “Mean Girls,” and then the other two in a distant tie in Systemic Racism Hell. I suppose you could have Conrad Birdie, the Elvis character, be black, or even play him as a parody of another icons-of-color like Little Richard or Chuck Berry, but his songs would be stylistically alien to those singers.
I usually hesitate to call for anyone to be fired, though there have been exceptions. In this case, however, the call is mandatory on ethical grounds. It is unethical for a school dedicated to the arts to hand oversight to an gross incompetent who doesn’t comprehend the arts she is supposedly responsible for teaching; it is unethical for someone to take on this responsibility who is wildly unqualified for the job; and it is unethical for that individual to act in a way that undermines the mission of the school she heads.
I have just fairly described Lisa Mars, currently the principal at the Fiorello LaGuardia High School, the high school “of music, arts the performing arts” made famous in the movie and TV show, “Fame.”
On opening night of a school production of “The Sound of Music,” she ordered all Nazi-themed props and set pieces struck. They are offensive, you see. Never mind that the show is set during Germany’s take-over of Austria as the Third Reich was expanding. Never mind that Nazi Germany and its officers are major elements in the plot, or that the plot is based on the real-life escape of the singing Von Trapp family from the Nazis. Never mind that theater is a representational art form. Stage deaths are not real killings, stage rape isn’t really rape, stage racism isn’t really racism, and stage representations of Nazi symbols do not promote fascism. Most grade-school actors can grasp this basic principle, but not the head of a school for the performing arts.
“This is a very liberal school, we’re all against Nazis,” one sophomore said. “But to take out the symbol is to try to erase history.” Yes, that too. “Obviously the symbols are offensive,” he added. “But in context, they are supposed to be.”
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. Continue reading →
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?