Why Are We Censoring Our Art?
Within the past few years, I’ve noticed the growing phenomenon of “junior-izing” musicals for schools across the country, where instead of a student cast putting on Guys and Dolls or Godspell in full, they perform a 60 minute version of the original show—most of the time with anything “inappropriate” cut out. It’s hard for me to write a piece questioning this practice because with the arts being cut from schools state by state, I have that mentality of “any type of theatre children can be exposed to is great.” And that’s true, and I will always support a “junior” show (60 min long) or a “kids” show (30 min long) as opposed to no school musical…but I can’t say I’m a fan of this trend all together.
Honestly, I can’t help but shake the feeling that creating junior musicals is counterproductive to the magic and goals of theatre. Isn’t part of what makes musicals a special genre of art the fact that they can talk about the difficult parts of life in accessible ways? They can hold a light up to small moments that normally wouldn’t be ranked as important, and phrase what can’t be said into reflective, analytical songs. You cut any show from their original length to an hour and you get just bare bones plot: you lose character idiosyncrasies and social commentary. Shows are written at a certain length to let their story breathe; they shouldn’t be suffocated by trying to condense their story into an hour. I also don’t buy that kids have a shorter attention span than they used to. If something is great, people will watch. Plus there’s an intermission for tiny bladders if need be. Moving on.
Now we get to my main issue with shows like Fiddler on the Roof—Junior! or Hairspray—Junior!: the idea of censorship. I know the audience at school productions, especially ones at elementary schools, are children as young as five, so there’s a certain sensitivity level we have to be aware of. Yet at the same time, I think that’s why it’s important to perform the full version of a show. Let’s talk about the violence against Jews in Russia or racism in the 1960’s – let’s not sugarcoat these major issues in a “junior” fashion. When you think about it, musical theatre is Shakespearean in its way of appealing to the masses. In Elizabethan times, Shakespeare was so successful because his work was loved by everyone. The uneducated would enjoy long fight scenes and the upper class would enjoy the double entendres and high-class references—there was something for everyone, and each time someone went back to the Globe they could take away something new from the performance.
Ditto for musical theatre, right? I was five and knew every word to The Sound of Music. I thought it was a great show about a singing family, not really getting anything else besides the fact that I needed to find a boy to dance around a gazebo with me. The more I watched it and the older I got, I learned about early World War II and the other complicated issues surrounding the Nazi annexation of Austria. The musical works on every level. Why can’t musicals performed in schools serve the same purpose? Let the first graders enjoy the fun music and dancing in “We Dance” while the sixth graders take in the messages of prejudice, fate, and socioeconomic differences in Once on This Island. (PS If you’re going to use the inappropriate argument for censoring the musicals in school, we can have a longer talk about how nearly every child in America watches Grease at a young age and sings lyrics like “the chicks will cream” before really knowing what they’re saying).
Look, when it comes down to it, theatre is meant for everyone. By choosing to perform a junior musical at schools, you’re limiting the reach of it and the purpose of it. If there’s really a content question, why not choose a musical meant for kids? 13, for example, especially if you’re sick of Annie (sidenote: if anyone wants to explain to me why there’s an Annie—Junior, please do). Another option? Go for something maybe not as well known as a classic, choose from the new musical theatre canon. High schools: why not perform Dogfight? Break out of the mold. Tackle issues with exciting music. Tell stories. Don’t talk down to your audience, talk with them.