To say that Newman University’s production of the musical Legally Blonde was performed with its book and lyrics intact this past Saturday and Sunday would seem to be a wholly unremarkable event. But because that wasn’t the case at Thursday and Friday’s shows, the fidelity of the latter two performances is rather more intriguing. How did a university production suddenly shift away from censorship halfway through a four performance run? How, to paraphrase a lyric from The Producers, did Legally Blonde go right?
* * *
Newman University in Wichita, Kansas is a Catholic school with an undergraduate enrollment of 2,795, according to data from the U.S. News and World Report online rankings. It was founded by a religious order, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ as a women’s college in 1933, becoming co-ed in 1965.
The theater program at Newman is in just its fourth year. It was only in 2013 that students could declare as theatre majors, and the program currently has 18 majors and 12 minors. The school boasts two theatres and the theatre program produces four shows each year. Past productions include Lend Me A Tenor, Iphigenia in Aulis and in Taurus, Measure For Measure, and this fall’s Buried Child. Director of Theatre Mark Manette notes that there have been some rumblings about the content of some of the department’s productions in the past, including sexual content in Tenor and Pippin, citing one 2012 letter to the school newspaper saying that the school was producing plays with “a heaping helping of sexual innuendo.”
In announcing Legally Blonde, Manette felt he was choosing a mainstream, modern show for his students, aware that it is one of the most popular musicals in high school theatre. Save for making some very minor script emendations – “god damn” is a problem at a faith-based university, for example – the show went into rehearsals using the script as written. In the words of senior C.L. Smet, a theatre major who was cast as Paulette, “There were very light hints of censorship early on, but only the type of things that we are used to. In most shows we are asked to take out all instances of using the lord’s name in vain because we go to a Catholic university.”
* * *
Manette’s purview over the theatre department does not require him to submit his play selection for approval to the university. But with rehearsals underway, he was called to the Provost’s office on November 6, in order to address rumors that had begun to swirl about the content of Legally Blonde.
“When I was called into the office I was told that our production featured live masturbation, drug use, and two guys kissing,” said Manette. “My response was that the show features none of these things. But the seed of the rumors could be traced to the two changed lines: ‘Masturbatory emissions’ and ‘Get you high and laid’.”
Although Manette clarified the show’s content, he was still asked to make changes to the script. “I was told that I had to make the changes or else,” said Manette. “I did send a letter to the Provost stating that I had signed a contract not to make any changes to the script. He took that up the ladder, so to speak, and told me to go forward with making changes.”
According to Smet, “Nothing seemed weird until a few days before tech week started, when individual cast members started being pulled aside and told that we had to change lines. For instance, my line ‘What’s she got that you don’t got, three tits?’ had to be changed to ‘three boobs’ this was a very minor change compared to many others but was still frustrating and unnecessary right before tech week. We were told by our director, music director, and the head of our department that these changes were from the administration directly. We were told that several higher-ups…were lodging complaints about the content.”
“We were also told repeatedly not to raise hell about the issue, because if we were to dig too deep we might cause more harm than good,” Smet related. “Obviously, however, we decided to pursue the matter. I was one of the loudest about my disappointment with the administration. I attempted to have a meeting with the President of our college. However, when I told them it was regarding Legally Blonde censorship, I was told she ‘didn’t speak to students,’ which I find very hard to believe. Many other students were confused and bothered by the censorship. A few of them were willing to just lay low and let it pass, but most of my fellow theatre majors saw the utter illegality of the changes and wanted to do something to help. Apart from the legal issues, many students were just sad that at the college level we were expected to perform a watered-down play, as if the world would end if somebody say “masturbate” on stage. It was a very frustrating and confusing time for everybody involved.”
* * *
On the evening of the first performance, the school newspaper, The Vantage, published its weekly print edition with a lead story on the censorship of the Legally Blonde text. The story was assigned by the paper’s editor-in-chief, senior Matt Riedl – who happened to be a member of the Legally Blonde ensemble.
“It was my decision as editor-in-chief to pursue the story,” said Riedl. “It wasn’t something that was being brought out by the administration. We thought it was our responsibility. Every viewpoint can be voiced. There had been a few voices that had been pro-censorship, but we thought it was important that every viewpoint be represented.”
The story by Delaney Hiegert, ran with the headline “Legally Blonde Censorship Rankles Cast Members,” as well as a subheadline, “Illegally Changed?” It cited Provost Michael Austin confirming that the show would be a censored version.
There were at least six lyric changes to the musical, as well as multiple dialogue changes, in order to make the play more appropriate for all audiences, he said. The changes involved taking out any sexually derogatory remarks, references to sex and drugs, any use of the word “Christ,” and most all cursing.
For instance, Elle Woods’ line “masturbatory emissions” has been changed to “accidental emissions,” and Professor Callahan’s line, “Get you high and laid,” has been changed to “Get you entertained.”
“When we do plays, we are inviting not just the campus, but the community to come watch,” said Austin. “We have to be very careful to represent the values of the institution.”
The Vantage article spoke not only to the changes to Blonde, but the greater potential impact of the censorship on the theatre program. Quoting freshman Trevor Farney:
“I loved being a part of Buried Child. I love the directors and the people I’ve gotten to work with,” Farney said. “But I don’t want to act in something that’s just going to be a watered-down version of what it should be. In Legally Blonde, the censorship is annoying but it doesn’t hurt the production that much. But if the censorship continues, I don’t even know if I’d want to stay in the program. And that’s a shame.”
The Vantage story made the alteration of the Blonde script a campus-wide issue. Riedl cited that the piece received 1500 page views on the paper’s website, in contrast to the prior month’s top story, which had only 700. He noticed that in some places, in particular the theatre’s lobby, someone had flipped the papers upside down in their racks, so that the headline wouldn’t show. He said that his girlfriend reported sitting in the theatre pre-show and watched as many people read the paper’s front page.
“The article in the Vantage was huge,” said Smet. “It had a massive impact around campus and the entire Wichita theatre community. The outpouring of support was awesome, and it encouraged the cast to continue fighting.”
* * *
The first two performances of Legally Blonde at Newman contained the mandated cuts and substitutions imposed by the administration. But C.L. Smet says that change was already afoot.
“Once the Vantage article was published, cast members became even more open about not being okay with the censorship,” Smet said. “For our Saturday performance we returned 100% to the written word of the script – we did the play that was actually written. We joked that it was the first Legally Blonde performance we’d done, and after the show we all had a group bonding moment celebrating the uncensored show.”
Riedl described the decision in similar terms. “We decided to perform the musical in its full uncensored form on Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “It was kind of a group decision. We had a little meeting before our performance on Friday and we talked about it. The coverage was getting so widespread and everyone was talking about it so we decided we weren’t going to put up with it any longer. We were going to subvert the order to change.”
The student motivated changes don’t precisely jibe with the account from Provost Michael Austin.
“We ended up not making the changes,” said Dr. Austin. “They went on according to script. We looked at what might be possible but decided that we’d do it the way it was in the script.”
Austin did say that the issue was a major one for the school, saying it was “hotly debated and discussed.” He said that he attended the show on Sunday and that the show was performed as written, but could not speak to whether the complete text was in use at all performances.
Riedl professed surprise when informed that the administration had withdrawn its requests for text changes. “Really? That’s interesting,” he said. “Because I was under the impression it was a cast decision. There’s definitely some confusion there. I had not heard that. That’s very interesting.”
Riedl went on to recount a moment during the Saturday night show, during the song, “Blood in the Water.” “‘Get you high and get you laid’ was supposed to ‘get you entertained,’ he recounted. “From the stage, I heard someone whisper, ‘I thought that was supposed to be censored.’ It took some power to not break character from that.”
With somewhat conflicting stories about how the show was restored to its original text, Manette seemed to walk a careful line about what had taken place. He ascribed the choice to the students, noting that, “The people who had called for the censorship were not the ones behind the decision to do the show as written.”
* * *
The issue of censorship is not an off-limits topic on the Newman University campus. It’s worth noting that all freshman this year were assigned to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the now classic novel in which censorship is taken to its ultimate extreme, with all books being sought out and burned by “fireman,” forcing lovers of knowledge into clandestine circles designed to preserve knowledge and texts.
“There is artwork all over the building regarding censorship related to that novel,” Manette said. “Most members of the faculty and audience were appalled at the idea of censoring a production. Two pieces of art work across from the entrance of the theatre were mysteriously taken down on opening night – one was a nude – and they were miraculously replaced after the show closed. Coincidental?”
Smet told a similar story. “There was a great deal of other censorship happening in our arts department — nude paintings and “controversial” art work were removed from the hallways against the art department’s will. The entire fine arts sector of Newman was upset that they were being censored. Many people told us they supported us ‘fighting the power’.”
* * *
It’s unclear precisely where the complaints about Legally Blonde began and it’s also not certain exactly when or if approval was given to perform the show as written, as it was at the latter two performances. Precisely who in the administration really wanted the show edited remains somewhat vague, and no one with direct knowledge would speak to it on the record. But certainly the students took matters into their own hands, perhaps with the tacit approval of some members of the school administration.
Dr. Austin was quite clear about lessons learned from the imbroglio.
“Generally, I can say that the incident was not handled well,” he wrote to me, “for which I take full responsibility. We will not be suggesting changes to plays in the future, nor do we have any plans to exercise prior restraint on plays chosen by the Theatre Department.”
Austin’s statement is very encouraging, suggesting that Mark Manette will be able to continue to build Newman University’s theatre department and give his students the opportunity to work on a wide range of shows – as they were written. For the staff of The Vantage, they’ve gotten proof of the power of independent journalism to foster change. As for the cast of Legally Blonde? They’ve demonstrated that the words spoken on a stage matter, and that the words of authors come first.
* * *
Note: interviews for this article were conducted through a combination of voice interviews and e-mail correspondence. The word “said” may apply to both voice and e-mail communications.