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.
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 Music? Saving 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.
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.
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.
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 Dictator, Ernst 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.