Like mullets and floppy disks, some things are better left in the past. Innovation and discovery have allowed us to learn from our mistakes and teach new, more correct ideas to future generations.
Unfortunately, the musical theater ensemble at McNally Smith College of Music didn’t get that memo when they decided on Schoolhouse Rock LIVE! for their summer production. Performed for Twin Cities schoolchildren, the musical ran from July 29 to August 2 at a variety of local venues. Although the performers were obviously gifted singers, the one-act show’s material was severely outdated, and at times uncomfortably politically incorrect.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved Schoolhouse Rock. What American kid wasn’t humming “I’m Just a Bill” during his or her high school civics exam, or didn’t have “Conjunction Junction” stuck in his or her head at the bus stop? For any kid that grew up between 1973-2000, the cartoon lessons of Schoolhouse Rock were as integral to Saturday mornings as breakfast cereal. But it took years for my real-life teachers to unravel the many lessons Schoolhouse Rock includes in its curriculum.
For example, do you remember the Schoolhouse Rock classic, “Great American Melting Pot“? It praises the nineteenth century wave of immigrants for making America successful. What this song painfully ignores is that in the 1800s about 15 percent of the country’s population did not come to the US voluntarily. The song only focuses on European immigrants, ignoring the fact that 28 percent of the US is now non-white.
Singing such a song to a theater filled with inner-city kids of numerous colors and creeds doesn’t speak to the narratives their families lived. Schoolhouse Rock LIVE! also includes a scary number called “Elbow Room,” wherein the legend of manifest destiny takes center stage while blatantly glossing over the Trail of Tears.
Granted, not all the songs are tales of imperialistic brainwashing. “Sufferin’ for Suffrage,” led by the soulful Faydra Jones, shines light on the 19th amendment, while a barbershop-esque quartet comprising Jake Rahier, Brody Meinke, Brad Kallhoff, and Garrison Laborde made learning about adverbs hilarious (and quite dreamy). But, come on, this show still considers Pluto a planet.
While I squirmed at the historical inaccuracies of the show, the kids around me squirmed from boredom. The third graders in front of me poked their seatmates, while the sixth graders behind kept up an ongoing snide commentary.
There was a beautiful moment when the actors pulled a few smiling kids on stage to boogie. But most of the time, the few adults in the audience were having more fun singing about exclamation points and inventors than were these kids who never saw Schoolhouse Rock on TV.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.