How much information is too much? And when does labeling become censorship? Those questions have plagued the music and film industries for years and, if a NY Post story about calls for a content-based rating system is any indication, Broadway may be next.
There is currently no plan or official proposal for such a ratings system. But sometimes there is a legitimate question about what a film or theatre audience assumes it's getting, and what's actually presented. The woman who sued Cats may have overreacted to a little playful bump-and-grind, but should she have been warned beforehand that Rum Tum Tugger gyrates sexually in front of -- and inches away from -- the audience? After all, Cats is considered a G-style show and is often the first Broadway show to which parents will take their young children.
One doubts many parents brought their offspring to Jackie thinking it was a kids' puppet show, but how many mom and dads offer Rent as a birthday present to teens, only to discover that Jonathan Larson's musical has profanity, drug use, cross-dressing, gay themes and HIV?
It was a question being asked by the New York Post, Mar. 26, in a story that anticipates an audience uproar over R-rated sequences in the current Cabaret revival and the upcoming Judas Kiss.
The Post points to bawdy cavorting in Cabaret that includes a comic sequence of simulated sex by the emcee and two dancers. (The dance bit takes place in shadow, behind a screen.) Also mentioned is the full-frontal nudity in David Hare's The Judas Kiss. [According to the Post, Tele-Charge sales agents read customers a warning about nudity when selling tickets to Judas Kiss. Playbill On-Line called Tele-Charge (Mar. 26) to buy tickets to the show, but received no such warning. Only when prompted by our asking "can I bring my 13-year-old cousin?" did the sales agent say, "Well, some material may not be appropriate for children."]
Local church officials were quoted in the story, saying a ratings system similar to that enforced by the Motion Picture Academy might be a good idea. "That way," Rev. Robert G. Gentily of Riverside Church told the Post, "while parents may well determine there's nothing objectionable, at least they can ask for more information about a show either on the phone or at the box office to see if they really want to go to it."
On the other side of the issue, Tim Hawkins, a producer of Madison Square Garden's The Wizard Of Oz, told the Post, "When you're spending $40 $75 a ticket on seats, most people are very well informed about what the shows contain."
A spokesperson for the League of American Theatres and Producers told the Post the organization had "no official comment" on the ratings idea. (One reason the ratings issue has come to the fore is a recent League study showing that the under-18 audience for Broadway shows has doubled since 1990.)
The ratings idea for theatre isn't completely new. Last year, a theatre out in North Carolina, Flat Rock Playhouse, had been using the Hollywood rating system to tag such shows as Catfish Moon (PG) and Fiddler on the Roof (G). They stopped, but only because they feared legal trouble from the MPAA, which has copyrighted all its ratings except "X."
While Cabaret and Judas Kiss are new, high-profile Broadway shows (especially since the stars of both, Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson, are married in real life), other current productions do have their share of sex, violence and adult themes:
The Beauty Queen of Leenane has much profanity (albeit, Irish-ized versions of four letter words) and brief but shocking violence.
Freak, though a monologue, has comically explicit sexual content and profanity.
The Life contains violence and sexual material (not suprising since its milieu is prostitution on 42nd Street, circa 1980).
If the idea of rating shows for content takes hold, will other calls for information follow? For example, parents might want to be informed about length of shows, since they may not realize 1776 and Les Miserables run longer than three hours, or that The Lion King and Cats run 2:45. Already, many shows warn patrons if a production contains gunshots, fog, smoking onstage or strobe lights.
What's your opinion? Should there be a ratings system for theatre? Take our Playbill Poll.
-- By David Lefkowitz