The Show Must Go On — When Sensibility Trumps Sensitivity

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Nothing says Americana quite like musical theater.

The entertaining format has been enjoyed by all ages for decades, despite rampant stereotypes and exaggerated stock characters. Most traditional musicals take place in another era, so characterizations are often overlooked (and laughed at) by many theatergoers. Others aren’t so forgiving. To make these old shows more palatable, some groups are going so far as to ‘sanitize’ them. But doing so washes away all sense of history and context, not to mention the artistic integrity of many well-loved productions. Our very own, uniquely American originals will be lost forever. Not to mention that altering these productions is fruitless. How is it possible to change a character, from one type to another, without offending someone else? When does sensitivity become censorship? (Not to mention violating copyright licenses.) Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers are rolling over in their graves.

A recent Boston area production, of Thoroughly Modern Millie, generated quite a buzz for a high school musical that didn’t even star Zac Efron. Feature stories appeared in The Boston Globe, including one that landed on the front page. A TV program, community newspaper articles, blogs and letters to the editor continue to roll in. (In fact, it was a local blog that launched a thousand conversations.)

Any theater publicist would be jumping for joy about all the attention. But in this case, it’s had quite the opposite effect. The ‘ink’ about “Millie” has not been about the extraordinary talent or dedication of the cast and crew. Instead, it’s been negative, focusing on outdated Asian stereotypes in a story that takes place in 1922.

Had the legitimate feelings of the Asian community been discounted, the theater should have gone dark. Happily, for the hard working young thespians at Newton North, the curtain went up for “Millie” at Theater Ink, the school’s teaching and working theater. The award-winning musical, that has been performed by high schools across the country for more than 30 years,  played for three nights in Newton. At least one of the performances was sold out.

Going on with the show was the right thing to do. Here’s why:

Discussions about stereotypes in “Millie” began even before the first rehearsal. The high school worked with the Office of Human Rights to come up with a way to maintain the integrity of the production, while addressing negative images with students and the public. Workshops and discussions about stereotypes and their impact were held throughout production. Most importantly, Newton North has faith and confidence that its young people are mature enough to interpret outdated stereotypes. There was also the fun factor to consider.  Featuring a large cast of characters, the show enables many students to participate. Combined with entertaining song and dance numbers, plus its comic script, make “Millie” a staple of many theater programs.

Before each performance, the director drew the audience’s attention to an extensive production note in the program. It specifically addressed one of the most negative characters in the story.  It read, in part:

“Mrs. Meers must be understood as the villain…She is racist and covers her own insecurities and life failures with hateful attitudes and behaviors.  Without question, Thoroughly Modern Millie contains extreme negative stereotypes and offensive attitudes…the opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School…in fact they strongly oppose the beliefs and attitudes found within our school culture.  Furthermore, we have worked hard to analyze and revise these images in order to align them with our socially conscious mission of acceptance and open mindedness…”

 

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When the show’s run ended, Newton North issued a lengthy and contrite letter to the community. Following is an excerpt:

“It is our sincere hope that this production is one of both artistic integrity and one where significant learning has occurred.  It certainly was never and is never our intent to offend members of our school or Newton community.  Theatre Ink prides itself on being “Newton North’s Teaching and Working Theatre.” The process of producing this show, and the thoughtful and sometimes challenging dialogue it has generated among staff, students, and the broader Newton community, exemplifies the program’s commitment to explore, critique, and interpret how the human experience is conveyed through the arts.  As the curtain went up this past weekend we brought the constructive conversation and learning process that our school community has engaged in over these past few months to an audience of students, parents, and community members.  We hope that you will choose to participate in it with the same appetite for learning that we have seen in our students – a genuine desire to understand our differences, our history, and ourselves…

After the letter went out, the school held a public forum, attended by the members of school’s administration, Theater Ink directors, parents and students.

Newton is a standard bearer of political correctness. (This is a city with schools that promote a campaign called, “Respecting Human Differences,” hold lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender assemblies and ban Halloween.) So the extra effort made by the high school to head off concerns about an old fashioned musical is not surprising for those who of us who live here. Expected or not, the extensive outreach for “Modern Millie” is public relations at its finest. Institutions across the country should look to Newton North’s example as a model of urban sensitivity and respect.

Theater Ink has been a treasure trove of talent and high caliber performances for many years, providing students with endless golden opportunities. The community at large also reaps the benefits of this theater. Hopefully, the spirit of those who work so hard on its behalf has not been diminished by the “Millie” firestorm. Image

 

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