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Oh, Yes We Got Trouble (with a capital T)

By Rick Pender · March 6th, 2013 · Cover Story
cover_legallyblonde_cbarchivesPhoto: CityBeat archives
I’m a critic today because I spent time onstage in high school. Last September, I went to a party for the 100th birthday of my drama teacher, a woman who profoundly affected my life by walking into a study hall and recruiting some boys to audition for Our Town. So I was astonished in December when I learned on Facebook that Sonja Hansen lost her part-time job staging shows for Loveland High School because of a production she had staged — Legally Blonde: The Musical. Say what?

After an exchange with Hansen, I remained mystified that a few negative comments led to her termination. Kids involved in her productions (and their families) loved her. How could such a decision have been caused by a musical based on a PG-13 movie? Legally Blonde is popular on stages everywhere, produced by high schools across the U.S. A touring production spent two weeks at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center in May 2010. Northern Kentucky University just closed a production of it, surely because it offers many roles for young adults. It will have a four-week run (April 11-May 5) at the Covedale Center on Cincinnati’s West Side, a theater offering mostly mainstream material for family-oriented audiences. Loveland, Ohio, appears to be the only place where Legally Blonde has offended anyone. 

I had a phone conversation with the musical’s book writer, Heather Hach. She laughed about first being shocked to hear this news because she’s from Loveland, Colo., and thought it happened in her hometown. But her amusement faded fast.

“It’s hard to comprehend that this show would be controversial,” she said.

“It’s about a young woman who finds herself and graduates at the top of her class from Harvard Law School. I don’t know why anyone would have a problem with a character who realizes she’s more than just the extension of a man.” Hach’s six-year-old daughter has seen Legally Blonde, and Hach hopes she gets it: “Elle Woods is a post-feminist heroine. She grows in a beautiful way. I think every mother would want her daughter to absorb this message.”

Nevertheless, as reported in this week’s cover story, a few anonymous complaints about Hansen’s November 2012 staging of Legally Blonde led to the dedicated director’s dismissal. She calls herself a “rule follower,” and as the mother of kids who attend the Loveland schools, she enjoyed leading an entertaining extracurricular activity. She did not choose Legally Blonde to be controversial. (Plenty of shows could rile people up: How about the satirical musical Urinetown, which some schools have staged?) But excuse me: What about Legally Blonde is inappropriate?

If unnamed people in Loveland had a problem with this show, it surely would have been more appropriate to speak up before it was onstage following months of rehearsal. But more fundamentally, what show would pass muster by these unwritten standards? Oklahoma? Oh, Jud Frye likes to look at dirty pictures. South Pacific? Sorry, Nellie Forbush is a racist. Grease (which Loveland High staged in 2011 without much comment) involves alcohol, delinquency and teen pregnancy. Where was the angst over that? Since releasing Hansen, Loveland High has replaced the show she planned to stage this spring (The Will Rogers Follies) with The Music Man, about a fast-talking con man who swindles an innocent town by selling musical instruments to families and promising a marching band for the kids. Could that lead to “trouble” right here in River City? How are we “going to keep the young ones moral after school,” as a lyric in that show pokes at its hypocritical citizens?

Theater is a great, creative outlet for kids. Sonja Hansen’s efforts in Loveland inspired dozens of them and engaged their families in a wholesome, enjoyable extracurricular activity. Such undertakings are also learning experiences. Sadly, this lesson in repression over trivial matters sends a terrible message to students. Because an inattentive administration overreacted to a few complaints, the program has lost a committed professional who positively impacted kids and their families. An experience that was a source of pride has become a controversy, an unfortunate example of how a few malcontents can sour an innocent undertaking. I’m not arguing that Legally Blonde was the most edifying musical for high school kids. But its message is certainly more meaningful than objectionable. Staging such entertainment is a collaborative undertaking, as meaningful (maybe more so) as team sports.

High-school theater should be a positive, life-changing activity. When narrow-minded people object to a show like Legally Blonde, what are the kids learning?



03.06.2013 at 01:25 Reply

In 1976 I was a member or the directing corps at Purcell High School.  We had planned (and were told by the publishing companies) to procuce the first amateur productions of "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and "Godspell".  An organization, Catholilcs United for the Faith (CUFF) decided to wage war against us in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

 Among their claims were allegations that we were deliberately setting out to destroy the faith of our students by subjecting the students to works that condemned Christ (in JCS) in the eyes of Judas or persuaeded them to see Jesus as a clown in "Godspell".  Among our students in the program were two Jews, thus no faith to destroy...perhaps the true goal was to present our beloved Saviour as a person who lived among us and cared for each of us perfectly.  

Luckily we had a Principal, Brother Larry Eveslege, S.M., who valued the freedom of individual Faith to be among the highest of our Freedoms.  His integrity was unassailable snd not for sale to the loudest complainer.  When I read about the situation in the Loveland Schools, all I could think was that our society is not progressing, but is, sadly, at the mercy of the loudest or perhaps richest bullies, I thanked my Saviour for the great fortune of being brought up under the influence of enlightened school administrators and teachers.

 While I would not produce a production of "Grease" in a Catholic H.S., due to the themes of a young girl looking to lose her virginity, I would never try to prevent those students from seeing it. I have seen "Legally Blonde", and I believe nothing in the show to be offensive, especially since Ms Hansen changed some language (or so I was told by the pianist for the production).  

Loveland, you need to learn to practice your first syllable.