My Teen Swears in the Name of Art

September 23, 2009 | 50 comments
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This past Spring my son took on the role of Gavroche, the young street-wise urchin, in the musical Les Miserables. His small-town Utah high school staged the performance, and they did an absolutely terrific job. From the custom-built rotating stage to the hours and hours of rehearsal and preparation, it all paid off in a series of well-received and celebrated performances. Mostly.

Redemptive Scene from Les MiserablesThere were some in the community that were offended. The musical and the book tackle mature themes. There are drunken sailors, scenes of exploitation, whores, and yes, swearing. My son approached his role with pleasure and a commitment to the integrity of the script. Perhaps too much pleasure, but I didn’t mind. It was a great performance from all involved.

There was one particularly ugly incident during an intermission when an exceedingly offended adult expressed his outrage to members of the cast in the hallway. But the students handled it well, the show must go on, and on it went. They tackled the mature themes, but they also explored the nature of law and grace, justice and mercy, love, honor, duty, sacrifice, and ultimately, redemption. It is one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, and one of the most beloved musicals of the past few decades.

I was impressed with the courage of the director and the maturity of the students. They immersed themselves in the characters and, by so doing, opened the door to deeply significant conversations between the cast, their parents, and the community. Artistic explorations have the power to touch us deeply, in ways that detached discussion about concepts cannot.

My thoughts turn back to my experiences with art, and this play in particular, with the news this week that BYU canceled a performance of The Bakkhai due to “difficult material” and an approach that “could be problematic for members of [BYU's] audience.” Part of the official statement from BYU:

“‘The Bakkhai’ itself is difficult material and the particular approach and concept for this production will be problematic for some of our audience members which we felt we would like to not have.”

That last bit saddens me. Clearly, from the late cancellation to the statements about the value of the content, both schools thought The Bakkhai a worthwhile performance. Director Larry West describes the play as “about sex, wine and losing one’s inhibition”, but “at its core [it] is about defining God.” BYU seems to be a prime location for such discussions, no?

I don’t begrudge the BYU Theatre Department for making this call, and both parties appear to be handling it well and maintaining a commitment to future productions together. In fact, it was probably a good decision – politically expedient, professionally safe.

The problem, it seems, is with our culture. A culture that prompts decisions to pull a play about topics that are relevant to students, and to us. BYU is preparing LDS students to engage the larger world, perhaps we should give it the latitude to do so?

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50 Responses to My Teen Swears in the Name of Art

  1. Wilfried on September 23, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Before judging, we should know what the problematic material contains and how it is phrased and presented. The themes and words in Les Miserables can be viewed as pretty innocent compared to what certain plays portray.

  2. Ardis E. Parshall on September 23, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    I think there is more to this story than the Fox affiliate’s brief report, which is all I’ve seen so far. Even in that report’s brevity, there are hints that the deciding factor was not the themes explored by the play, but the particular style (costuming, body movements) of that specific production. I think that matters.

    Even in your son’s high school play, the particular style of that production would matter, and you haven’t really told us about that. In that setting (a performance by kids, attended by families), it might have been enough to establish Gavroche’s street urchin persona with a few curses, and then dropping that from his speech — surely we could list many other vulgarities that would have been realistic to the character but in which the script did not indulge. Ditto with the level of realism exhibited by the drunken sailors and the prostitutes. That there was so much comment about that factors during intermission suggests to me that the actors and their director probably relished their “realism” more than necessary and may well have done more than was absolutely necessary for that setting.

    I’m not saying that all vulgarity, whether of speech, action, or appearance, needs to be removed from a production to make it suitable for a high school or even BYU — and even if you did remove those elements, the mature themes would remain the essence of the plays, and would have to be dealt with by the audience. I’m not saying that any more than I would say we need to strip all unflattering incidents from our narratives of church history. But there are ways of dealing with both types of difficulties that are enlightening, and other ways that are merely vulgar, divisive, or unenlightening. Vulgarity of any type tends to get in the way of a serious evaluation of the serious themes that are claimed for such works.

  3. Wilfried on September 23, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Well said, Ardis.

  4. brigham on September 23, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    This topic isn’t really “sensitive,” as the Admin notes, just prone to be blown out of proportion. In the big picture, whether the small group who would have sat through The Bakkhai at BYU got to is a pretty small deal. Perhaps BYU was overly sensitive, but it seems that anyone who makes a mountain of such a mole hill is also overly sensitive to the actions of BYU.

    As for the production of Les Mis, I am not sure what people expect when they go out and see a musical or a play. Certainly, I would not be surprised if a small town in Utah edited out some of the words in Les Mis, but I would also not be surprised if they performed the musical as it was written. Regardless, this again is not that big of a deal. It seems extremely wrongheaded to assume that just because a production occurs in rural Utah, that it will come off as a road show produced by Janice Kapp Perry.

    People who are upset at either extreme are more remarkable than the fact that a play or musical might be deemed offensive to some or well within the bounds of artistic license to others.

  5. queuno on September 23, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    My daughter’s middle school is doing “Beauty and the Beast” for its next musical, which has me up in arms. I mean, what’s wrong with a classic like “The Little Mermaid”?

  6. Rory Swensen on September 23, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I mean, what’s wrong with a classic like “The Little Mermaid”?

    The shells.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 23, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    When I saw Les Miz staged by a national touring company in Salt Lake, I don’t remember anything that was especially memorable in terms of offensive language, etc. I thought it was a much more emotionally and, yes, spiritually satisfying experience than, say, The Phantom of the Opera that I saw in San Francisco.

    I have never read The Bacchai, but most of the Greek dramas I’ve read or seen have pretty heavy stuff, e.g. Oedipus Rex. Incest and self-mutilation would seem to be about as bad as it can get.

  8. Ben on September 23, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I can “explore God” without “sex, wine and losing one’s inhibition” :)

    The latter phrase could be lifted verbatim from hundreds of Saturday morning Facebook posts.

  9. DavidH on September 23, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    When our ward performed Pride and Prejudice a few years ago, one of the actresses (or maybe the director) decided to Mormonize it a little by changing the script to refer to drinking “mint tea” instead of “tea”. .

    I remember many years ago in a small Mormon community where I lived during high school the mini-scandal when a prominent Latter-day Saint portrayed Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady and did not replace “d—, d—, d—-, d—, I’ve grown a accustomed to her face” with “dang, dang, dang, dang….” We got the unexpurgated version. Our seminary class talked about it, and the seminary teacher, an open minded sort (who was also my cousin) defended using the original script.

    I must admit that I was surprised when I attended BYU and went to some movies at the Varsity Theater, that words like “sh–” were not edited out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

    Many years ago, my father (and presumably many others) wrote to the Deseret News to express disappointment that racy movies were advertised in it. Not too long later, the News adopted the policy of not advertising R-rated movies. That policy was reversed a few years ago.

    I suppose the reality is that the Church, which heavily subsidizes BYU, wishes the university to avoid the “very appearance of evil”. Thus, Rodin’s nude statues are unwelcome, as well as racy productions of Greek plays.

    I do not doubt that a conservative evangelical college would have the same standards.

    Is that a bad thing? It seems kind of silly to me (but no more silly than continuing to ban beards because, 40 years ago, they were a sign of rebellion).

    On the other hand, very conservative Latter-day Saint send their children there (and the tithing of very conservative Latter-day Saints supports) the university. The notion of schools’ or colleges’ being “in loco parentis” has largely disappeared, but I think it continues for LDS schools and very conservative evangelical colleges.

    Because of the source of funding, and parental expectations, education is, as I see it, a secondary objective of such colleges. The primary objective is indoctrination in the faith of the sponsor. And, FWIW, an article I began reading yesterday indicates that Mormon and conservative evangelical colleges are quite successful at this, and Catholic and mainline Protestant colleges are not. Jonathan P. Hill, Higher Education as Moral Community: Institutional Influences on Religious Participation During College, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Sept. 2009) (p 515-534)

    In some ways, and among some groups, the controversy here may be how did BYU theater get so close to allowing performance of a play that might undermine faith or morals.

  10. Rory Swensen on September 23, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Wilfried, Ardis, Brigham, Raymond – I do my best to obscure my points, but the fact that Les Miz doesn’t have significant language (hell, damn, etc.,) is partly the point. The cast didn’t flaunt it, they were true to the script (which the contract required). But that didn’t stop the complaints, or the ugly incident in the hall.

    I read into the statements from BYU that they deemed this a worthwhile play, but the line “this production will be problematic for some of our audience members which we felt we would like to not have” is telling. BYU seems to have learned from experience that “some” members of the audience will raise a commotion that BYU “would not like to have.”

    Am I misreading this? Reading too much into it? Again, I give BYU the benefit of the doubt, and the amicable statements appear to demonstrate a willingness and desire to explore difficult questions through art. It simply appears that they made a prudent decision, although late enough in the game that it causes more controversy.

    Such news reports echo past news items such as the Rodin exhibit. They are outliers, and as such newsworthy, even if they are embarrassing.

  11. Rory Swensen on September 23, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Ardis:

    But there are ways of dealing with both types of difficulties that are enlightening, and other ways that are merely vulgar, divisive, or unenlightening. Vulgarity of any type tends to get in the way of a serious evaluation of the serious themes that are claimed for such works.

    Agreed. This is not a post advocating “anything goes”. There is a fine line, and it is not universal.

    I would only say that crossing it to the vulgar side tends to reduce the value of the work, but stripping the work of elements that are contextually appropriate can also reduce it, significantly.

    DavidH: Nice comment.

  12. Ardis E. Parshall on September 23, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Then, Rory, I go back to my single point: “this production will be problematic for some of our audience members which we felt we would like to not have” seems to me to stress the *production* — i.e., the elements (appearance, body movements, the arch looks and coy glances and word emphasis that make up inuendo and double-entendre, etc.) that are chosen by the director and displayed by the cast, rather than the themes of the play itself, that became the problem. Those issues would not have been at all apparent when BYU scheduled the play, but would have been apparent when the specific production was seen (the news reports say that it wasn’t until some who had viewed the production elsewhere brought the issue to the notice of BYU staff that the molehill became a mountain).

    *If* that is the case (and I’m trying to read between the lines as hard as you are, so I’m not insisting that my surmises are correct), then this decision doesn’t seem to me to be qualitatively different from ruling out particular contemporary dance styles at BYU dances. *If* that’s the case, then those details are not “contextually appropriate” (any more than pantomiming intercourse is contextually appropriate to social dance), but is a dispute between the artistic taste of the UofU and the known community standards of BYU.

    But no matter what the truth is, this will be played in the press as “backward BYU has done it again.” And I don’t think that’s fair.

  13. John Mansfield on September 23, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    As the article says, this program goes back to 1982. It was a pleasant surprise to read that it has continued. I recall watching a performance by this group on the BYU campus 20+ years back of The Trojan Women, and also a more traditional morning performance of Oedipus Rex in one of the canyons east of Salt Lake City. I think it started at 8 AM or maybe nine. In their first years, they said, the company commenced performances at sunrise, but that much authentiicty was more than audiences were willing to rise for.

    Looking at a plot outline of The Bacchae, it looks rougher and bawdier than most Greek tragedies. Since they’ve been able to keep up this program for a good quarter century now, the absence this year from the BYU campus will probably be a blip.

  14. Vader on September 23, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Because of the source of funding, and parental expectations, education is, as I see it, a secondary objective of such colleges. The primary objective is indoctrination in the faith of the sponsor.

    Because, of course, we all know that being educated in one’s religious faith isn’t really education. Just as character building only gets in the way of real education.

    Though, if the primary objective of BYU is indoctrination in the faith of the sponsor, it’s a [artistically expressive show of vulgarity] of an expensive way to go about it. Sunday School is vastly less expensive for the number indoctrinated. One suspects that instilling an education is not as secondary as you suggest.

  15. bbell on September 23, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I was wondering where Rory thinks the line is for doing things in the name of art. I am wondering myself. I am not sure how I would in the future handle this with my own kids.

  16. dan on September 23, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    i just avoid the problems of this type of censorship all together and go to a college other than BYU……i prefer to make my own decisions rather than have them made for me.

  17. Mark B. on September 23, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    That, Dan, is just a bit over the top. There is no suggestion, is there, that a student at BYU is not free to seek out whatever entertainment he wants, so long as he gets it elsewhere?

    BYU’s slogan is not “Enter to learn (and, by the way, once you’re here, we’re not letting you out).”

  18. queuno on September 23, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    OK, as we’re talking about language in a play, my recommendation to my daughter (she’s 12, so she presumably/hopefully has a few more productions between now and high school) are that if it’s used in the same context in the Bible, it’s OK.

    I’m OK with H- and D-. F-, S-, and A- (not as a donkey), I’d suggest she stay away from.

    The interesting thing is that within the larger community of the school district my children (and bbell’s) attend, my stance is probably pretty more liberal than that of the other parents. I don’t think I have to worry that much.

  19. brigham on September 23, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Dan, I do not think it is as simple as having choices made for you. No college or university can show everything, just a matter of scarcity of time and funding. At some level, every school will choose what to show and not to show. You cannot escape it. I grant you that most schools choose to promote different values than those promoted by BYU. For example, they might be more concerned with being politically correct or not appearing too prudish whereas BYU does not want actors running around scantly clad. I guess the real question is whether you agree with the lens that those in charge use to deem one thing worthwhile and another thing not so much.

    And Rory, as for BYU dealing with complaints, that is a factor for all schools. It may go on more at BYU and more of those complaints might be based on moral judgments. That would not surprise me at all. However, for BYU to ignore its audience just does not make sense from a PR perspective. This is something that BYU–or any other school for that matter–cannot afford to take too lightly. What is unfortunate in my mind is that BYU did not know it would pull the trigger until the day of the show. That is why it is news.

  20. SCW on September 23, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I for one am offended by the Cougarettes and the BYU cheerleaders. I mean, really, those boy cheerleader tight shirts leave nothing to the imagination.

  21. Kari on September 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Because, of course, we all know that being educated in one’s religious faith isn’t really education.

    A truer statement I’ve never seen.

  22. dan on September 23, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I think the point about my BYU comment (and the original post) is being completely overlooked here. There might have been a few parents who simply couldn’t handle a few swear words and the suggestion of prostitution……but in the end 99% of people left as a better person,
    “They immersed themselves in the characters and, by so doing, opened the door to deeply significant conversations between the cast, their parents, and the community.”
    I understand why BYU needs to play it safe with these decisions simply to do there best to keep the few that make a big stink happy campers.
    Mark, the reason I go to college is so I don’t have to go “elsewhere”. I also believe that the arts aren’t simply a form of entertainment. It is a vital part of ones education not only in college but in life.
    What does the sign say out front of BYU….”The Campus is Our World”? :)

  23. Kari on September 23, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    I don’t begrudge the BYU Theatre Department for making this call, and both parties appear to be handling it well and maintaining a commitment to future productions together. In fact, it was probably a good decision – politically expedient, professionally safe.

    Did the Theatre Department really make the call? Was the decision made at a higher level? I don’t know enough of the details.

    The issue, as I see it is similar to what Ardis is saying. It isn’t that BYU is being castigated for deciding not to show this play, it’s the fact that it’s been planned for months, tickets sold, and then canceled at the last moment. Is that because there were issues with the production style of those UofU heathens, as Ardis suggests? Is it because the initial decision was made by the theatre department, but then nixed by those higher in the administration, or possibly a general authority? Unfortunately the brief statement doesn’t really get to the nitty gritty.

    If the initial decision to show, and then pull, the play was all generated within the theatre department, shouldn’t those making the decision have attended some rehearsals at the U months ago to ensure that BYU “production standards” were being met? If the decision to pull the show was made at a higher level then I find it problematic that BYU doesn’t trust its faculty enough to allow such decisions to go forward.

    No matter how I look at it, BYU comes off as looking either incompetent or naive, and possibly a little of both.

  24. queuno on September 23, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Somehow, none of this mattered in the engineering and science departments when I was at BYU.

    And the Spanish department was one of the most *liberal*, *open-minded* departments on campus. Oh wait, they didn’t speak English.

  25. queuno on September 23, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Is it because the initial decision was made by the theatre department, but then nixed by those higher in the administration, or possibly a general authority?

    No matter how I look at it, BYU comes off as looking either incompetent or naive, and possibly a little of both.

    You’re assuming this fiasco shouldn’t be blamed on the faculty/department. Perhaps the administration had very clear standards for the Theatre Department and then found at the last minute that they were deceived? Giving trust to faculty goes both ways, and perhaps the deception and blame is theirs…

    If that is the case, then BYU should be applauded.

  26. Alison Moore Smith on September 23, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Thank you, Ardis.

    I see a debate based on the haystack fallacy coming on. Or maybe it’s already here. Reminds me of the uproar when Larry Miller wouldn’t show Brokeback Mountain.

    Of course judgement calls are fuzzy. Frankly, I like having a place I can attend shows knowing someone was willing to make a decision anyway.

    I have seen “realistic” performances of Les Miz (in West Palm Beach), with the prostitutes and johns groping openly on stage. Come to think of it, I saw the same thing in Die Fledermaus (London).

    This happens in real life. I hope the high school gave the audience the “latitude” to “explore” this element of the real world.

    The problem, it seems, is with our culture. A culture that prompts decisions to pull a play about topics that are relevant to students, and to us. BYU is preparing LDS students to engage the larger world, perhaps we should give it the latitude to do so?

    In other reports of this, officials from both schools — as well as the director — said they thought it was a good decision. They also emphasized the fact that the presentation of this particular play wasn’t standard. Apparently the director’s particular choices put this play over the top for the chairman — who, I dunno, probably didn’t divine the director’s particular choices before they were made.

    Sorry, I just think there’s a huge difference between a sheltered, prudish school that needs to be more “open-minded” and a school that is aware of what they represent and are careful about things they sponsor.

    I mean you only have to drive about 5 minutes to UVU if you really need to watch The Vagina Monologues.

    …Mormonize it a little by changing the script to refer to drinking “mint tea” instead of “tea”. .

    My kids were in a Broadway Review where the director changed the lyrics of “Hernando’s Hideway” to say, “…a glass of juice, a fast embrace.” I nearly fell off the chair.

  27. jimbob on September 23, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    On a (un)related note, I’ve been trying to get my somewhat conservative local community to stage the play “Equus,” with me as lead of course, for some time now. I keep telling them I’ll cut out most of the swearing, but they just won’t agree. Maybe they just don’t like horses.

  28. dan on September 23, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    LOL. jimbob, that’s hilarious.

  29. Kent Larsen on September 23, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I agree with Karl (24) and others that it is frustrating that BYU seems to regularly make these decisions at the last moment. The Rodin decision also came very late — after the exhibit had already arrived at BYU. As I’ve looked at BYU in the more than 20 years since I graduated, these late decisions seem to come with alarming regularity.

    I’m sure a great part of this can be chalked up the the difference in what is acceptable in the LDS culture that exists in Provo, and what is seen in the rest of the world. In my view both extremes are wrong. I can’t accept the knee-jerk viewpoint of too many LDS Church members that any display of sin, no matter how minor, means that an entire work of art must be avoided. I don’t think that the baby must be thrown out with the bathwater.

    If you don’t think this happens, check out the exchange I had earlier this year on the Jer3miah forum about whether one scene out of the entire work kept it from being “LDS clean.” In fact, the way the character dressed in that scene (the subject of the objection) was necessary for the role.

    Of course, I also recognize that much in the broader U.S. culture goes overboard the other way. So I may simply be saying that I think LDS culture is overly reactionary to the excesses of U.S. culture. Or even that my own view of these issues is more moderate than the norm in Utah and other sectors of the LDS experience. I don’t know.

    But I do think that too often we over-reach, and in doing so deprive ourselves of much that is good, and in the process alienate LDS culture from the rest of our culture (I can’t say in the case of this production of The Bakkai if there is enough good in this production of the play to justify seeing it — don’t have enough details). I do think that was the case with the Rodin exhibit, and with other BYU situations. Particularly disturbing is that the LDS community seems to occasionally produce works that are “LDS clean” but in other respects morally questionable.

    If nothing else, BYU should look at how and why they seem to regularly miss these situations and end up canceling and modifying shows at the last minute.

    But what is more worrying is, IMO, the tendency of our culture to make decisions of value based solely on issues of sex, nudity and other portrayals of evil often without balancing the other values in a work, many of which our community desperately needs to hear.

  30. queuno on September 23, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    The dilemma is that BYU can’t afford to tick off donors to the football program.

  31. John on September 23, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Les Miz is a work of art of the highest order. Well, the novel is. But the musical did an excellent job of bringing what I would consider to be the most inspired work of secular literature to a mainstream audience. That anybody would be so offended by it to argue in the hall of the theater is sick.
    Ignore the justice-mercy dichotomy personified by Javert and Valjean. Ignore the fact that Valjean literally descends into a Hell of sorts to save another soul, an obvious symbol of the Atonement, though probably not intentional. Ignore about 99% of the musical that is good and noble because someone says a few minor swear words and there is a depiction of prostitution, an unfortunate reality in our world.

    Can’t believe it. Yet, how many Mormons are reading Twilight? Not that I have any moral objections to it, but as a work of art it is pathetic. When Mormons want good art, they’ll find that it is already there waiting for them if they’d simply get over themselves.

  32. Martin on September 23, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    This is a funny topic. In a high school talent show, I was in a dixieland band where we started our performance with a little sketch. I started off being a drunk, and ended up a soloist. I was thrilled because I thought I’d played really well, but when I asked my mom what she thought, she said “my son, the drunk.” Gee, mom, you came to see what all those music lessons bought you, and that’s all you got?

    Don’t feel bad for me, ’cause it didn’t bother me in the least, but I think it’s funny how everybody looks at the world through different glasses.

    As for what one is willing to do onstage, I think that all depends on what you personalize. There are a lot of things I’d be willing to do to create a character in a worthy story. However, I couldn’t use the f*word (for some reason I find it just foul), and I could never use the Savior’s name in vain. I just couldn’t. And yet, I think 95% of LDS would find those less offensive than what I would be willing to do.

  33. pauli on September 23, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I remember watching the U’s production of Trojan Women, at BYU, and the choreo-choral improvisations reminded me of that Addicted to Love video by R. Palmer. And they–the chorus–were, of course, addicted to love. BUT, I was not tempted, by watching that choral/odal improv, to do anything whatever afterward, of a naughty nature. I suppose if I had done something naughty, I deserved to have done it, so to speak, so weak-willed would I have been; i.e. deserving of punishment. Surely whatever improvisational latitude taken by this director, would not tempt the women in the audience to tear into small pieces, the next impious pentheustic man they meet. (Though tearing a man into small meaty bits does seem umbrally sacramental.) One does wish BYU would grow up, just a bit. If an institution’s conduct is contrained by the “now how can we avoid offending anyone at all” standard, well, we wouldn’t have the restoration, or polygamy. (Not a good example.) One easily imagines, “Wasn’t Dionysus a god of wine?” complaint.

    At any rate, I think Tiresias suggests somewhere in the play, “Stubborn-minded narrowness is not conducive to genuine worship” or some such thing. BYU needs a metaphorical Dionysian swig.

  34. Kari on September 23, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    You’re assuming this fiasco shouldn’t be blamed on the faculty/department. Perhaps the administration had very clear standards for the Theatre Department and then found at the last minute that they were deceived?

    That is certainly a possibility, and would fall into the naive category. I would certainly think that all those good republicans in the administration of BYU (and the church for that matter) would be very familiar with the Reagan mantra, “trust, but verify.” ;)

    Amen, Kent (#30). I lay the blame clearly at the feet of the “don’t see R-rated movies” rigid stance that certain leaders, and many members have adopted. It seems to me that Mormons seem to have lost the ability to think for themselves when it comes to judging a work of art as valuable or not because of this rigid stance that anything intended for an adult audience (and not for children) is explicitly evil.

  35. Kaimi Wenger on September 24, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Nice discussion, Rory.

    I don’t recall much swearing in Gavroche’s part in the musical, other than a rather prominent “what the hell” in one line. It is interesting how our culture puts these issues under a microscope.

    One funny story — I attended a fireside several years ago where the musical number was Javert’s “Stars” and the speaker discussion was along the lines of all of the great wisdom in that song. (The song is, of course, intended as an illustration of Javert’s overly inflexible approach to life — he sees life as too black-and-white, and that rigidity destroys him.)

  36. John on September 24, 2009 at 6:56 am

    Lez Miz is one of the best and most powerful plays ever to come along. Its hold on Mormons I know is intoxicating. Our stake president has taken his family to see it multiple times in multiple cities in the world. The first night I saw it on Broadway a girl from BYU was in the cast. That said, it’s going to be a long, long time before certain institutions and certain individuals will ever be mature enough to handle it. All I can say is thank heavens I am free to make informed judgments and informed decisions. And yes, I accept all responsibility attached to those decisions.

  37. John Mansfield on September 24, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Here’s an example of this kind of thing in a different direction. Our local high school did a play that included a gun in the plot. When the gun appeared, however, the role was performed by what I think was a wallet. Definitely not a gun, as—unlike some police who have shot people wielding wallets—I had many long seconds to see the object that the actors were calling a gun and think, “That’s not a gun.”

    My guess is the school has a rule against guns and objects that appear to be guns, and theatrical productions are no exception.

  38. The Only True and Living Nathan on September 24, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    And whoever had #32 in the “gratuitous snipe at Twilight” pool, come and collect your winnings.

  39. Patrick on September 25, 2009 at 1:34 am

    (As I got ready to post this, I realized that I had written waaaay too much. Oh, well…I guess this topic touched a nerve!)

    Sometimes I think we forget that “artistic choice” is exactly that: choice. Unfortunately, many in the arts community believe that the only “worthwhile” art is that which shocks or offends.

    I have been very active in theater my entire life, and as an active LDS have sometimes had to make hard choices. One year I appeared in a principal role in a community theater production of “Pirates of Penzance.” The next year they put on “Chicago,” which has great music, and was an extremely popular show. I was encouraged to audition for the role of Amos Hart, who is probably the most “moral” character in the show, and has a great song to boot, “Mr. Cellophane”. But I chose not to audition, as I was not comfortable with the show’s emphasis. The following year I was back on stage, in the chorus for “The Music Man.” My personal barometer for whether I will participate in a show is whether I would want my mother to see me in it.

    The language issue is a difficult one for the LDS actor. Many years ago I played the role of one of the gangsters in “Kiss Me Kate.” My character had a line which included a mild (by worldly standards) expletive. I couldn’t change the line, but I chose to play it in a way that emphasized that I was really just repeating what had been said by another character. Perhaps it was splitting hairs, but it made me more comfortable delivering the line.

    Rory noted something in #11 that many outside the theater community are unaware of: you can’t just go and change words in a script that you don’t like. When you rent a show from MTI or one of the other houses, you sign a contract that obligates you to present the show *as written*. If you aren’t willing to abide by that, you need to rent a different show. On rare occasions you may get permission from the playwright to make specific changes – but those are very few and far between. As others have noted, too often show selection is left up to a director, with little or no review by those who are ultimately responsible for what is produced. Often it is not until he very last minute that they become aware of what is being presented, and have to make a painful choice. Administrators need to recognize that they cannot entirely delegate the job of show selection unless they are also willing to delegate the decision to produce the show.

    Personally, I would just as soon see middle and high schools stick to “classic,” family-friendly shows, which provide ample opportunities for kids to develop their skills and gain experience. Leave the “edgy” and “avant garde” works for college – they’ll have plenty of opportunities there. I’m guessing that the production of “Les Miz” in which Rory’s son appeared was the “Student Edition” – which softens the language, shortens the script, and adjusts the vocal ranges to suit kids of that age. So it’s unlikely that any of the language was all that rough.

    The director has a lot of latitude in deciding how the cast play their roles. If parents aren’t comfortable with a high school director’s creative choices, I think they should find a way to make that known, while still expressing support for the program. They can encourage the director to take the community’s sensitivities into account without being negative or confrontational.

  40. John Mansfield on September 25, 2009 at 9:25 am

    From Inside Higher Ed: “Worried About Guns? Ban a Campus Musical.”

    Morris has taught and directed student productions for 26 years at Arkansas Tech. Asked if she had ever called off a show previously, she said, her voice breaking, “never—including the show that opened the week my husband passed away.” Even facing a personal loss, she said, “theater people” wouldn’t call off a production. “It’s just not what we do. Theater is who we are—it’s how we view the world and realize ourselves as people.”

    It’s nice that Mrs. Morris feels so attached to her profession, but this somewhat unbalanced view of life mean the opinions of “theater people” can only be given so much weight.

  41. Maren on September 25, 2009 at 10:16 am

    I could go on for a long time, this is really a pet peeve of mine, but I just think that it is crazy how people examine things. I find the way we decide what things are worthy, and what things are not, mind blowing. For instance, #36′s example. Singing Stars at a fireside. Classic, Classic. Let’s just hope that they forget that later in the show these same principles send this man to suicide.
    And number 40, yes, I give you that Chicago is in no way a clean show. I can understand why a person may not want to be in it. But sometimes, we seem to think other shows are pure and wonderful, when they are not. Pirates? People kidnapping women and plotting murder, an old woman lying to a naive boy, good clean, family fun. (Don’t misunderstand, I pretty much love all musicals. I just hate how some things can be viewed as okay while others are bad.)
    And the Music Man, one of my personal favorite oxymoron’s. Done by my stake as a child, so obviously a clean, family show, all about a con artist who swindles an entire town because of his lies, and in the end, he says a quick apology, and still gets the love of the town, and the girl! Family values, I tell you.

  42. Matt on September 25, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    #36 the bit about “Stars” is hilarious. Like people who play “Born in the U.S.A.” at patriotic occasions.

    #40 your point about making views known to a director is a good one. I remember when my sister was playing a “hot box dancer” in the h.s. production of “Guys and Dolls.” The proposed costumes were strapless and pretty immodest, and at the risk of ridicule my sister and mother made it clear that that would not be OK. I think there was lots of eye-rolling but the costume design did get changed – and I’m sure the show was none the worse for it.

    One other funny story – in my ward growing up there was a beloved convert member who liked to be in the road shows and other productions. But he had a penchant for letting slip a few choice words when he forgot his lines. So one year, the wonderful writer of our road shows gave his character a loud air horn that he wore on his belt, which he could blast over some intentional “inappropriate language” as well as the accidental. It’s an image that no one in attendance will forget!

  43. Alison Moore Smith on September 25, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    I can’t say in the case of this production of The Bakkai if there is enough good in this production of the play to justify seeing it — don’t have enough details.

    Kent, the problem I have with this is that we aren’t discussing whether or not you could/should/would SEE the show. You’ll note that the students were directed where and when they could see it in SLC if they chose. We are talking about BYU SPONSORING a particular show.

    A few years ago we took our family to SLC to see Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus in the former Delta Center. We were on the third row and President Monson (then counselor) was on the second (in his suit). When the Vegas-style dancing girls circled the entire performing area and came right to the edge of the seats, I glanced over to see what President Monson would do. He was just staring slightly up and straight ahead. Didn’t move until they were gone.

    Apparently even he thought the “good” of the show outweighed the skanky girls high-kicking. But do you think we’re going to see a similar show in the Conference Center anytime soon?

    Anyway, I wonder at all the angst about where any particular person draws the line. Personally, I love Les Miz, but could do without onstage, under-costume fondling in the touring companies I saw. I love the music from Baby but find some of the scenes problematic enough that I didn’t audition–even when I was pregnant. I have been known to tell dance/theater directors that my kids weren’t going to wear the assigned costumes. And we actually don’t see any R-rated movies unless they are edited–even if the “message is really good”–just because of a few particular prophetic statements that nudged us that way.

    Your decisions may well be different, but I don’t think mocking those whose lines are more conservative proves a point.

    As for BYU, yea, I’m glad that someone actually looks at the events, productions, exhibits that a church-owned university sponsors and makes a moral decision about them. Even if the decision is more/less rigid than mine would be. When I’m the chairman of that department, I guess I’ll get to have it exactly like I want it.

  44. Mark B. on September 25, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Missing the irony is not limited to Broadway showtunes. Haven’t you ever heard anybody quote “Search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life . . . ” as a positive statement in support of studying the holy writ? Have you ever done it yourself?

  45. Ardis Parshall on September 25, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Mark B., I’m too busy eating, drinking, and being merry.

  46. Matt on September 25, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    I should add, the first time I saw Les Miz (during its original run) happened to be the day of my missionary farewell. I don’t remember any groping thank goodness, but I do remember an emotional, transformative experience.

  47. Patrick on September 26, 2009 at 1:49 am

    I guess the point I was trying to make with my examples (Penzance, Chicago, The Music Man, Kiss Me Kate) is that I see a big difference between caricatures of evil (G&S’ comic pirates, Prof. Harold Hill, or the bumbling gangsters in Kiss Me Kate) and the attempt to “authentically” portray evil (such as the “fondling” Alison observed in the touring production of Les Miz, or the costuming and language of Chicago). Every director exercises choices in how a show is played; I prefer those who trust the audience to “get it” without having to be explicit in their portrayal. Sometimes that also means passing on scripts that beat the audience over the head with edgy dialogue or questionable messages.

    I don’t believe there are so few quality shows out there that we (LDS) should have to feel in any way deprived if we miss seeing (or being in) the ones that conflict with our standards, no matter how “popular” they may be.

  48. Latter-day Guy on September 26, 2009 at 3:27 am

    Haven’t had time to read all the comments, but I think that the issue may not be really about content per se. Almost every BYU theater production––from experimental, student-produced plays on up to the yearly opera––ends up being the subject of a number of angry communiques (usually heavily peppered with the words “shocked!” and “appalled!” and evincing horror at the thought of such naughtiness occurring “at the LORD’S university!”). It really doesn’t matter how innocuous a production may be, somebody’s going to get their knickers in a twist. A piece of theater like the Bakkhai, with some legitimately edgy material, would have seen the theater professors drowned in a flood of righteous indignation expressed IN ALL CAPS, AND WITH SUPERFLUOUS PUNCTUATION!!!!1!11!!! The play (given the time of its sole performance) wouldn’t have been seen by many, and so probably wouldn’t justify the ensuing headache. (Most of the letter-writers, observing longstanding BYU tradition, would not have actually seen the play, but would write anyway. Perhaps this is somehow related to LDS vicarious rituals––proxy offense?)

    Anyhow, it was a bummer, because I wanted to see it. The last UofU Greek production I attended was years ago: Oedipus at Colonus… it sucked… alot.

  49. Mark Brown on September 27, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post and comments. While I agree that a community has the right to set its own standards, I’d like to offer a different perspective that I think is at least plausible.

    As long as we are splitting hairs with the words of the statement, I want to focus on this: “…would be problematic for some of the audience members…”

    To be aware of the needs of the weakest of the saints is an honorable thing, but I don’t think that is what is going on here. I imagine that the people who objected don’t see themselves as the weakest in the community. I think it is far more likely that they see themselves as the strongest, and the last line of defense against an oncoming tide of worldliness. I base my assumption on two facts. First, Pres. Samuelson himself has remarked that the thing that surpised him the most about being BYU president is that fact that he gets so many complaints that that BYU isn’t conservative enough. There are apparently lots of parents out there who are not shy about letting the president know that they don’t appreciate him allowing their young people to be corrupted by the worldliness that is rampant in Provo. We must also bear in mind that this is a community which, in recent memory, banned a Rodin sculpture, and the situation literally required the president of the church himself to intervene and allow the sculpture back on campus. That is nothing to be proud of, but I see no evidence at all — none, whatsoever — that we have grown up at all since that time.

    I’m friends with a woman who teaches English in a suburban Salt Lake high school. She told me that when the class was reading Shakespeare aloud, several of her pupils objected to saying God, and wanted to be able to say Heavenly Father instead. (Try to fit that into iambic pentameter.) She had to let them because the administration didn’t want to be accused of promoting atheism or secular humanism or whatever.

    Again, I don’t object to a community setting whatever standards it wants to. But I think a community needs to be careful of how much it lets the squeaky wheels dictate to the rest of the group. We also need to be careful about assigning our personal tastes an honored place in the everlasting gospel. Community standards are temporary standards that can change tomorrow. Bear in mind that Brigham Young warned the saints about the carnal effects of the waltz. Dancing in 3/4 time was the 1860s equivalent of freak dancing.