Musical's lyrics cause discord

School gets complaints that some words in 'Les Miseralbes' are inappropriate

School gets complaints that some words in 'Les Miseralbes' are inappropriate

January 28, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

The curtain hasn't risen on a student production of "Les Misrables," but already its performers are fending off critics.

Williamsport High School and the Washington County Board of Education have received complaints that some words used in the musical are inappropriate for its intended audience and board officials hope to use a School Board policy to settle the score.

Students have been rehearsing for four weeks for the musical set to run April 11, 12 and 13 at Williamsport High.

Several people have complained about the language in the play and at least one has taken a form to request a hearing about the musical's content before a school-appointed committee, school officials said.


Sophomore Bryant Sigler, 15, plays the lead role of Jean Valjean, a man who steals a loaf of bread, is imprisoned and later finds redemption. Sigler said people who are complaining are only hearing the words and don't appreciate the art.

The musical's director, Ruth Ridenour, Williamsport High music department chairman and drama coach, is using a copyrighted student edition of the show, a musical based on the classic novel of the same name by 19th century French author Victor Hugo.

The student edition was designed for a cast under age 19 and released under copyright by Music Theatre International last year, Ridenour said.

It was created by shortening some scenes, lowering octaves, adjusting keys and omitting some of the more vulgar language from the original score, she said. It has since been performed by hundreds of high schools in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia, she said.

Releasing a score to amateur audiences before a Broadway musical ends its run is unprecedented, she said.

"Les Misrables" has been on Broadway for 16 years, making it the New York City theater district's longest running musical, Ridenour said.

Under copyright law, Ridenour cannot delete language or cut scenes, she said. If the language is cut from the production, the play cannot be performed, she said. The musical "Les Misrables" has no spoken parts, all words are sung.

When Ridenour found out the student version had been released she immediately signed up for the score. She prepared the students for the story by having them study its history and by taking them to professional productions.

"I explained to them that some of the characters were more rough than others," she said.

The words in question are "bitch," "bastard" and "hell."

Ridenour gave students an opportunity to back out from auditioning after telling them what language each character would use.

Junior Holly Stotelmyer, 16, who is cast in the role of Fantine, a poor girl who resorts to prostitution, said "Les Misrables" is not the first play in which she's been cast as a prostitute and also not the first time she's cursed - in "Les Misrables" she sings the word "bastard."

"It's just a word," she said. "It's a character, it's not me being a prostitute, it's Fantine saying that and I have to remember that."

Williamsport High Principal John Davidson said he began receiving calls two weeks ago from people complaining about the musical's language.

Ridenour said of those calls only one got through to her. The caller told her, "I was a terrible person and (was) encouraging the students to use foul language," she said.

By the end of that week, after a few more complaint calls, School Board officials decided the complaints needed to be handled through the Procedures for Handling Public Complaints about the Curriculum or Instructional Materials policy.

The policy, adopted in 1979, refers to questionable books within the curriculum. It states that if an objection to a book is not resolved by an informal conference with the school's principal and the involved teacher then the complainant is asked to fill out a Citizen's Request for Reconsideration of a Work.

According to the policy, the principal needs to form a committee including himself, the involved teacher, two unrelated faculty members, two students and two members of the school's citizens advisory committee to review the request. The committee would meet with the complainant to discuss its recommendations.

So far, the school system has had one person take a form to file a written request, said Patricia Abernethy, the school system's deputy superintendent for instruction. She said about three parents have called to complain.

Davidson said he was prepared to form the committee that would review the formal complaint.

If the committee's recommendations don't satisfy the person then it must forward its written recommendations to the director of supervision and curriculum for review.

Abernethy said when going over the score she found the questionable language was used infrequently.

"I have a lot of confidence in Ruth Ridenour and I am sure she would not be teaching anything detrimental to students," Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said.

Sophomore Emily Conrad, 15, said, "I feel that if we're mature enough to handle this then the audience should be mature enough to handle it."

Senior Hank Mills, 17, who is cast as Thenardier, an evil innkeeper whose character also uses some of the words in question, said "Les Misrables" will be his last high school stage performance.

Mills' theater credits include "The Wizard of Oz," "Oklahoma" and "Peter Pan," but he said the role of Thenardier has challenged him the most as an artist.

"This is something new for Hagerstown," he said. "There's a barrier that's being broken down."

Sigler passed out 500 slips of paper with "Save Les Miz" written across them last week.

"It's just acting and I'm not in this production just to say the language," he said. "I'm in it because of the story that the words tell."

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