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Pyle: In Utah, too, the show must go on

Published January 4, 2013 5:37 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In my senior year of high school, the drama, music and art students worked long and hard to put on a pretty darn good production of "South Pacific."

I had absolutely nothing to do with it, other than to attend one performance. Later, I married part of its history, one of the set painters who made palm trees, Quonset huts and jeeps for the stage.

As with most true works of art, controversy ensued.

There was, rumor had it, a lot of pressure put on the faculty director and student actors to squelch a couple of lines as inappropriate for a high school production.

As when Bloody Mary calls the sailors who refuse to buy her island trinkets "stingy bastards." Or when the frazzled Navy commander of the island base, played by a friend of mine, tells his executive officer that there's a bottle of scotch (or some other kind of liquor, I really don't remember) in his desk drawer if he ever feels the need. The night I was in the audience, at least, the lines were delivered as written.

One part that was left out that night was a bit that was among the more controversial aspects of the play ever since Rodgers and Hammerstein opened it on Broadway in 1949. It was the song "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," sung by young hero Lt. Cable.

It is a powerful work, lamenting the poison of racism, and how it is taught, not inborn. In Cable's case, that means that, if he were to marry the beautiful (and, in this case, heavily shoe-polished) island girl he has fallen in love with, there is no way his proper American family would accept her. Or him.

It is a sticky plot point that R&H skillfully avoid resolving by (Spoiler Alert!) killing the poor bastard late in Act II.

Conflicting rumors at the time held that the song was cut because it was too much of a downer, too controversial or just because, as Opening Night approached, it was determined that the young actor involved just didn't have the pipes for it. My bet: All of the above.

That was almost (cough) years ago, and the maddeningly unfounded concerns that art might offend the tender sensibilities of high school students or, much more accurately, their parents, live on.

Last week, it was reported that the Jordan School District had caved to the incredible pressure applied by one anonymous "community member" who had objected to the planned, and well into rehearsals, production of a pleasing trifle called "All Shook Up" at Harriman High School.

Something to do with teenage lust. Or cross-dressing. Or blaspheming the blessed name of Elvis. They never did really tell us.

Then we were told that the show will go on, with some appropriate edits. Good.

Because a good full-bore Broadway musical is one of the best things a high school can offer. Music. Dance. Singing. Speaking. Painting. Sewing. Advertising. Posters. Lights. Sound. And, sometimes, grassroots lobbying and a useful reminder that grown-ups can be such babies sometimes.

It is, I would argue, superior to the scholastic activity that gets the most attention — sports — because the point is for everyone to win.

And, directly or peripherally, it offers the most important human endeavor there is: Putting yourself in the shoes, in the thoughts, in the emotions, of another human being.

That's what good storytelling — novels, drama, film, narrative non-fiction — does. It teaches empathy, which the world is far too short on.

It's what the people who protest against art lack. It's what the administrators and elected officials who cave in to those protests need. It's what those who are afraid of art really, really need.

Break a leg, guys.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is on the Hutchinson (Kansas) High School Wall of Honor, entirely for things he did after high school. gpyle@sltrib.com