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Cast Off

What Happened to the Coed Musical?

In a May of 2022 email, Head of High School Dr. Simcha Pearl announced to parents a number of new programs for the upcoming year, including a spring semester coed high school musical, in addition to the annual all-girls Chagiga. This was an exciting announcement for some male High School students, who have had no opportunities to perform on stage as part of a high school theater production. Junior Moshe Eidex, who operated the spotlight for Chagiga and the lower and middle school plays this year, was one of those students. “I want to be on stage for something,” he said. Unfortunately for Moshe and students like him, the promised high school musical for this year never got off the ground.

A coed musical is not halachically out of the question for the AJA High School; many Modern Orthodox schools around the country have coed musical productions.

In the past, the High School, whether under the name Yeshiva Atlanta (YA) or Atlanta Jewish Academy, has shied away from gender inclusive musical productions for religious reasons related to kol isha, the religious prohibition placed on men against hearing women sing. General Studies Principal Mr. Joel Rojek, who has been working in the YA/AJA High School for 20 years, explained, “My understanding of it was that we were trying to be sensitive to kol isha and how there’re some folks in our community who would rather not attend a performance where women are singing or would feel uncomfortable if they felt pressured to.” In light of this, the High School in Mr. Rojek’s time has organized a few gender inclusive non-musical plays but never a musical other than Chagiga.

This tradition seemed likely to change when, in 2014, the YA High School merged with GHA, a school with a long history of gender inclusive middle school musicals. In preparation for that merger, a committee chaired by Mr. Jeff Stein and Ms. Renee Kutner met to discuss differences in religious practices between the two merging schools, and it addressed the question of gender inclusive musical theater. It concluded, “Coed musical performances would be permitted for all grades (including post Bar/Bat Mitzvah); however, both male and female students would be allowed to sing only in groups of 2 or more. While the halacha for this type of school would permit a male or a female solo for a non-suggestive song, it is recommended that, since this is a change of policy and practice, it is best to not allow solos at this time.”

The same hesitancy about changing tradition that motivated the committee to discourage solo singing in potential coed productions was, according to Dr. Pearl, a major factor in preventing the promised coed musical from taking place this year. He said, “It’s not that the school has been opposed to it based on halachic reasons, it’s just that it’s a time of transition and evolution for the school, and to depart significantly from what we’ve done in the past, the timing just doesn’t seem to be right.”

Interim Head of School Ms. Franeen Sarif stated similarly that a coed musical is not halachically out of the question for the AJA High School; many Modern Orthodox schools around the country have coed musical productions. According to Ms. Sarif, the most significant obstacle to the production of a coed theatrical production this year was lack of interest. 

Although students like Moshe and junior Elisha Feit Mann hope to participate in a school sponsored musical production, there aren’t yet enough interested students. Even for some theater-inclined students, a full musical production requires too much of a time commitment. Junior Mikey Wilson, for instance, who participated in middle school musicals, said he would join a coed musical if he were not already too busy with sports.

Additionally, many female students who enjoy theater participate in Chagiga but have little interest in performing in a second musical production. “It would be a good thing,” said junior Aiden Smolensky, who played a lead role in this year’s Chagiga, but “I need some time off.” Junior Kayla Minsk, who also played a lead role in Chagiga this year, agreed. “I think that doing one play is a lot of energy and work, and when I’m done, I don’t necessarily want to commit again to another play,” she said. 

There does not appear to be a large enough group of both male students interested in a musical and female students looking for a second musical to sustain a springtime coed play at this time. Nevertheless, a smaller step has been taken this year to expand the High School drama department in an area accessible to male students: Technical Director Breit Katz launched a drama elective for the High School. Unfortunately, due to scheduling difficulties, they could not launch it until the middle of the spring semester, and only two students signed up to switch into the elective mid-semester. 

According to Ms. Sarif, there have been “ongoing conversations” with incoming Head of School Rabbi Levitt about the future of AJA’s drama department. She says AJA is looking to expand its drama department further next year, possibly retooling a High School classroom into a “black box theater.” Given interest levels this year, it seems unlikely that a coed musical will be performed next year, but the administration is considering other options, depending on student needs and interests. “What is good for the students is really what we want to do,” explained Ms. Sarif.

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