Contaminated by 9/11

(Eventually there will be some stuff directly related to language.)

Reported several places in the last week, the fate of the musical Kismet in Johnstown PA. Here’s Scott Simon on NPR on the 24th:

Canceling The School Play Won’t Avoid ‘Kismet’

There will be no Kismet in Johnstown, Pa. This week the Richland School District canceled February’s high school student production of the play.

The 1953 musical is the story of a wily beggar-poet; his unruly, beautiful daughter; and the handsome caliph who falls in love with her at first glance.

Kismet is adapted from that collection of folk tales known as Arabian Nights, with a score drawn from the music of Alexander Borodin.

Kismet won the Tony Award for Best Musical. High school groups often perform the show because the songs can be lush and funny, there are good parts for both boys and girls, and the costumes can be colorful, florid, flowing — and cover students from head to toe. Unlike the musical Hair.

“Kismet” is set in ancient Baghdad, a time historians call the Islamic Golden Age. Johnstown is in western Pennsylvania. Flight 93 flew right over our heads, school Superintendent Thomas Fleming Jr. explains. United Airlines Flight 93, of course, plowed into the ground nearby on September 11, 2001 after the hijackers were overpowered by the passengers and crew. They died to keep the plane from crashing into the U.S. Capitol. So, it’s understandable that people might be a little more sensitive perhaps to the play’s content, Mr. Fleming told the told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. He said several people had complained because “Kismet” features Muslim characters; the 10-year anniversary of Flight 93’s crash had just passed. Mr. Fleming says he simply doesn’t want his young students to have to face controversy and criticism.

Sigh. All Muslims are held responsible for the actions of some and are contaminated by these actions. In fact, anything associated with Islam or the Arab world — mosques, Arabic names, the Arabian Nights, even the musical Kismet — is contaminated.

We’ve been down this road before, with the Jews (vivid memory of my childhood: kids explaining that Jews were scum because they killed Our Lord), the Japanese in WWII detention camps, things trivial (liberty cabbage for sauerkraut in WWI) and truly monstrous. Here we go again.

Scott Simon continues:

But I wonder if it might not be good for students to learn how “Kismet” can rile some people as much as David Mamet. As Sir Ben Kingsley says, theater is seeing strangers onstage and recognizing yourself. Howard Sherman of the American Theater Wing says complaints about high school productions are increasing. It’s not always about profanity, nudity or politics. Trying to have theater without carping and criticism is like trying to play baseball without getting clipped by the ball now and then. An occasional bruise means you’re playing the game with heart. The Johnstown students will perform “Oklahoma!” instead. “Oklahoma!” is a great musical. But does the school district know that one of the signature characters is a peddler who comes to the Oklahoma territory of gushers and sodbusters to find freedom and his own fortune? He’s from Persia. His name is Ali Hakim. I wonder if the Johnstown students will have to rename him Al.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “STRANGER IN PARADISE”)

RICHARD KILEY: (Singing) Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise. All lost in a wonderland, oh, stranger in paradise. If I stand starry-eyed, that’s a danger in paradise…

A bit more on Kismet, from the Wikipedia entry:

Kismet is a musical with lyrics and musical adaptation (as well as some original music) by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin, and a book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, based on Kismet, the 1911 play by Edward Knoblock. The story concerns a wily poet who talks his way out of trouble several times; meanwhile, his beautiful daughter meets and falls in love with the young Caliph.

The musical was first produced on Broadway in 1953 and won the Tony Award for best musical in 1954. It was also successful in London’s West End and has been given several revivals. A 1955 film version was released by MGM.

I’ve been listening to the Broadway cast recording, with Alfred Drake as the poet Hajj, Doretta Morrow as his daughter Marsinah, and Richard Kiley (above) as the Caliph. Hajj and Marsinah are introduced early on, in the song “Rhymes Have I”, which is full of word play. A sample, with my favorite bit in boldface:

(He) Rhymes, fine rhymes
Rhymes, fine rhymes have I
Rhymes, fine rhymes, sweet rhymes have I
Sly rhymes, wry rhymes, neat rhymes have I

To a world too prone to be prosaic
I bring my own panacea —
An iota of iambic
And a tittle of trochaic
Added to a small amount of onomatopoia

… (She) Rhymes, fine rhymes, true rhymes has he
Rhymes, bright rhymes, new rhymes has he
Thoughtful rhymes

(He) Like learning leads to earning

(She) Truthful rhymes

(He) Like drinking stops your thinking

(She) Helpful rhymes

(He) Like sinning is thinning

(Both) And others miscellaneous on matters more extraneous
… Songs of sense and pertinence in reverence to all events and times

(He) Rhymes have I

(She) Rhymes have I

(He) Rhymes has she

(She) Rhymes has he

(Both) Rhymes have we, rhymes have we, we have rhymes

This delightful love story has the misfortune to be set in ancient Baghdad, so of course it’s contaminated by 9/11.

One Response to “Contaminated by 9/11”

  1. h. s. gudnason Says:

    It’s the school’s response that bothers me more than the ignorant protests. When I was in high school (45 years ago), our senior honors government class did a presentation about the U.N., which we performed at elementary schools in the district. Because it was a clever presentation it was written up in the local paper, and all of us who were named in the article duly received letters from people telling us that the U.N. was going to eat our brains or give us zits or something really awful.

    Our teacher spent the briefest amount of class time discussing the matter with us, using it as a chance to talk about freedom of speech, but certainly not shielding us from controversy or criticism.

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