It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Adapt and/or Die

Adaptable Dave Sikula lays it down in dire stakes.

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’ve got to offend somebody!” – John Adams, “1776”

Seems like I never have a topic for these little efforts until suddenly, at the last moment, Fate steps in and lends me a hand.

This time, it’s a twofer; two topics that are tangentially related, but ultimately make a similar point.

The first is the New York Times report from Manhattan (Manhattan!) that the “progressive” Dalton School had scheduled a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that had to be sanitized and Bowdlerized (look it up) in order to defend against offending the delicate sensibilities of “several members of the community.”

Now, let me hasten to say that, with some exceptions, I don’t think the purpose of the theatre is to offend. That said, if I’m directing a play by Joe Orton or Thomas Bradshaw, to name but two, and I don’t offend the audience, I’ve neither fulfilled the intentions of the playwright (about which, more later) nor done my job properly.

Let me further hasten to add that, although my personal politics are decidedly liberal, this is the kind of story that makes me hate liberals. H.L. Mencken, one of my personal heroes (and whose level of invective I can only aspire to), defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Similarly, I find too many of my brothers and sisters live with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be offended by something, somewhere.

If I may take a step back here (and who’s going to stop me?), here are the facts of the case as I understand them. The school scheduled the show, which will be performed by sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and those “members of the community” (I love the euphemism, by the way) “had concerns about ‘the play’s use of racial stereotypes and references to human trafficking,’ and efforts to change the script proved ‘insufficient,’ leading administrators to make plans for the song revue as well as ‘a forum featuring leading academics and practitioners’ to discuss race and theater.”

While I applaud the administrators’ intentions to contextualize the issues in the show, which librettist Dick Scanlan defended as “a deliberate political choice that (director) Michael Mayer, (composer) Jeanine (Tesori), and I made years ago to portray Asian stereotypes and then challenge them in order to bust them,” I deplore the rest of their tactics. According to Scanlon, he and the other creators were deliberately playing off and embracing stereotypes prevalent in the media of the 1920s in order to force their audiences to confront them. As I wrote in my last column, I’m a believer in challenging audiences’ assumptions and preconceptions and making them defend their beliefs, rather than comforting them.

In the Times article, Ellen Stein, one of the school’s administrators, is quoted as saying “that the school would perform a new version ‘recrafted by some members of the cast, with the playwright’s permission and generous cooperation.’” Scanlan responded “that he and the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, had approved the school’s sanitized version of ‘Millie’ and suggested some new lyrics and other ideas.”

My takeaway from that is that the “members of the community” decided that the show they’d applied for and been licensed to perform didn’t meet their personal standards for (dare I say it?) political correctness, and rewrote the “offensive” material, and then – and only then – went to the creators (and for that, they deserve credit) to ask approval, an approval that was granted to prevent the kids from being disappointed.

Now, I don’t doubt that there are plot points raised in the show that some of the kids might not appreciate, either historically or as satire. But does that mean that they have to be protected from them rather than having them explained and contextualized? I’ve mentioned one of my favorite quotes before; that “euphemizing the past excuses it.” Some might even see the logical end of this mindset is censoring any book, movie, television show, or music that has politics or characters that don’t meet with current standards. Most movies of the 20s through the 80s probably portray women in a sexist manner – and don’t even get me started on the way minority groups are represented. There are any number of songs of the 1910s and ‘20s that modern ears would find incredibly racist. Books like “Huckleberry Finn” have already been sanitized into nonsense. All of this was done in order to prevent delicate sensibilities from having to confront the sins of the past. Please note: I’m not saying none of these works can be considered unoffensive. A lot of them are, but to discard them without trying to understand the cultural mindset that created and supported them is something that I find personally offensive.

All of this goes along (as I said, tangentially) with Melissa Hillman’s blog post of earlier this week that elegantly takes to task directors and producers who take it upon themselves to rewrite the works of playwrights whose work they’ve licensed to produce, without obtaining the prior approval of those creators. I consider the case Ms. Hillman cites (Frank Galati – who is usually a very good director – taking it upon himself to rewrite Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” about which, more here…) to be different from the “Millie” case in that, with the Friel, the director chose to rewrite the play for artistic reasons (i.e., he knows better than the playwright how it should be presented) and the Dalton School changed the show to avoid giving offense.

My ultimate points are these: Firstly, if you can’t do a show without making wholesale changes, don’t produce it. If you think a show is so flawed that only your genius can rescue it, you’re probably doing the wrong show in the first place, and should write your own play that will showcase your brilliance. Or, if those ideas are burning a hole in your figurative artistic pocket, approach the writers or licensors in advance. If the alterations are as good as you think, they might go along with them. I know that when I’ve approached writers about changes or alternate versions of scripts, they’ve been very approachable and (mostly) amenable to small changes (lines, business, music cues, etc.). They haven’t always approved them, but they’ve been open to being approached. (I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with Jules Feiffer when I directed his “The White House Murder Case.” It was a political satire that didn’t need changing, but I wondered if he’d had any thoughts on it in the 35 years since he’d written it).

Secondly – and, to me, more importantly – give your audiences some credit. Don’t think they need to be protected. Challenge them. If you’re producing a show with members of minority groups who are portrayed unfortunately, help your audience understand why those portrayals exist and why you think that, in spite of the unfortunate elements, the work is still worthy of production. The only way to defeat the stereotypes is to confront and defeat them, not hide them away in fear.