Play raises few eyebrows across nation

April 07, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

It's not exactly "Banned in Boston," but a student adaptation of the play "Les Misrables" was "Censored in Salt Lake City."

The musical went on, but with several alterations, said Matt Ulmer, the choral director at Evergreen Junior High School in Salt Lake City.

In all spots, prostitutes became "lovely ladies." "Bitch" was switched to "witch." "Bastard" became "scoundrel" in some places and "fellow" in others.


"Hell" was left alone, Ulmer said, "because it's a place."

Watering down the language saved the show.

"We have a superconservative group around here, (but) they didn't stop us from going on," Ulmer said.

Hundreds of schools across the country picked "Les Misrables" as their spring musical this year. It's the first time a play has run simultaneously on Broadway and on school stages, according to Music Theatre International, the New York City company that created the student version.

Williamsport High School is among the hundreds. The school's Thaylian Players and Sophisti'Cats' performed "Les Misrables" last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The last two shows will be Friday and Saturday.

"Les Misrables" is based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel. Hugo wrote about Jean Valjean, who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Hugo explored justice, desperation and redemption against a backdrop of 19th-century revolution and prostitution in France.

From those rough times came rough language.

But Music Theatre International adapted the musical for length and vocal range, not content, said Tim McDonald, the director of creative development.

"While the language is strong, I wouldn't put it past the PG rating," he said.

McDonald said there was no interest in removing off-color words, such as "slut," "whore," or the S word that rhymes with "spit" in the "Master of the House" scene.

"It wasn't for us to decide what was appropriate for communities across America," he said.

Out of 400 to 500 productions licensed to schools across the country since last June, the company has heard of fewer than 10 complaints, McDonald said. Most were on religious grounds because the innkeeper Thenardier exclaims "Jesus! Won't I skin you to the bone!" and similar lines.

A handful of people called the Washington County Board of Education a few months ago to question the language in "Les Misrables."

Amy Myers, whose grandson is in the play, filed a written complaint and asked to halt the play. She said the language and the play's message are unwholesome.

A school district committee ruled that the show could go on.

National media have run accounts of the controversy.

Myers and three other women stood outside the school opening night with protest signs. Myers plans to protest at each show.

She said the school district never explained why children can't use bad language during school hours, but can in a play.

Deputy Superintendent Patricia Abernethy said teachers and principals "correct" students who use bad language, which usually works.

Those are situations in which "students are speaking for themselves," Abernethy said. "In a play, the child is in character."

Under federal copyright law, it's illegal for schools to alter "Les Misrables." Yet, some do.

The Salt Lake City drama club replaced several rough words and changed "God" to "Dieu," the French equivalent.

In another state, a director who did not wish to be identified because of copyright concerns said his actors pronounced "bastard" as "bostard" and "Jesus" as "Jeez." The cast let out "a party howl" in place of the word "bitch."

"We cleaned it up without cleaning it up," the director said.

"You always have to doctor it up to make it school-appropriate," the assistant director said.

There was no such cleansing at Rawlins High School in Rawlins, Wyo.

"I took it word for word from the producer," said Ray Behlinger, the vocal music director. No one complained.

In spring 2002, Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville, N.Y., was the first school in the country to perform the student version of "Les Misrables," McDonald said. Cameron Mackintosh, who produced and Broadway and London versions, observed to see if the musical could be performed by high school students.

"We don't censor anything in my school," said Jim Hoare, the chairman of Holy Trinity's performing arts department, who helped work on the adaptation. Every word was preserved. Again, no one complained.

"It would be very presumptuous of me to think I have the right to change another artist's words," Hoare said, comparing that to covering the genitals on Michelangelo's "David."

After working with Mackintosh, Hoare thinks the producer wouldn't mind if schools change the S word that "rhymes with spit."

"But why would you want to?" he said. "It's a good Anglo-Saxon word."

John Lopez, director of the Dionysians theater troupe at Clayton A. Bouton High School in Voorheesville, N.Y., turned that word into "twit."

"The rest of the dialogue I left intact. It is integral," he said.

"I was less concerned with copyright than with not being able to tell a story," Lopez said. "It loses some of the shock effect."

Thenardier is a "crusty, disgusting character" who would speak the words he's given, Hoare said. That's the point.

People who fixate on bad words ignore the context and the musical's message against violence and prostitution, Lopez said.

"The story is about redemption and everyone saying you can't be more than you are," he said. "At school, we're trying to show how that's not true, how you have more potential inside of you than anybody thinks."

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