Saturday, January 5, 2013

No Burning Love for the Jordan, Utah School Board

There’s still time to vote for the 2012 Curmie Award (go here for descriptions of the nominees; voting continues until Tuesday morning), but we’ve already got our first 2013 contender. Since the concept of offensiveness figures prominently in the story, I shall endeavor to refrain from overly colorful language in describing the school board in the Jordan, Utah district. Suffice it to say I would suggest they perform actions recently recommended to Harry Reid by John Boehner.

It is, alas, a depressingly familiar tale. Just in the relatively short time I’ve been writing this blog, there was the pusillanimous idiot in Pennsylvania who shut down a production of Kismet (yes, Kismet) because—get this—the central characters are Muslims. More recently, it was the hypocritical and lazy administrators in Ohio who fired the director/choreographer of Legally Blonde, which had been vetted (or was supposed to have been vetted, at least) by the powers-that-be before the contract was signed with Music Theatre International. And there have been others I heard about but didn’t have a chance to write about, and no doubt many others that escaped my notice.

The details hardly matter, but here’s an overview. Last year, a different school in the district did a production of Dead Man Walking, which upset the Utah Eagle Forum—N.B., not students, or parents, or anyone the current jargon refers to as “stakeholders,” but a radical political group—who argued that the play “was filled with profanity, sexual language, racial slurs, political bias and ‘inappropriate use of biblical teachings.’” These last two are especially ironic epithets coming from that lot, one of the crazier collections of strident and narrow-minded politicos and pseudo-Christian zealots ever to be gathered anywhere outside the Tea Party caucus. But let’s move on.

As has become the wont of school boards across the country, the folks in Jordan showed all the moral courage of limp lettuce, and capitulated to the loonies. They instituted a new policy this summer, requiring consent forms to be signed by parents, and “more parents will serve on the school and district committees that select which plays to produce.” The first part of this new strategy is silly but innocuous; the second part is idiotic, at least if the news article accurately portrays the process.

It is not a good idea to have parents as much as sign off on choices. It is stupid to have them actually making those choices, which involve all manner of considerations about which the average parent is profoundly ignorant: they won’t be concerned with the available talent pool (which varies enormously year to year); with the balance of leads to chorus roles; with staging considerations regarding sets, costumes, lights, etc.; with the difficulty of the music for both singers and instrumentalists; with directorial preferences (there are musicals I’d be happy to do—it’s not out the realm of possibility that I’ll be doing one of them this summer—and others for which I’d choose the poke in the eye with a sharp stick); with balance for the rest of the season and over a student’s career; even with the ratio of male to female roles.

No, what parents want is a good role for their kid. Oh, and a title they’ve heard of. Carousel is one of the creepiest plays ever; Henry Higgins—our hero—is a condescending, sexist, erm… sphincter in My Fair Lady (far more so than his Shavian predecessor in Pygmalion); Godspell requires a conflation of John the Baptist and Judas; all the heroes of West Side Story are gang members; the best songs in Jesus Christ, Superstar go to Mary Magdalene and Herod; the title character in Sweet Charity never strays far from her origins as a prostitute in the Fellini film on which the musical is based; “Hernando’s Hideaway” from The Pajama Game (done right, at least) drips with sexuality; Luther Billis cross-dresses in South Pacific, and extra-marital sex is taken as a given (albeit never made explicit). Need I go on? Does anyone doubt that every one of these titles would be approved without as much as a whimper of dissent?

Whatever the wisdom of creating a parental review board, however, there’s one objective fact at play here: the new standards were established after the district had signed a contract with Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW), who controls the rights to All Shook Up, a musical that ran for six months on Broadway a few years ago. I don’t know the play, but I’ll trust blogger Adult Onset Atheist that it:
has a thin but popular plotline revolving around teen angst and an authority’s disapproval of “entertainment.” Some people trace this plot to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but the myriad of derivatives has cemented it as a well-worn plot device whose ties to any source earlier than the 20th century is accidental. It is more likely that the authors of All Shook Up owe more to the 1980’s movie “Footloose” than the play written in 1601.
(Read his entire post and the follow-up, by the way.) Anyway, you get the idea.

Ah, there’s the rub. To you and me, Gentle Reader, this sounds like entertaining, if perhaps relatively mindless, fun. But to a gaggle of censorious buffoons who no doubt swooned to the actual Elvis the Pelvis in their own youth, ah, well, we can’t suggest that… you know… today’s teen-agers are intrigued by (whisper) sex, or something, or that the choreography to accompany Elvis songs might involve a little butt-waggling. Remember that consummate hypocrite Ed Sullivan was happy to attract the audience Elvis would bring, but wouldn’t allow him to be photographed below the waist… in 1957! Even in Utah, however, most people have escaped the ‘50s.

Anyway, the play was allowed to head into rehearsal, during which time no one from the administration bothered to read the script, attend a rehearsal, or otherwise check out a play that was based on the appeal of biggest sex god of his generation. And, remember, this was a play that had already been approved. It apparently occurred to no one in authority that the new regulations might make a show that was acceptable under the old standards to be problematic under the new ones. Moreover, a subsequent news article suggests that “district officials said they failed to give All Shook Up careful scrutiny.” This, apparently, was the fault of the production staff and the students instead of the people charged with providing that scrutiny, as they were the ones punished for district officials’ incompetence.

Everything was fine until a single parent (apparently) complained. It is unclear—because the school board prefers to do the bidding of anonymous whiners—whether this was the parent of a student involved with the production, i.e. someone who had signed a consent form (!), or the parent of another child at the school. In the former case, it might, might, be reasonable to pull your own kid from the show. In the latter case, the obvious solution is… wait for it… don’t go.

But that’s not how angry moralistic zealots behave. Nope. If I, in my infinite, ignorant, arrogance decide that something is offensive, then nobody gets to enjoy it. And the single protest worked. The school board did their best doggie obedience school riff: they rolled over and played dead: morally, ethically, pedagogically, and probably legally dead. Because, as school board mouthpiece Sandy Riesgraf intoned, “We don’t want to offend anyone.”

I’m not sure that I can improve on the commentary of a very wise young woman named Jennifer Fortson (a former student of Curmie’s, I’m proud to say), who responded to that inanity on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page,
ANYONE? That seems a lofty (read: unattainable) goal. Know what offends LOTS of people? Schools who are so concerned with being PC that they have no problem screwing over dozens of students, directors, and volunteers who did their due diligence a year ago and have done nothing wrong since...
My only tweak would be that I’m not sure it’s a PC issue: more of having no core values, no respect for free expression, and no moral courage. But we end up at the same place: what is offensive to any real educator isn’t that someone might say a naughty word, or shake a bottom a little suggestively, or challenge cultural norms: it’s that they’d be forbidden from doing so by an organization whose primary charge is (or… erm… sanguinarily well ought to be) to instill in students those very principles of intellectual and aesthetic curiosity.

Of course, the board also proclaimed—without checking—that “the musical could not be changed to be less offensive because of copyright laws,” thereby necessitating cancellation of the show. (At least they kind of get the concept that you can’t just arbitrarily change an artwork without permission.)

The board also decided they could get their money back from TRW. It is indeed possible that there might be a partial refund for the royalty (and part of the payment might be based on ticket sales, which of course would be zero), but the hundreds of dollars for script and score rentals: not a chance.

Anyway, it was apparently in the attempt to get the refund that they actually took the ridiculously obvious step of… you know… calling TRW. They did this, of course, after announcing the show’s cancellation. Because if you’re stupider than snake spit, that’s how you do things. And they found out that the rights-holders might be amenable to some modest changes. So, after incurring the wrath of all and sundry in the community, and the fecal matter started to interface the whirling rotors on the Interwebs, the board brought the show back in a Bowdlerized version. (They won’t even make public what changes they requested and were permitted to make.) Whoopee!

This is a mixed blessing, but at least an instructive one. I kind of wish TRW had told school officials to perform an act most readily accomplished by contortionist hermaphrodites. As it is, every idiot administrator (as always, apologies for the redundancy) will want to carve out his or her own special brand of censorship, not just for this show, and not just for TRW-owned properties. Every moralistic yahoo who doesn’t think it’s right that Emile DeBecque had had children with a Polynesian woman will now be on the horn to Rodgers and Hammerstein (the company, not the guys) to whinge about “community standards.”

But the whole scenario does bring certain truths into greater focus, and there may be lessons for sane people in all this. Just assume, in other words, that school boards will always take the more craven alternative. Given a choice between standing up for real education and capitulating to a loud-mouthed boor, for example, they’ll always opt for the latter. But that also means that they’ll cave again if we get louder than the opposition. Because school boards in general can be counted on for two things: they’re dumber than dirt, and they have no core values.

This is an important, even if not positive, lesson for our students as well as ourselves. Because these people really are stupid… erm… Oedipally-inclined personnel. It’s good to know. Small solace, to be sure, but good to know.

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