MANY AMERICAN musicals are immortal pieces of the nation’s artistic heritage. Others are time capsules that capture the prejudices of an earlier era — but can still be used as educational material.
Newton North High School’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” sparked controversy this week, as some members of Newton’s Asian-American community objected to the play’s stereotyping of Chinese culture in the 1920s. The musical, though first staged on Broadway just 12 years ago, was based on a 1967 movie, and it shows.
Yet it’s possible to present such plays in educational ways. Since rehearsals began, Newton North noted in a memo, the cast and crew held discussions and workshops about the stereotypes present. Directors worked with the school’s Office of Human Rights and Asian Culture Club to better understand community concerns and to help students recognize wider themes of racism in American media and society. The play’s program included a note explaining as much. All these efforts suggest that Newton North worked hard to stage “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in a sensitive manner.
Putting plays in historic context won’t entirely prevent hurt feelings; in the canon of musical theater, some groups are more likely than others to be portrayed in cartoonish ways. Still, give students some credit. High schoolers are mature enough to understand difficult themes, and audiences should be able to recognize a distinction between indifference toward racism and a production that goes out of its way to identify backward attitudes and uses them to educate students.