High school drama students save 'Chicago'

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Churchill High School in Potomac is well known for its theater program, but the drama was offstage Monday and Tuesday as students battled successfully to save a production of the musical "Chicago."

The show was abruptly canceled Monday, three weeks before it was scheduled to open, in a dispute over some of the dialogue. It will go on, although in lightly edited form. Lines such as "Hail Mary, full of grace" that had been removed probably will be restored, school officials said.

The school halted rehearsals Monday after cuts intended to make the script more appropriate for a teenage audience apparently caused problems with the show's publisher. That night, two or three dozen outraged students and parents flooded a school board meeting.

On Tuesday afternoon, Principal Joan Benz reversed the decision to scrap the play after consulting with school system officials. Sherry Liebes, community superintendent for the Churchill cluster, said the cancellation stemmed from "a misunderstanding that no changes at all could be made to the script."

The production that opens Nov. 13 will be "essentially the same play that you would see, making it more appropriate to a high school setting," and an edited script that deleted nearly all references to alcohol and religion will be thrown out, Liebes said. Other changes had not been determined, she and students said.

"Our director just came in and said, 'Guys, we have a show,' " said Laura Butvinik, a junior who plays Mona, the merry murderer. "Everyone was obviously ecstatic."

Benz did not return a telephone call or respond to an e-mail seeking comment. The head of Churchill's drama department, Jessica L. Speck, said she was "not at liberty to comment."

Many students view mature content in films, on television and on the Internet, but students producing depictions of sex and violence at a school-sanctioned event is a more delicate matter.

At least three of 40 high schools across the country that were scheduled to show a version of the Broadway musical "Rent" canceled their productions this spring after administrators or parents raised objections about the show's portrayal of homosexuality and drug use.

Churchill produced "Rent" during the last school year, but "Chicago" caused more heartburn. The script includes candid, and comical, scenes about killing and sex, and occasionally uses terms unfit for a family newspaper, let alone a high school play.

Publishers of shows with adult themes often create edited versions more suitable for younger audiences. But "Chicago" has no alternative. Instead, students and parents said, the script was vetted by a committee of school staff members. None of the parents or students knew who was on the committee.

A copy of the edited script provided by a student shows that the committee cut vulgarities. But there were other changes. "You been seeing the milkman" was the edited version of a phrase that included mild slang for having sex. The word "copulated" was changed to "been together."

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