The Cricket: Jordan officials offend by trying not to offend

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My senior year in high school, I got to play God.

OK, it wasn't really God, but The Starkeeper was as high a figure in heaven as poor Billy Bigelow, the carnival roustabout antihero of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical "Carousel," would see after his untimely death in the middle of Act II.

Before the kids at Herriman High School, or any school in the Jordan School District, get any bright ideas about staging "Carousel," I'm sure some "community member" would raise a stink about a play (spoiler alert!) that features spousal abuse, a fatal stabbing and other criminal behavior.

After all, Wednesday's cancellation of Herriman High's production of "All Shook Up" — and Thursday's announcement that the show was back on, with some edits — was prompted, according to Jordan School District spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf (as reported in Thursday's Salt Lake Tribune), by a complaint from a "community member" about the show's content.

That 2004 musical, which grafts Elvis Presley songs to a plot pinched from William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," was already in rehearsals at Herriman when district officials decided Wednesday (the students' first day back from Christmas break) to cancel the February performances.

The complaint sent Jordan School District officials on a mad dash to read the play and make a quick decision that it "could be offensive to some under our new revised policy," Riesgraf said.

This would be the new policy set by the Jordan School Board in August after a dust-up over a Bingham High School production of the play "Dead Man Walking." That play, which tackles the issue of the death penalty, drew the ire of the Utah Eagle Forum, the right-wing lobbying group — which complained about the play's profanity, sexual language, racial slurs, political bias and "inappropriate use of biblical teachings."

This new policy is a powerful tool. Already it has turned officials of the Jordan School District into quivering masses of Jell-O, ready to collapse into a puddle at a single call from a "community member" whose delicate feelings could be hurt by the mention of anything "offensive."

The offensiveness in "All Shook Up" came, according to news reports, from salacious material in one of the songs — and, according to Riesgraf, the "cross-dressing" of some of the characters.

"All Shook Up" is a "jukebox musical," which takes existing songs and weaves a storyline around them, just as "Mamma Mia!" did for ABBA songs and "Rock of Ages" did with '80s hair-metal hits.

The songs are all Elvis Presley classics, from "Hound Dog" to "Love Me Tender." Certainly those songs had the power to offend when Elvis first performed them, enough to get his gyrating hips banned from "The Ed Sullivan Show."

But that was in 1956, before the grandparents of some of the Herriman High students were even conceived. Elvis, whose 78th birthday falls on Tuesday, Jan. 8, would probably chuckle at the idea that people would be shocked by his songs more than 35 years after his death.

The other source of the "offensive" content of "All Shook Up" — Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" — is even older, by some 350 years. It's a delicious bit of irony that, as one Herriman parent told The Tribune, "Twelfth Night," from which "All Shook Up" takes its "cross-dressing" plotline, is on the school district's approved list of productions.

I will admit that I have never seen a production of "All Shook Up," so I cannot testify personally about the musical's offensiveness or lack thereof. However, the show was produced last summer at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre in Orem — a venue with as squeaky-clean a reputation as you can get. If it's unoffensive enough for Utah County, it's unoffensive enough for a high-school production.

What's at issue, when you strip away all the details, is that the power to offend is what makes art — whether it's hanging in a gallery, performed on a stage or blasting from your stereo — worth contemplating at all. Art is meant to get people to think, and sometimes — hell, usually — getting people to think requires offending them at least a little.

That's what made Riesgraf's comment about the cancellation — that "we don't want to offend anyone" — the most offensive thing uttered so far in this entire incident.

If you're creating art and you're not offending somebody, you're doing it wrong.

Sean P. Meanswrites The Cricket in daily blog form at Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at Email him at —

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