A Public Domain High School Musical

My junior year, the Springville High School drama department was destitute. Or, at least that’s how it seemed when our drama teacher pitched The Mikado for our yearly musical. This announcement, which all the drama kids had gathered to hear, was met with a resounding “huh?” What even was The Mikado?

Well, The Mikado is a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta first performed in 1885. Set in a Japan, with a cast of all white actors (more on that later), it was a smash hit when it was released, and, to this day, it’s still vaguely floating around in popular culture. Most importantly, The Mikado, is in the public domain. All of the sheet music, lyrics, and script are available online, for free. In comparison, the rights and materials for a modern musical can cost thousands of dollars, and our high school apparently didn’t have that kind of cash lying around (at least, not for the arts). So, we put on a show that only our grandparents recognized, and included a plot summary in the program, because even us kids, who had been rehearsing for months, still didn’t actually get what was going on. 

With licensed musicals, deviation from the script is prohibited, but, with The Mikado, it’s become a tradition. The song “As someday it may happen,” in which an executioner sings about his list of potential victims, has been continually rewritten for subsequent performances of the show. While the original version criticizes “lady novelists” and “people who have flabby hands,” our version criticized texting audience members and the rival high school. More importantly, our director also decided to nix the yellowface and set the show in 19th century England, instead of Japan. 

This week’s readings helped me to better understand why copyright laws exist. Ultimately, they promote creativity through fairness. However, this week’s readings also made me even more grateful for works like The Mikado, which, thanks to the public domain, are now free for any high school to clumsily perform on budget. To use Lessig’s terminology, our show became part of RW culture, because we could legally change up the show’s material. Both copyright laws and publicly accessible works have their place in promoting creativity.

Image: me performing “Three little maids from school are we,” one of the show’s better known songs. Accessed via my dad’s blog https://beitemmett.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-mikado.html

4 thoughts on “A Public Domain High School Musical”

  1. I was also thinking about my school musicals while watching the copyright video. Although we never performed anything in the public domain, we did do a musical that was definitely less-known. I wonder if rights to perform a musical cost less depending on its popularity…? Anyway, thanks for putting things in context!

  2. I loved reading this! I was thinking about my school musical that I participated in–Beauty and the Beast. As you might assume, we were not able to make a lot of changes, but I was surprised that we were able to make some small changes. I never would have thought about works redone legally with the copywrite as being part of the R/W culture, but I guess it’s true that once you can legally create your own work with what you have been given, you are writing your own piece to add to culture.

  3. I like your line about copyright laws promoting creativity. I think that’s exactly what they do! Although many people wanting to use certain material may argue that it hurts creativity, it ultimately helps it flourish in the end. Without copyright law and high school plays, we’d have a creative drought.

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