It's so easy to spark a protest these days. Write an anonymous letter. Go online. And so, with ever increasing frequency we read reports of theater productions and theater makers under attack because they want to put on a show. High schools seem to be especially vulnerable. Last month we weren't all that surprised to learn that some Woodbridge, Connecticut, parents were protesting a local high school production of the saucy musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Woodbridge is a wealthy community near New Haven, inhabited by many Yale University faculty members.
The town's proximity to scholarly erudition did not discourage one protester from complaining that Sweeney taught students "to perform horrific acts of gruesome murder, cannibalism, rape, suicide... Amity High School is supporting violence in our community." Then, of course, the now-obligatory link: "Our children and communities are still going through the effects of the Sandy Hook massacre." But the school superintendent would have none of this carping. He explained that Amity was staging the toned-down high school edition of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterwork. On with the show. The first weekend in April, the Amity High School Sweeney Todd (complete with 31-piece orchestra) was a sold-out triumph.
A quite different result transpired last November when Loveland High School (twenty miles northeast of Cincinnati) staged the popular musical Legally Blonde — an evening notably lacking in murder, cannibalism, rape or suicide. The trouble in Loveland was not the community; there were no parent protests. Here the problem was the enemy within. When the high school principal saw Legally Blonde (having not attended a single rehearsal during the three months of preparation), he deemed the show to be inappropriate for the youth of Loveland. Among other things, the principal objected to hearing the slang term "skank" onstage. The five-performance run was allowed to play out. Then the director, a local professional dancer and choreographer named Sonja Hansen (who previously had worked on the Loveland High School productions of Beauty and the Beast and Seussical) was reprimanded for "going against the school's code of conduct."
But a reprimand was not enough. Before Hansen could begin auditions for the current spring production of The Will Rogers Follies, she was fired. Attempts by parents who supported Hansen to meet with school officials were rebuffed. After the dust had settled, the Loveland superintendent issued a statement in support of his principal, saying that "everyone's goal is the progress of the drama department" — which surely is doublespeak for "back to the non-skank world of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
Sadly, there is no hand sanitizer we can squeeze into our palms to eradicate the germs of ignorance and myopia. Kinda like the flu, censorship continues to rear its head in surprising new strains to which we are never immune. But if you attend Legally Blonde this weekend, when the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents what will surely be a sparkling (and un-protested) production staged by Lara Teeter, take a moment to peruse the audience, which will mostly be young students having a blast. Some of these kids will be attending their first play ever.
Then ask yourself this: Who is the better role model for these students — Joseph, who cavorts with goats in ancient Egypt and probably never attended a day of school in his life? Or the indomitable Elle Woods, who by the end of Legally Blonde has graduated from Harvard Law School at the top of her class?
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