It’s only the fourth time the award has been given by Music Theatre International, the licensing agency that supplies schools and theaters worldwide with scripts and music for Broadway productions.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 17, 2017
You could call it a trophy for participation—in the arts, in the classroom, in civics, in community dialogue—and you wouldn’t be far off.
But the Music Theatre International (MTI) Courage in Theatre Award has been awarded just a handful of times since its inception in 2007, and only with significant cause.
The fourth and latest time was Thursday, to the cast and crew of Ragtime as presented by Cherry Hill High School East. The musical, which chronicles the lives of turn-of-the-century Americans, was opposed by community groups for its content, which includes racial and ethnic slurs typical of the time during which the story is set.
That opposition led the school district to consider presenting a censored version of the production, until its leaders learned that their licensing agreement forbade doing so. After an emotionally intense school board meeting, the district elected to proceed with the show as written, but supported by cultural and classroom education around it—and a visit from performer Brian Stokes Mitchell, who originated one of its lead roles on Broadway.
Cherry Hill Superintendent of Schools Joseph Meloche said the award is a unique acknowledgment of the way the district “has taken on challenging discussion” to the benefit of the community “beyond the experience that takes place in the theater.
“It’s a highlight of what we do that we’ve had the opportunity to engage in such a powerful discussion and come through it,” Meloche said, acknowledging, “there’s much work to be done.”
Meloche said MTI has been “incredibly supportive” of the district in staging the show, and spoke of the long-running relationship the school has had with the publishing company. He said the show, the community discussions, and the classroom lessons on its subject matter have offered “a great foundational piece” in which to anchor complicated conversations about creating a culture of mutual respect.
“It’s the reflective practices of how we do what we do,” Meloche said. “Our schools have been able to take a leadership role in this discussion, and I’m incredibly proud of the work the East school community has invested in the show.”
Students demonstrated ‘incredibly impressive’ commitment
MTI President Drew Cohen said the award is given to students “who persevere in the face of adversity in performing their show and engaging in the arts.
“This is to recognize the fact that art isn’t easy, and not every show is necessarily for every community,” Cohen said.
“When the community and the people involved in the show feel committed to a particular show, and in being committed to it, overcome whatever odds there are against them, that’s something that we think deserves acknowledgment.
“It takes a lot of work to put on a show, and that’s with the wind at your back,” he said. “When there are additional obstacles, and unusual obstacles that are in front of you, that’s something that should be applauded.”
The inaugural Courage in Theatre award was created in support of the cast of VOICES IN CONFLICT, who fought for the right to perform a student-authored show about the Iraq War at Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut.
In 2010, MTI presented the award to students at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada for their efforts to stage a production of RENT despite legal challenges and parent opposition to its same-sex content.
The third time MTI presented the award, it was to special-needs students at The Spectrum School (P94M) in Manhattan, New York, who were recognized in 2012 for their original production, A Powerful Day.
“Shows that contain more thought-provoking material will lend themselves to more controversy, and certainly Ragtime fits that bill,” Cohen said.
MTI has received plenty of requests to change the language of the production, and has never granted them, Cohen said, adding that MTI gets about 100 annual inquiries for licensing the show, some 25 to 40 percent of which he estimates are from high schools.
Cohen said the process taken by students, the school, and the community at large in Cherry Hill “was a great exercise in debate,” the outcome of which was “exactly what any community could hope for as a result of resolving a disagreement with its constituents.
“The community itself will pick what standards will apply in terms of choosing what to do,” Cohen said. He praised the students’ ability to not just plead their case but to articulate their reasoning behind it as “incredibly impressive.”
‘Fidelity to art and truth’
Helen Doctorow, widow of the author E.L. Doctorow, whose novel Ragtime provides the basis for the musical, was also on-hand to take in the show Thursday.
Although Doctorow has seen it staged coast to coast and internationally, East’s performance was the first she’d seen at the high-school level, and said “it was totally impressive.”
Doctorow had followed the events in Cherry Hill from afar, including the school board meeting in which the students pled their case in front of the district officials. She said her late husband “would have applauded the courage and the wisdom of these high school students and the fidelity they had to art and truth.”
In discussing the work, she added that E.L. Doctorow often said, “a history book will tell you what happened, but a novel will tell you how it felt.”
Neil Costa, the husband of Ragtime lyricist Lynn Ahrens, similarly described how the creators of the Broadway hit became “really very emotionally involved” in the circumstances at East. He said Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally, who wrote the book for the show “were passionately supportive of the students” and feared their production would be canceled.
“We saw the level of devotion and commitment and passion in the streamed [school board] meeting,” Costa said. “We couldn’t bear the idea that somehow the outcome would be anything less than them being able to mount the production.”
Ragtime and its creators are no strangers to controversy; part of the enduring power of the show stems from its social relevance to “parallels which occur again and again,” Costa said. He talked about how its original cast struggled with the same issues about its content.
“There was a black contingent of the cast, and some of the things that were written were uncomfortable for them,” Costa said. “There were very intense work sessions, and at one point [Brian] Stokes [Mitchell] was the spokesman for the black part of the cast, and came to all three of the white writers and the white director.
“It was a serious thing where the actors had to confront the creators,” he said. “It was a very painful process for a lot of people.
“That’s why you see Stokes’ commitment,” Costa said. “He was right there at the beginning, and he spoke about these concerns.”
Cohen added that Mitchell was eager to communicate his connection to the material in Ragtime to the students at East because “the person who’s had that language thrown at him is an important voice to hear.
“Having originated the role, [Mitchell’s] connection to the play is indicative of the connection that each one of the kids that was in the show will have to this show also,” he said. “It happens every time where they’ve walked that mile as the character. They understand.
“I’m sure he’s looked inside himself whether he’s honoring the spirit of the play by performing it as it was written,” Cohen said. “Even 30 years later, [Mitchell] still feels that strongly about whoever performs it performs it as written.”
Mitchell’s connection to the production at East was rewarding for the actor as well as for the students, said Howard Sherman of the Arts Integrity Initiative, who ultimately drove Mitchell to the school to meet with the student cast and crew.
“I thought it was important, given the conversation that I was reading about at that moment, that a black artist who had such a close association to the show have his voice be heard as part of the dialogue,” Sherman said.
“[Stokes’] commitment is very, very deep and real, and only deepened as a result of coming here. He realized how much more should be done, could be done, and, in the future, he may be doing.”
Meloche said the district doesn’t select its works for the thought of gaining accolades, but he promised the schools “will continue to do challenging works that are purposeful and intentional,” and that future productions will be subject to curricular approval and a formal review process.
“I’m not going to say that each of the shows we look for are mired in social commentary,” he said. “[But] I think it’s an incredibly powerful recognition of the work that is there.”
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