Ohio High School Fires Director for Staging Legally Blonde Musical; Creators and Parents Comment
By Adam Hetrick
An Ohio high school that fired the woman hired to direct its musicals is reassessing the goals of its drama program after school administrators expressed concerns over a production of the Tony Award-nominated musical Legally Blonde.
Loveland High School, located 20 miles northeast of Cincinnati, presented a November production of Legally Blonde, the 2007 stage musical based on the Golden Globe-nominated 2001 film of the same title.
Sonja Hansen, a local professional dancer and choreographer, was hired by Loveland High to direct the school's musical productions. In recent years she choreographed Beauty and the Beast and staged productions of Grease and Seussical there. In November, she directed and choreographed a well-attended production of Legally Blonde. While she was not a faculty member at the school, parents of Loveland students who spoke with Playbill.com credited her with re-energizing the theatre program and bringing together students in a productive way.
Legally Blonde is one of the most popular new titles licensed by Music Theatre International and is frequently produced in high schools across America. A film of the Broadway production garnered high ratings when it aired on MTV in 2007, and Music Theatre International is also developing a Broadway Junior version for young audiences.
The Motion Picture Association of America gave the 2001 film of "Legally Blonde" a PG-13 rating, while MTI rates the musical property as PG, describing it as a "fun, upbeat musical about self-discovery."
Administrators at Loveland, including high school principal Christopher Kloesz who took over his title in September, felt differently. Following the first two performances of Legally Blonde's Nov. 14-18 run, Kloesz approached Hansen with concerns over presenting the material in a high school setting.
Hansen and another parent at the school told Playbill.com that attempts were made to address issues within the text and staging, and that a sign was placed in the lobby letting patrons know the production was rated PG. Loveland school administration, including principal Kloesz and superintendent Dr. John Marschhausen, did not respond to Playbill.com's requests for an interview.
Students were permitted to finish the run of Legally Blonde (which received standing ovations after each performance), but Hansen was ultimately reprimanded by the administration, she says, for "going against the school's code of conduct." Kloesz, according to Hansen, cited "bootie-bounce dance moves" and the use of the word "skank" in the script. Loveland, along with most schools across the U.S., has a strict no-alcohol policy, and Hansen was cited for a scene in the musical that includes a champagne party involving a group of buttoned-up Harvard University students. She pointed out that it was not staged as a rowdy college party.
Officials were careful about negatively characterizing the courtroom scene "There! Right There!" (also known as the "Gay, or European" moment), according to Hansen, who noted that the school has an LGBT club. "That issue was brought up to me verbally, but was not in any written paperwork," she said.
Hansen said she was shocked by the administration's negative reaction to Legally Blonde after the school produced the full version of Grease in recent years, as well as Beauty and the Beast last spring "with a huge tavern scene and beer mugs." Students also used real cigarettes as props during a scene in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. "I didn't hear any complaints," Hansen recalled, noting that the Loveland High production of Grease, which includes drinking, smoking, sexuality and teen pregnancy in its script, had higher ticket sales than Legally Blonde. "I never saw anyone leave. We had no one ask for refunds," she said of Legally Blonde's run.
Legally Blonde's Tony Award-nominated book writer Heather Hach, pointed out in an e-mail to Playbill.com, "At the end of Grease, the heroine Sandy wears less clothes to get her man. At the end of Legally Blonde, our heroine Elle Woods graduates top of her class from Harvard Law. Now what message do you want your daughter absorbing?"
Ultimately, the school postponed Hansen's auditions for the spring production of The Will Rogers Follies. Students, who learned of the news from Principal Kloesz prior to Hansen being informed, began texting their teacher. Hansen said when she contacted Kloesz on Dec. 12 to ask why auditions for Will Rogers Follies had been canceled, she was told, "You need to resign or you will be terminated."
Dan Docherty's daughter Abby is a junior at Loveland High and played Elle Woods, the determined blonde heroine in Legally Blonde. "She loved playing the role," he said. "As far as her experience, this was a dream role. She absolutely loved it. She had a blast and had no issue with content, or being on stage playing that role." Abby also played Sandy in Grease at Loveland. "We've had a lot of director turnover there the past five years and they finally got someone who the kids loved and adored," he said. "Sonja does it because she loves it. It's not like she's doing this for the money. She probably puts more into it than she makes. It was very disheartening."
Docherty is also a children's theatre director in the Cincinnati area and admits that there might be content in the show some individuals might find "borderline" for high school students. He said he did hear a few parents state the show was more mature than they anticipated, but nothing that he felt would turn into a formal complaint or result in Hansen's termination.
He added, "I'm also a big believer in allowing the arts to be the arts; that's why they're great. Parents had the discretion to not bring young kids to it, but lots of people have seen the movie by now and should understand the show."
Cynthia Bair, whose daughter Makenzie played Enid in the production, shared an e-mail she sent to the administration. "Ms. Hansen has reinforced the importance of working together, respecting individual differences, honoring personal commitments, as well as demonstrated the joy and rewards that come with pursuing and nurturing one's passion. Her investment in our children remains unmatched by any educator I have encountered thus far in my daughter’s educational experience," she wrote.
Bair is also the mother of three younger children, whom she took with her to see Legally Blonde. She said that any innuendo that might feel inappropriate would likely go unnoticed by young audience members. She added, "Like it or not, mature and sensitive themes woven into this performance will eventually touch on the lives of all high school students in one way or another. It therefore certainly seems reasonable enough to allow high school students to explore such themes artistically."
Bair also pointed out that Legally Blonde showcases stereotypes (some of which are initially offensive) in order to shatter them. "Critics were so pathetically dwelling on the irrelevant that they missed the key themes of the show completely — the importance of perseverance, friendship, and combating the hurtful and oppressive stereotypes that so ruthlessly plague high school student populations everywhere. Are not these messages entirely consistent with the CORE values that are drummed into the heads of our students from the time they enter kindergarten within the Loveland School district?"
School officials did not agree to parents' request for a meeting. However, Hansen did have a final meeting with school officials Dec. 20 to officialize the termination of her contract and announce plans for a "new focus for the Loveland High School drama department to include an expansion of dramatic plays, talent shows and musicals." Details were not revealed as to "the new direction the school intends to take."
"First, I want to apologize directly to Mrs. Hansen for the way this issue was handled," Loveland superintendent Dr. John Marschhausen said in a statement. "The district had a change in administration, and procedures were not in place for proper articulation of expectations and goals for the drama department. There was a breakdown internally in communicating this, which resulted in the circulating of misinformation which is unfortunate for all involved – our district, our students and Mrs. Hansen."
He added, "On behalf of the district, I want to thank Mrs. Hansen for the success she achieved during her tenure in growing the participation of the drama department, and for the powerful impact she made in the lives and development of many Loveland students. We have heard from parents and students expressing support and appreciation for Mrs. Hansen's dedication, and everyone's goal is the progress of the drama department."
The musical's Tony-nominated writers, including composer Laurence O'Keefe, lyricist Nell Benjamin and book writer Hach sent the following words to Playbill.com: "We have no idea what the superintendent's statement means. We are surprised and disappointed that an educator who put on a show about a woman succeeding through education was fired for it. Any show that tries to be smart and funny may offend some people, but Mrs. Hansen and her students looked beyond that and saw the positive message of tolerance and female empowerment at the heart of the show. We only wish the school administration had done the same. We applaud the parents and students who supported Mrs. Hansen."
Students and parents have since rallied around Hansen, showing their support by wearing Legally Blonde t-shirts to school and visiting their director at her home. "My kids go to school at Loveland," Hansen says. She stands by her choice to stage Legally Blonde and to also give displaced students, who don't always fit the typical high school mode, a safe place to express themselves.
"What is really devastating to me is to see these kids come in and some of them, their spirit is crushed," she said. "Some are gay and they have no place to fit in. Some are bi-polar, some don't do anything else at school, but they found out that the theatre department is fun. It's a place for everyone. Even the kids who work stage crew. You see how kids change. They don't talk and suddenly they're talking, smiling and making friends. To be able to empower them means so much to me."
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