Around my house, when one wants to give an example of sappy and saccharine light classical music, one usually invokes Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.” And when we want to disparage the kind of corny white-bread show-tune music of our parents’ generation, the go-to song is “Take my hand, I’m a stranger of paradise,” a hit from the 1954 movie of the musical Kismet, which uses Borodin’s dances and takes a small whiff of the Islamic orientalism of 1001 Arabian Nights to primp up a standard western love story told unimaginatively. Kismet is kind of like applying the “theme restaurant” approach to musical drama. Instead of the pinch of cilantro of a Chili’s or a few icons of Italian décor in a Pizza Hut, Kismet gives us a little romantic jigger of the Near East.
You’d think such an American chain-like recipe would be perfect for a rural western Pennsylvania school district looking for a safe play for the annual high school drama. But the Richland School District has decided to scrap its plans to have the high-schoolers tackle Kismet after community members complained about the timing so soon after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
I’m not sure what timing has to do with it. The only thing offensive in Kismet is its very lack of offensiveness—something that the residents of rural areas would usually embrace, judging from the local restaurant, movie and radio selections. In this case, “timing” is a code word for “anti-Islamic,” much as “support our troops” was usually a code phrase for “support this illegal and ill-considered war.”
What’s most disappointing was that the school district capitulated to a group of local ignoramuses. Nowhere in the coverage do we know how many people really complained. I do know from past experience that organizations tend to capitulate too quickly to complaints and often draw a conclusion from a very low sample size. The latest to fold to a small part of the public was Netflix, which made a smart long-term business move by separating the fee for DVD rentals from that of unlimited program streaming. When people complained, the Netflix reaction was a stupid move—separating the two delivery mechanisms into two distinct companies.
I remember when I was PR counsel for a large supermarket company, an advocacy organization with a name that included the word “American” wanted the client to put brown slip covers on copies of Cosmopolitan, GQ and other supposedly racy magazines that the supermarket displayed on its shelves. An absurd request, since the material is far less risqué than what’s on TV and billboards. Another major supermarket had recently agreed to this organization’s demands.
Instead of knee-jerking to this unnecessary assault on first amendment rights, I did some research. I found out that in the previous three years, only one complaint of the more than 50,000 that the supermarket had received had mentioned risqué magazine covers; I should point out that virtually all of the company’s stores were in rural areas or small cities, places in which one would be more likely to receive a complaint. The other fact I uncovered was that this foundation consisted of one individual who ran such a website. We did not fold, and we received no further complaints.
Would that the Richland School District had stood its ground! Then I could have placed my complaint that the school district has no business offering their students such pabulum as Kismet with South Pacific, My Fair Lady, the H.M.S. Pinafore and West Side Story available.