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Taking the Swastikas out of High School Musicals

Why censoring Nazi imagery in student theater isn’t good for anyone

Marjorie Ingall
December 17, 2018
Wildbild/AFP/Getty Images
Cast members during a rehearsal of 'The Sound of Music' musical, in Salzburg, Austria, on Oct. 19, 2011. Wildbild/AFP/Getty Images
Wildbild/AFP/Getty Images
Cast members during a rehearsal of 'The Sound of Music' musical, in Salzburg, Austria, on Oct. 19, 2011. Wildbild/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the principal of New York’s LaGuardia High School (aka “the school that Fame is based on”) attempted to remove the swastikas from a student production of The Sound of Music.

Students immediately rebelled. According to the parent of a student in the play, “The principal had been invited to rehearsals early in the process but didn’t go. She finally saw a rehearsal on Tuesday, December 4th. The play was opening two days later. She wanted to get rid of the swastikas. The drama and tech students were outraged. ‘It’s the Sound of Music! What do you mean, take out the swastikas?’ And Jewish parents were saying, ‘You’re whitewashing history!’”

The parent reports that a compromise was reached: “They kept the swastikas in the elaborate projections created by the tech students who’d been working with professional designers all semester. But they removed the swastikas from the armbands.” She continued, “I saw the show last weekend and was looking at the armbands like, ‘What is that? Is that an H?’ It was supposed to be the SS symbol, I guess? But during the last scene, there were swastika projections behind the kids and it was really powerful and shocking and well done. And the scene with the Nazi flag hanging over the abbey, when the nuns rip it down, it’s such a powerful act of resistance, and that would have been lost without the symbolism.” (Repeated calls and email to LaGuardia requesting comment were not returned.)

Responding to requests from the Daily News, The New York City Department of Education issued a statement: “The use of this historical symbol of hatred … serves both an artistic and pedagogical purpose, and the decision to include it was made in collaboration with school staff, students and families.” A note in the program was added, “LaGuardia Arts stands united against hatred, and we ask that you join with us in denouncing all forms of hate and intolerance. When we say never again will those atrocities of war be repeated, NEVER AGAIN must be a promise kept.” (The school will also be making a donation to The Holocaust Museum, but contrary to other reports, the donation was in the cards before the principal objected to the swastikas.)

It’s far from the first time school administrators have quailed at swastikas on stage. A pluralistic Jewish day school (“with an undercurrent of Orthodoxy”) in Canada did The Sound of Music three years ago. “It was great,” a parent told Tablet in an interview. “Though I did think it was funny that half the female cast was playing nuns and no one was wearing a cross.” The Nazis in that production wore plain black armbands. “I remember it because there was a road company production of The Sound of Music in Toronto and the soldiers marched through the audience and swastikas were unfurled all around us, and it was upsetting,” the parent said. She felt that Jewish schools need to choose what they feel is appropriate for their communities. “All it takes is one big donor to be easily offended,” she noted. “Schools want to be sure they don’t upset anyone. They need things to be appropriate for what they represent as a Jewish school–like, they wouldn’t do Jesus Christ, Superstar. I did think it was interesting that they did Little Shop of Horrors, with that song ‘Mushnik and Son,’ which is so full of stereotypes about Jews–seemingly stereotypes are not a problem!” The parent felt that public schools, on the other hand, which aren’t dependent on donors’ goodwill, have a different mission: “If they do a challenging show, they should prepare the entire community and use it as a teachable moment–there’s a way to do it,” she said.

Last year, Mark Twain, a middle school for gifted and talented students in Brooklyn, put on a production of Cabaret. There, too, the swastikas were removed. “But I’m offended by the idea that we can’t put ideas out in the open!” protested a parent of a student in the show. “It was all about preemptive damage control. It’s all optics. It’s not about whether it’s offensive to promote Nazi propaganda at a potent time. There’s an argument to be made that the swastika has new meaning now, and that’s certainly something to discuss, but the school’s actions were more about worries on social media.” Perplexingly, the production left the show’s allusions to drug use and abortion alone. (A thought: Maybe Cabaret isn’t the best choice for a middle school?)

In 2016, swastikas were again an issue when Tappan Zee High School put on a production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The superintendent objected, telling a local reporter, “There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate.” (“Um, history books?” suggested Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School of Drama, which advocates for arts education and artists’ rights and fights censorship.) Students at Tappan Zee defended the show. Ultimately, they got to keep the Nazi armbands, though were told they couldn’t use the production’s swastika banner.

In an interview with Tablet, Howard Sherman of the Arts Integrity Initiative offered example after example of censored and canceled high school plays. Swastikas and LGBT content are frequent sources of contention. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson and Ragtime,based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, have been challenged for use of the N-word. (Brian Stokes Mitchell, the African-American actor who starred in the 1998 Broadway production with Audra McDonald, noted that context was important. “I understand why [community members] would be upset, given the tenor of the times,” Mitchell said. “[But] to take the ugly language out of Ragtime is to sanitize it, and that does it a great disservice. People should be offended by those words … the contextual use of those racial slurs sets up the trajectory of the characters in the show. It is the ugliness in Ragtime that gives the cathartic power to its tragically beautiful ending.”)

Sherman told Tablet, “I do not argue that every show is necessarily appropriate for a high school theater production. However, I don’t use the word ‘children’ about high school students, because it diminishes the intelligence and awareness that young adults have, and their understanding of the world that exists around them. To deny them the opportunity to express and learn through the arts because of some arbitrary notion of ‘community standards’ seems to me to be against essential educational impulses.”

He continued, “In a play that’s about fighting a totalitarian, fascist, Nazi regime, the depiction of that hideous regime through its imagery is an educational opportunity,” he said.

As for Cabaret, Sherman noted, “The moment late in Act 1 when Ernst suddenly puts on a swastika armband is meant to evoke shock and horror. It has been since it was written in the 1960s. When a work has to be sanitized to the point that specific, historical horrors and the people who propagated them are homogenized into ‘just generally bad people,’ we are not serving the work, the students, or society at large.” He continued, “We see articles telling us how many young people don’t even know what the Holocaust was. We see other articles about people who want to deny it ever happened. So when there’s an opportunity in high school theater for learning, why are we denying students essential opportunities?”

Furthermore, bowdlerizing shows violates their creators’ copyright and the license the school has to produce the work. Sherman doesn’t object to “high school versions” or “clean versions” of shows, in which the playwright authorizes changes. “It’s the right of the artists who created the work to adjust it so that it might be more often produced in particular markets,” he said. “I defer to the opinion of the artists themselves. What I don’t support, and what’s infinitely more widespread, is the tendency of school systems—typically administrators, rarely teachers —to believe they have the right to impose their will upon copyrighted texts. I’m not saying schools don’t have the right to ask if changes would be acceptable. But they simply don’t have the right to decide for themselves what may or may not be said.”

As for the “Just pick another play!” argument, Sherman has reservations. “It can be dangerous, because it says, ‘let’s do something less challenging, something safer.’ The judgment keeps creeping down to anything that might be seen as possibly offensive to anyone. High school should prepare students for a world in which certain words, thoughts, and ideas exist. Isn’t it better for them to come to them in the safe, understanding, collaborative process of theater?”

Indeed, Sherman notes, theater has the power to galvanize activism. “If people need a demonstration of the value of a comprehensive and challenging drama program, look no further than the students from Florida who mobilized in the wake of a school shooting to become national advocates,” he said. “I don’t think it’s remotely a coincidence that most of them were drama students. Theater is a way to increase understanding, knowledge, empathy. The more schools use it as a tool–beyond celebrating the individual talents of students, which is certainly important–the greater the educational experience and school can be.”

The last word comes from a student at LaGuardia. He’s not in the play—The Sound of Music cast and crew were instructed by the principal not to speak to the press and didn’t want to risk retaliation. But he has strong feelings. “Out of context, of course, those symbols are offensive!” he said in an interview. “But in the context of the play, they make sense. They show that we don’t want to forget about racism and history, and we want to understand just how bad those times were. Today there’s a political climate in which schools are so attentive to not doing anything wrong or getting a bad reputation, it leads to censorship. What they don’t understand is that we understand what these symbols mean and the way they should and shouldn’t be used. Especially where the country is at this time. At LaGuardia, we’re all extremely politically active—more than we’ve ever been. We have good moral judgment. We understand the actual use of a symbol versus artistic representations of it.”

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.