Appropriate and Inappropriate Material

July 2, 2010

For some reason, everyone forgets that Grease is a totally inappropriate show for most schools to do. And then when they get into rehearsal, they realize that some major plot points are going to have to go away, and they end up rewriting the whole show. This is a violation of Principle 2. Do Grease at your community theatre group where nobody cares about the subject matter.

One director I know cuts everything inappropriate out of her scripts, retypes them, and hands them out on the first day of rehearsal, so that the middle school kids she’s directing don’t even know what they’re missing. I think this may be shady legally, but practically, it sidesteps some difficulties.

Here’s the crux of the problem: These shows were not written for you and your school. They were written for a very savvy New York theatre audience; and largely to the tastes of upper middle class housewives from New Jersey and Connecticut who want something a little snappy, a little saucy, with some chorus boys to look at, and some stuff to amuse their husbands, who were dragged there against their will. These are the sorts of things that tend to make you squirm when a 13 year old is doing them.

A test of the appropriateness of this material is to picture your own children (if you have them) or some young people you know and love doing the material. If a part of you feels sad that your child is pretending to be this character, there’s probably something there worth thinking hard about. Remember principle no. 2: The author intended the inappropriate material to be in the show. If you backpedal or remove the inappropriate material, you may be taking out something important.

An example: Once Upon a Mattress is such a wonderful show for kids. It’s really about awkward adolescence in some way, and the writing is so clever and funny. It’s a natural. Except that there’s an unwanted pregnancy that precipitates some of the major dramatic actions that drive the plot. I suspect there are hundreds of productions of this show that have been mangled in one way or another to avoid this problem. (I did one myself!) But that not only breaks your contract with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, it breaks the conception the writers were trying to get across, it breaks the thousands of connecting threads that hold the plot together, it mangles a song moment, and it breaks two of the main character’s entire group of objectives. I think there might be a tasteful way of having middle-schoolers do that part of the show. (I think High Schoolers are probably in the clear) But go in with your eyes open as you tackle a show with that kind of a potential problem written in. (and as far as these problems go, that one is very mild!)

Please, for the sake of everyone involved, read the script of your play before you agree to do it. And let some other people have a look at it too, to make sure your choice fits the values of the people who are helping you put on the show. If you have an administrator who second guesses things all the time, you should send over a copy of the script with questionable passages marked and make a note of having done so. Then when you get the complaints, there is a paper trail showing that you did your job in clearing the issues. Better to pass too much information up the food chain than too little.

A further thought: Deciding not to do a show based on content is not cowardly. It also doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the piece. There are many plays and musicals that use adult content to make important points. The important points will be lost on an audience that can’t get past the fact that their children are making them. If making a point about the world is important to you, there are shows (the R&H canon, for example) that make very strong points while completely ingratiating themselves with their audiences.



  1. Just another of probably a million stories. I was in a high school production of Cabaret in which Sally has a miscarriage at the end, rather than an abortion. And then Cliff left her when she told him she had a miscarriage. Incomprehensible.

    The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington earlier this year did a production of Grease with an all-male (not in drag) cast. You don’t even want to know how Rizzo’s unwanted pregnancy fit into that version.

  2. Rent is probably a good example – even with a pre-prepared script with all the ‘gritty’ bits woven out, I’ve heard of productions where Angel is a girl and dies of cancer…. It really removes all point from the story, which is so hard hitting and poignant.

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