Book censorship target of musical.
Miller's unusual musical focusing on library book censorship is set in a school district in the fictionalized St. Louis suburb of Harmony, Missouri. According to Miller, the Harmony School District could just as easily be Lindbergh High School, Pattonville or Clayton, or perhaps Hazelwood East High School. He said censorship battles are breaking out all over.
"In researching to write the play, I found that censorship has been skyrocketing. The increase of censorship incidents really started about 1980 with the Reagan administration," said Miller. "Some of the consequences are pretty grave. Teachers are getting fired. Librarians are getting fired. The American Library Association is sending out guidelines for libraries on how to handle these complaints so personnel can protect their jobs and still try to maintain their professionalism.
"The American Library Association reports that over 150 titles are currently being banned in 44 states as a result of such censorship fights," added Miller. "Even The American Heritage Dictionary and Webster's Collegiate Dictionary have been taken off shelves because they contain 'dirty words.'"
Miller, a 1981 graduate of Affton High School, became interested in the book banning issue while studying for his degree in musical theater at Harvard University.
"I worked in the library and my supervisor was doing her thesis on the 1977 Pico vs. Island Trees First Amendment case," explained Miller. She asked me to proofread her thesis, and I knew right away when I read about the case that I wanted to write a musical some day about it. I first wrote a musical about it in 1985, but I dug it out a year-and-a-half ago to revise and produce it."
Miller's play, "Breaking Out in Harmony" follows three parents who remove "objectionable books" from their high school library and the students who take them to court. The play explores issues of censorship, parent-child relationships and the role of educational institutions.
According to Miller, there are two major issues at the heart of the 1977 Pico vs. Island Trees case. First: Was the removing of the books censorship, and did parents have the right to do what they did? The courts ruled that if the parents removed the books because they had no literary or educational value, that was legal. But, if they removed the books because they didn't like the ideas in them, that was obstructing freedom of expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment. And that is exactly what the parents were doing, so the books were eventually returned to the library shelves.
Miller said the second issue was: When should parents stop protecting their children, and when is a child old enough to strike out on his own and start making his own life and own mistakes? This issue has no clear legal answer, according to Miller. He said most people would agree that the age at which a child is old enough to "break away" varies with each person.
Miller admits that when he started writing the play, he was a confirmed First Amendment absolutist against any censorship. He said he has become more sympathetic to the viewpoint of alarmed parents as he studied the issue more closely.
"One of the things I've realized is that the Pico case was not just about the First Amendment," said Miller. "It's about children wanting to make their own decisions. It's about parents not wanting to let go. The parents aren't heavies. I kind of made the parents heavies in the first version of the musical, but now I understand that they were sincerely motivated to protect their children.
"I had a cousin bring a copy of the Madonna book, 'Sex,' to our family Thanksgiving," said Miller. "I went through it and I was appalled. It's perverse. I don't know that I want that book on the library shelves, available to fifth and sixth graders. The real problem is: Who decides for us?" asked Miller. "Who decides what our children can read and can't read? The thing that makes this so thorny is that a lot of objections are based on religious beliefs. And, we don't all share the same religious beliefs in this country."
Miller said most censorship fights usually start when some parents in a district receive literature from the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition or the Liberty Federation providing a list of "immoral books." In his musical, "Breaking Out in Harmony," the organization taking aim at library bookshelves is called Parents of Missouri United. He said the literature of such groups provides a blueprint on how to organize and pressure school boards to ban the books in question.
"What I find troubling is that a lot of angry parents have never even taken the time to read the books that they want to ban," said Miller. "In a case in Wisconsin, they wanted to ban a children's book that had a 'spider licking her lips' because the book was too suggestive."
The south county playwright said he is especially upset to find books like "Huckleberry Finn," "Of Mice And Men," "Slaughterhouse Five" and "The Color Purple" banned in some school libraries.
Miller has recruited young people from a number of St. Louis area school districts for roles in his musical as well as the Ladue High School teen chorus. Miller said some people question his concept of a musical approach to telling a serious story. Miller counters: "With shows like 'Blood Brothers' and 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' on Broadway, it's clear that no subject is too heavy for a musical."
Miller said he hoped his new musical "can provide a nonthreatening way to get people thinking about the increase of sex and violence in the media, and yet show how dangerous censorship can be." He has created a study guide for the new musical, which provides questions for discussion for audiences after viewing the performance. He said he hopes the musical will eventually become popular on high school stages.
"I've shown the script to some high school librarians and they're very enthusiastic about it," noted Miller. "At the same time, they've told me it will take some brave high school drama teachers to take it on as a stage production project."
As the show comes to an end, the cast assembles on stage to read portions of the actual newspaper articles chronicling the seven-year Pico case that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the judges writes (and wrote): "The use of governmental power to condemn a book touches the central nervous system of the First Amendment." The high court rules for the students and the books are finally returned, but the finale includes a warning: Censorship continues across the United States and the number of incidents increases every year. The story isn't over.
Miller's New Line Theatre is a non-equity professional company and receives partial funding from the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council.
Performances of "Breaking out in Harmony" are March 18, 19, 25 and 26 at 8 p.m. at the New City School Theatre, 5209 Waterman at Lake. Tickets are available through Metrotix. For more information, call 773-6526.
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|Title Annotation:||'Breaking Out in Harmony,' musical by St. Louisan playwright Scott Miller|
|Publication:||St. Louis Journalism Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1994|
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