Springtime For Swastikas In High School Musicals?

March 14th, 2016 § 5 comments

Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in The Producers (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in The Producers (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Let’s get the story straight. When Tappan Zee High School’s production of Mel Brooks’s The Producers was performed this weekend, there were swastikas on stage. This shouldn’t be any surprise to those who know the musical, the story of two producers who set out to make a mint by foisting a musical called Springtime for Hitler on Broadway audiences. With a song-and-dance Hitler – embodied at times by two different actors – and a chorus line of male and female stormtroopers in the show’s big number, Brooks’s play-within-a-play travesty of Nazi Germany during the Third Reich pretty much makes the swastika de rigeur, though not absolutely essential.

Garrett Shin, left, Greg DeCola and Jarrett Winters Morley in The Producers at Tappan Zee High (photo by Peter Kramer)

Garrett Shin, left, Greg DeCola and Jarrett Winters Morley in “The Producers” at Tappan Zee High (photo by Peter Kramer)

If you followed the headlines of Peter Kramer’s original story for LoHud.com or the followup from CBS2 News, you’d be sure that the swastika had been eradicated at Tappan Zee, in response to complaints from, reportedly, four parents after seeing rehearsal photos online. “Tappan Zee parents: Pull swastikas from ‘Producers’,” was the banner across Kramer’s story. “High School Removes Swastikas From Production Of ‘The Producers’ Following Controversy,” declared CBS. In fact, two banners featuring swastikas were removed from the production. Kramer has now reported that the symbols remained on display on costume armbands when called for.

So what’s really at issue here, since it’s not meant to be a sweeping defense of the swastika, a widely-known symbol of the Third Reich, or a celebration of its tenacity in high school theatre? The issue is, once again, the seeming willingness of a school administration to alter a theatrical production at the smallest hint of controversy, rendered in sharpest relief because it ended up pertaining only to oversized uses of an “offensive” symbol, which means the decision was not merely arbitrary, but inconsistent. It certainly contradicts the sweeping statement by School Superintendent Bob Pritchard, who told WCBS reporter Tony Aiello, “There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate.”

Um, history books? Productions of Cabaret or The Sound of MusicSaving Private Ryan?

Per WCBS: “The optic, the visual, to me was very disturbing. I considered it to be an obscenity like any obscenity,” Pritchard said.”

The swastika itself is not necessarily an obscenity. It is the symbol of obscenities, the Third Reich and the war and the Holocaust. Scrawled on a house of worship, or a cemetery? Yes, I would agree that that is an act of desecration, an obscenity. But in the hands of Mel Brooks, it is also a target to be seen and disdained, to be ridiculed, to be laid low.

Jose Ferrer and Mel Brooks in To Be Or Not To be (1983)

Jose Ferrer and Mel Brooks in “To Be Or Not To Be” (1983)

Like a great deal in our lives, and in our arts, that want to do something more than simply blindly entertain or pacify, context is essential. At Tappan Zee High, rehearsal photos showing swastika banners were shorn of context, and for people who may not know The Producers, some dismay is understandable. But the job for the school then (and really, before such a thing even happened) was to put the production in context – for the students in the show, the other students at the school, for parents and for the community. As brassy and broad as the musical The Producers may be (the original movie was more obviously subversive and dark), it remains consistent with Brooks’s oft-stated desire to use the power at his command – humor – to take down the greatest horror of his life time. Let’s not forget that’s coming from a Jewish American who fought in World War II.

Charlie Chapin in The Great Dictator

Charlie Chapin in “The Great Dictator”

There’s so much that could have been taught at Tappan Zee High over this incident, about World War II and the Holocaust, about the post-war rise of Jewish comedians (in the Borscht Belt not so very far from the school itself), of the role of satire in political and social commentary. That we eliminate and simply ignore the things we do not care for is at least contrary to what students should be learning from this experience, if not downright ironic.

Donald Duck in Der Fuhrer’s Face

Donald Duck in “Der Fuehrer’s Face”

There is a litany of humorous and satirical responses to Hitler and World War II; The Producers is simply part of a tradition that stretches back to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great DictatorErnst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be (which Brooks later remade) and the Donald Duck carton Der Fuehrer’s Face. Even Germany, where the swastika remains outlawed for political use, permits it for historical works (though the German debut of The Producers substituted pretzels for the symbol), such as in the film Downfall. Hitler was even the star of a popular German satirical film, Look Who’s Back.

Swastikas make sense in The Producers, but the show can survive without them. I hope the students at Tappan Zee High had a great success this past weekend. What does not make sense is when a few people voice complaints and the immediate reaction is to heed their call without allowing opposing views a fully equal opportunity to make their case, when the public relations optics trump an educational opportunity, and when things are torn down in response a a vocal minority. What does not survive is productive and indeed educational dialogue around a terrible time in world history, how it led to the very show they were performing, and why exactly “Springtime for Hitler” is a comic and cultural touchstone in its own right, precisely because of the horror behind the swastika.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts. This post originally appeared at artsintegrity.org.

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  • MWnyc

    Howard, your points are good, of course.

    But school administrators don’t have the luxury if dealing only with theater fans; they have to deal with the entire range of the general public. Explaining, and understanding, the role of the swastika in The Producers requires a certain amount of nuance. And – as public school professionals know – there is a certain segment of the general public that just doesn’t do nuance.

    I’m sure that administrators’ response to this controversy was all about making the problem go away as fast as possible. And given what they have to deal with that can’t be made to go away, I can’t judge them too harshly for that.

    (It would have been different if the administrators had tried to cancel the production entirely, but they didn’t.)

    The students involved can learn one unfortunate but very necessary lesson from this shonda: Picking your battles. Sometimes you have to surrender, even if you know you’re right, because you just can’t win the battle in the time and circumstances you have.

    • Dear MW: Your points are all well-taken as well. But as I have noted in the past, the usual reaction to any controversy regarding the arts in schools to to take the path of least resistance and shut it down or remove the offending elements. In worst case scenarios, shows are canceled and teachers are fired. I understand the pragmatism in many individual cases (though never the firings), but the net effect broadly is a homogenization of what arts students, what theatre students, can take on, learn from and even teach others. That’s why I feel compelled to catalogue these incidents,since they are part of a larger pattern, not merely one-offs, community by community and school by school.

      • MWnyc

        Oh, you’re absolutely right to catalogue all these incidents, and it’s fortunate for all of us that you do.

        I think it’s your cataloguing that brings these individual incidents to the attention of the wider Interwebz, whence pushback can come from our side.

        Now that I think of it, this can be the subject of another column: Is the “Ha, ha, these rubes are scared of The Producers/Fun Home/Godspell” attention that such stories get a useful corrective, or does it lead to the resentment of “cultural elites” that animates Trump voters?

      • MWnyc

        P.S. – I went through this myself once, waaaaaaay back, when I was in a summer high school production of Godspell. (It was in a city that’s surrounded by, but not really of, the Bible Belt.)

        The county school board did vote to let us go ahead, but I think we were lucky that it was in the summer, so the administrators weren’t overloaded with school year stuff and didn’t want to just make the problem go away as quickly as possible. Even so, the next years’ musicals were things like The Sound of Music and Camelot.

  • Carter Gillies

    Hey Howard,

    It seems to me what we are most guilty of most often is that we confuse the sign for the thing signified. The symbol stands for these ugly things, in this case, but we treat it as the offending party itself. Yes the symbol matters, but it matters from the way in which it is used. This is an important distinction.

    The confederate flag flying above some state capitols was offensive because of the prestige and acceptance it implied. The flag itself is something that can be used to discuss, portray, and otherwise signify the issues that have some importance to us. The symbol is a means for us to discuss these things, not necessarily the thing itself. The symbol offends when we offer it as praise and virtue when it ought to be offered as a caution. What offends is where we place the symbol in our thoughts and deeds. The symbol itself is a tool to make a point.

    Same goes for the swastika in the play. We cannot talk about some issues without suitable means for discussing them. We need signs, symbols, and examples that represent what we have in mind. Allusion, innuendo, and metaphor are useful but only get us so far. Sometimes we need to talk about things by lining up the issues with clear labels, words, and symbols that make direct reference. You can’t call it what it is by hiding the means of representation…..

    As you point out, there is a difference between being offensive and talking about things which offend. If we can’t talk about these things is that not in a sense denying our right to examine WHY we should be offended? Is it not also turning our back on the offense, to spare our feelings, perhaps? And does this not give an implied permission to simply ignore the things we are offended by? Which is precisely the environment in which offenses thrive. We need to stand up against racism, and all other hateful discriminations, and the only way we can do that is to talk about them, clearly and openly, and with a full accounting of what makes these things wrong.

    The symbols don’t need to be hidden from us as much as shown in the proper light. A play like the one you are discussing is just one such conversation we obviously need to have.

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