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NOTIONS: Of battles, musicals: Let kids think for themselves

February 20, 2006

My son Zach was in town two weeks ago. He came to take photographs for a school newspaper story written by his twin brother, Austin.

My sons' words and images, published Feb. 10, told the tale of two recent graduates of their high school (Fort Wayne Homestead) who were entering the Marine Corps via a military processing center in Indianapolis.

After finishing their story, Austin and Zach talked a lot about their close-up view of the USMC's front gate: How reluctant some of the recruits' parents had been when their sons signed up; the tedious enlistment process; how likely it is that these fellows who so recently strolled high school hallways will soon be fighting in Iraq.

But in a larger context, Austin and Zach reflected on some stories they and their fellow student journalists have been covering of late, and they wondered aloud why a few members of our society think people their age have sufficient brainpower to fight, kill and even die for their country, but not enough to handle a high school musical.

My kids got their first swig of schooladministration squeamishness a year ago, when Homestead Principal Dianne Moake decided that the musical "Bat Boy," which had already been cast, didn't meet community standards (whatever those are). The show was nixed, and a replacement production of "Godspell" hastily assembled.

History repeated itself this school year when Homestead drama director Ed Koczergo proposed a production of "Urinetown." This time, under a new policy triggered by the "Bat Boy" fiasco, he had to get prior approval from Moake.

After months of deliberation, Moake decided "Urinetown"-at least its title-didn't meet community standards, either, and asked Kozergo for an alternative.

He selected, and Moake approved, "Cabaret," a 40-year-old Tony winner that deals with Nazism, a seedy nightclub and a bisexual leading character. In a section-front story on Homestead's second-consecutive musical massacre, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette noted that "Many of [Cabaret's] songs have sexual overtones, and the play deals with an unplanned pregnancy and an abortion."

"They're both award-winning musicals in their own right," Moake told the Journal-Gazette, "but I felt that 'Cabaret' is a good established musical and that we have come off a very controversial situation last year, and I felt like I wanted to have a good solid musical that I felt comfortable with."

And besides, no one will get pissed off at the word "urine."

The theatrical hullabaloo doesn't stop at Homestead. Across town at Fort Wayne Carroll High School, administrators recently pulled the plug on a planned production of "Les Miserables," citing as their main complaint a song sung by prostitutes.

"[The superintendent] and I made our decision based on community standards and expectations as well as past experiences," Principal Deborah Neumeyer told Carroll's student newspaper.

Ironically, the ever-timid Homestead staged "Les Miserables" just two years ago, a production whose title sponsor was a mega-church called The Chapel.

The Web site of Music Theatre International, a licensing company, lists nearly 100 school and youth productions of "Les Miserables" this spring-including stagings by Catholic schools, a Christian school and several children's theater groups.

But in suburban Indiana, school administrators seem to believe that the few and the proud heading off to defend us from terrorists can't handle a little song-and-dance by pajama-clad prom girls.

So instead, Carroll will produce "The Secret Garden," a musical based on a 1911 children's book.

Indiana's not alone in this act, of course. Last week, The New York Times carried a Page 1 piece about a school in Fulton, Mo., that suffered some after-the-show criticism of its production of "Grease."

"A month after the performances in November," The Times reported, "three letters arrived on the desk of Mark Enderle, Fulton's superintendent of schools. Although the letters did not say so, the three writers were members of a small group linked by e-mail, all members of the same congregation, Callaway Christian Church.

"Each criticized the show, complaining that scenes of drinking, smoking and a couple kissing went too far, and glorified conduct that the community tries to discourage. One letter, from someone who had not seen the show but only heard about it, criticized 'immoral behavior veiled behind the excuse of acting out a play.'"

Because of this criticism, Enderle has now cancelled the school's spring production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

Not all school officials are so gutless. At Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis, student actors and musicians are staging "Ragtime," complete with the N-word that pounds home that show's vital lesson about the evils of racism. A few folks tried to stop the production or water it down, but Perry Township Superintendent Doug Williams and the school board held fast and the show will go on.

Our kids have brains in their heads. If we can trust them to apply that intellect to lifeand-death judgments on a battlefield, surely we can trust them to make a few moral judgments in a school auditorium.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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