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High School Musicals

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2007-09-24


One of my favorite jokes in Wes Andersonís Rushmore happens at the end, when the prodigiously talented main character Max produces an original, blood and guts Vietnam War epic on the high schoolís stage, complete with helicopters, automatic weapons, and explosions. The sheer absurdity of the concept ó high school freshmen with cigarettes clenched in their teeth, shouting ripe Marine epithets, machine-gunning the Cong as their parents watched passively from the audience ó gave the film a perverse and irreverent kick, but a decade later (the film was made in 1998) the notion doesnít seem nearly as preposterous. High school productions have gotten increasingly more sophisticated in the last 10 years, and plays once considered taboo for high schools are now sought out by zealous directors who are certain their kids can handle it. And while Iím sure no high school has actually tried performing a Vietnam bloodbath onstage ó well, relatively sure ó itís astonishing how many teacher/directors allow their students to perform plays that are psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually out of their league. Itís happening nationally, itís happening locally, and it is absolutely and manifestly wrong.

Try as I might, I still canít conceive of the insane lack of common sense that Homestead High School displayed last year when it allowed its students to perform the musical Cabaret. Now, Cabaret is a great musical ó audacious and sexual, with a terrific, Kurt Weill-influenced score by Kander and Ebb ó but itís also one of the most disturbing and adult musicals in the modern repertory. Having high school students reproduce the playís Weimar-era decadence in all its perverse glory is an act of utter irresponsibility. Much of the play takes place in a burlesque hall called the Kit Kat Club, and for the play to work the actresses playing the Kit Kat Girls have to be believable as whory, beaten-up strippers. Asking teenage girls ó who are just learning to deal with the whole concept of their own sexuality ó to portray bump-and-grind strippers in skin-bearing stripper wear is not only wholly inappropriate, itís downright creepy. Were there really proud parents and grandparents in the audience, watching the show and saying, "Thatís my girl!"?

No matter how precocious teens are, no matter how pervasive X-rated themes are on the internet and music videos, kids are still kids and it is the educatorís fundamental duty to never forget that. There seems to be an intensifying social pressure on teenagers today to grow up faster, to start behaving as an adult as soon as possible, but it is this very tendency that parents and teachers ought to fight with everything they have. And if that means having to suffer through another production of Oklahoma! or The Music Man, well, so be it. Teenagers are not supposed to be worldly, porn-savvy mini adults; rather, they are minors with legal guardians who make the adult decisions that teenagers are not equipped to make for themselves. Itís embarrassing to have to remind parents of this seemingly obvious fact, but Iím afraid parents seem to have forgotten the basics.

I have a friend who has taught for decades in Fort Wayne and he told me that kids today are virtually no different than kids thirty years ago. But, he cautioned, the parents are considerably different. For whatever sociological reason, parents today seem to have a pathological, narcissistic need to be included in all aspects of their childrenís lives; itís as if they want to share childhood with their children. So instead of authority figures, they become peers, or friends, and the natural boundaries that should exist between parents and children are eliminated. And if a kid thinks he is on equal footing with his parents, how can he not feel he is entitled to act like an adult?

I think weíve had enough high profile, former child stars melting down in public to realize that skipping childhood is a bad idea. And whatever encroachments the outside world puts on teenagers, parents and teachers still hold the upper hand in influencing their childrenís development. High school drama directors who want to challenge their students need to understand the limitations they are working under, and they need to realize itís not demeaning to treat kids like kids. And really, what is so bad about Oklahoma! and The Music Man? They always seemed just fine to me, and for high schools, "just fine" is better than "provocative" or "disturbing" every time. I know many directors weary of doing the same show every five years, but the experience really isnít for their benefit, is it? Their job is to teach an ever changing group of students the basics of theatre, but more importantly, they are there to provide a safe environment for their students.

I asked my lawyer a hypothetical questionĖwhat if I had gone to Homesteadís production of Cabaret, took pictures of the cast members (like all parents do), and then decided to post the pictures on my web site? Pictures of underage girls in stripper wear? He told me it would be incredibly risky and foolish and that he would question my judgment for the rest of my life.

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