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A public policy forum -- with a Broadway melody

May 27, 2010 | 12:15 pm

Oklahoma Fiscal responsibility. Infrastructure. Health and safety. These usually aren't things to sing about -- unless you're Sheila Kuehl.

The founding director of Santa Monica College's new Public Policy Institute wants to get people  engaged and educated about government decisions that affect their lives -- a subject many find eye-glazing.

So Kuehl has decided to enliven things by using show tunes to help get the message across.

The institute will hold a June 16 community forum, "Public Policy on Broadway," in which
the school's musical theater workshop will perform numbers from "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific" and "The Pajama Game" to introduce topics for what Kuehl calls "Socratic dialogues" with the audience.

Kuehl is aware some might consider this approach far-fetched or, pardon the expression, a bit of a song and dance.

"I think it's a very attractive hook," she says, "but it's not a gimmick. Yes, it will be fun, but I chose each number because it's got deeper issues embedded in it. People like Rodgers and Hammerstein all the way to 'Rent' or 'In the Heights' are writing musicals about important ideas that really are public policy."

From "South Pacific," for instance, she selected "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," which describes the prejudices that can be ingrained in people at an early age. "It can be about that," says Kuehl, "or about what we're taught -- education -- or about wherever the audience goes from there."

Kuehl is a lawyer and termed-out veteran of 14 years in the state Legislature as well as a theater buff and former actress. (She played Zelda on TV's "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" in the late '50s and early '60s.)

"I think a lot of people are like me," says Kuehl, "interested in the arts and civic engagement. So I'm expecting to get a grand variety of folks coming."

"Public Policy on Broadway" will begin at 7 p.m. at the Edye Second Space theater in the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing

-- Karen Wada

Photo: Mark Platt and Katharine Sergava in a scene from the 1943 Broadway production of "Oklahoma," Credit: Gjon Mili / Getty Images.