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Web letter by George Sistevaris: Northrop’s play choice an aspect of a broad-based public education

As a child in the 1960s, I watched a quirky TV program called “Hogan’s Heroes.” I watched with my dad a few times, and I remember how uncomfortable he was at first with a comedy that included uniforms adorned with swastikas. I understood his unease because for a few years of his childhood in Europe, he had lived under Nazi occupation. But after watching an episode or two, he picked up on the parody and the sarcasm. He loved how the Nazis were portrayed as buffoons, and he began to enjoy the program. He had his “I get it” moment.

I am writing to respond to a May 13 letter which was critical of the selection and recent performance of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” by the faculty and students of Northrop High School. The director, Tim Miller, went to great lengths to make it clear to the audience that the story is a parody written by Brooks to help him deal with the loss of his grandparents in a Nazi concentration camp.

But the author nonetheless found the performance religiously offensive, sexually suggestive and generally immoral. (Is it fair to express shock that in a musical about show business one might find greed and debauchery?) Ultimately, the letter writer conflates the performance of an “edgy” musical with nothing less than the ruination of the public school system. Although she praises the children and faculty for the quality of the performance, she uses the choice of this musical as an indictment of public schools in favor of funneling tax dollars to religious and charter schools. This is terribly unfair to Northrop and to Fort Wayne Community Schools, and harkens to book-banning efforts of the past.

Students attend high school during very influential years as they mature into adulthood. In this time their understanding of the human condition matures as well. Often that understanding is molded by great art and literature. During my high school years I was exposed to Orwell, Twain, Shakespeare, Bradbury, Harper Lee, Hawthorne and many others. I am so grateful that most of these were required reading in the public schools I attended. Those authors were never demure in their discussions of politics, religion, sex, crime, greed and the dark side of human nature. Some authors approach these topics very stoically, others hit us right in the funny bone – just like Mel Brooks.

“The Producers” is a time-tested and great American comedy. It won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards on Broadway. I am proud that the administration, faculty and students of Northrop High School worked together to choose the play, supported the play, rehearsed endless hours on the play, and delivered an exemplary work of theatrical and musical art.

Unfortunately, the author of that letter left at intermission and was deprived of the genius of Mel Brooks in his ability to finish a story. Perhaps waiting to see the “third act” may have helped her cross into “I get it” territory, and perhaps her opinion of the public schools would not be so negative. We will never know.


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