Tonight marks the opening of LaGuardia High School’s production of “The Sound of Music.” Audiences can expect the rousing score of Richard Rodgers, the inspiring words of Oscar Hammerstein – but if they come looking for historical accuracy, they may leave disappointed.
The New York Daily News heard from students at LaGuardia, a New York City public high school for music, arts and performing arts, that a number of prop flags and emblems with Nazi iconography functioning as part of the set and costume design were ordered removed by principal Lisa Mars prior to opening night.
“They are removing some, but not all [of the flags] because then it becomes a copyright issue,” a student involved in the production told the Forward. “The script will retain any Nazi phrases,” the student added. “It makes no sense. It’s history, why change it?”
While the use of offensive symbols should be contextualized, the plot of the musical, which follows an Austrian naval captain who escaped conscription by the Nazis, appears to make the symbols necessary to the storytelling.
In the 1959 stage musical and the 1965 film version, swastika banners and armbands reveal the emergence of a Nazi threat. In the film, Christopher Plummer’s Captain Von Trapp finds and tears a banner displayed at his home and in both the film and stage versions a young man, Rolfe, reveals his membership in the Hitler Youth by appearing in uniform.
The student the Forward spoke to noted that all Nazi armbands have been removed from the party members’ costumes and that three Nazi banners will be present in the pivotal concert hall scene toward the end of the show, though there were originally four banners planned to be used in the performance.
Mars could not be reached for comment but the city Department of Education confirmed to The News that the Nazi flag would be included in two scenes in the play.
“The use of this historical symbol of hatred … serves both an artistic and pedagogical purpose, and the decision to include it was made in collaboration with school staff, students and families,” city education spokeswoman Miranda Barbot told The News.
Some students are nonetheless concerned with the removal of swastikas, which were a pervasive part of life in 1930s Austria where the play is set.
“This is a very liberal school, we’re all against Nazis,” one sophomore performer told The News. “But to take out the symbol is to try to erase history… Obviously the symbols are offensive,” he added. “But in context, they are supposed to be.”
The production is hoping to educate audiences in another way, with a portion of the show’s earnings going to Holocaust organizations like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, students and city education officials told The News.
The News also notes that the show’s playbill will include an insert that reads in part: “When we say never again will those atrocities of war be repeated, NEVER AGAIN must be a promise kept.”
While the musical never alludes to the Holocaust, which began after the play’s events, these leaflets convey the broader context of the narrative, something that Nazi symbols have the power to do as well.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.