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Adults complained about a teen theater production and the show's creators stepped in

Shawn Waldron
Getty Images

Is high school theater the next battleground in the culture war?

In Florida, Indiana, Kansas and Pennsylvania plays and musicals have been challenged or canceled recently. Parents or school officials have complained that the content isn't family friendly.

One such case is a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Cardinal High School in Middlefield, Ohio. But there, the story took a different turn.

Spelling Bee is a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2005, ran for nearly three years and won two Tony Awards. High schools love the show and perform it often. Teens get to play characters who are close to their own ages and experiences.

"A lot of the kids [in the show] are dealing with problems at home or self-image issues," says Cardinal High School senior Riley Matchinga. She was cast as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, a competitor in the spelling bee who has two gay dads.

"Carl Dad is kind of drill sergeant with spelling," explains Matchinga, "He wants his daughter to be super successful and win, win, win. Where Dan is more like 'Ok, it's time for a break. We can let her chill out for a little bit.'"

Rehearsals were going well. But about three weeks in, the director, music teacher Vanessa Allen, got an email from the Cardinal Schools' Superintendent asking why he was hearing about the school musical. "And he mentioned something about inappropriate content," says Allen.

There is some dispute over what the objections were. Allen says she was told school board officials' concerns included "sexual innuendo" and "the gay dads."

Superintendent Jack Cunningham has denied those were the issues. He declined to be interviewed but, in a public statement, said the musical was canceled for "vulgarity."

Allen canceled rehearsals and broke the news to the cast and crew as well as their parents. "We gave them the option that we are willing to — for lack of a better word — fight this decision. But only if that's what you want us to do," Allen remembers telling the students.

"And we're all like, 'Yes, let's fight it. Let's do it. We love this show," says Matchinga. "We think it's a really good show and something worth putting on."

In the tight-knit theater world, word spreads fast

Don't mess with theater people: Word of the show's cancelation spread fast, reaching the creators of Spelling Bee and the original cast, including actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson who took to Instagram with an impassioned message for both the students and school officials who canceled the show.

"There's something I feel I just have to get off my chest. I'm a little rattled," said the Modern Family star. "I guarantee you that there's someone at this school who is maybe being raised by gay parents but, definitely, more than one person at this school is gay or lesbian or bisexual and the message that this sends to them, that that is not ... family friendly is toxic and harmful and kind of abusive."

Ferguson's message reached thousands of people and generated local and national news coverage.

Spelling Bee creators Rebecca Feldman and Rachel Sheinkin called Vanessa Allen in Middlefield. "They found my contact information and offered to make changes," Allen says incredulously.

"It's heartbreaking for the kids if you cancel it in the middle of rehearsals and construction and the rest," says librettist Sheinkin.

<em>The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee</em> debuted on Broadway in 2005 and won two Tony Awards.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee debuted on Broadway in 2005 and won two Tony Awards.

A lot of Broadway shows have junior versions kids can perform. There isn't one for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, except for an alternate version of a song about puberty. But what's pretty unusual here is that the creators agreed to consider more than 20 of the school board's specific changes.

"There were a lot of different requests and we weren't able to accommodate ones that changed the story or the character arc. But we were very happy to accommodate ones that changed individual words and a whole lot of 'damn' and 'goddamnit,'" says Sheinkin.

She agreed to change "good lord" to "good grief." The line "and I've heard that she's pro-choice/ though still a virgin," was changed to, "but she will not make her choice/ 'till she is certain."

Sheinkin did not agree to change the lyric, "I'm not that smart," in the song "I'm Not That Smart." The character Leaf Coneybear, played in the original by Ferguson, sings 'I'm not that smart,' because that's what he hears from his family.

"Clearly, that's a bigger change than we're going to be able to make," says Sheinkin matter-of-factly. "And it has to do with the character's story who comes to appreciate his own intelligence."

'Not all characters in drama are nice'

A lot of the changes the board wanted would've made the show kinder and gentler.

School board officials asked that one character not be a bully. They asked that another not lament feeling like a loser. But the show is about a competition. "We thought it sounds like they're wanting all the characters to be nice and not all characters in drama are nice" Sheinkin says.

"Theater is about more than just getting on stage and singing a song and dancing a dance," reflects Cardinal High School senior, Riley Matchinga. "It's about making people think critically and think about life in ways that you wouldn't on a day to day basis, and empathize with people."

Empathy. In some ways, that's what happened at Cardinal High School. Once the changes were made the school board announced the show could go on.

In an email to NPR, Superintendent Jack Cunningham wrote: "We are focused on learning from our situation and moving forward internally."

Sheinkin thinks the process was a win for the students and the community overall. "Whatever the original reasons for the objections ... we came to a place of common understanding and common sense and consideration for the students, and I think it's fair to say there's consideration for the students on all sides," Sheinkin says.

I think we all see what's happening nationally with censorship. And I never thought that I would be dealing with it. But now, after all this, I'm starting to question everything I'm doing.

Vanessa Allen is thrilled her students are getting to perform. At the same time, this experience has shaken her.

"I think we all see what's happening nationally with censorship," she says. "And I never thought that I would be dealing with it. But now, after all this, I'm starting to question everything I'm doing."

Allen is not alone. "Teachers are definitely nervous," says Drew Cohen, President and CEO of Music Theatre International which licenses musicals to, among others, thousands of high schools.

"They're nervous about just saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. The last thing they want to do is have a problem with the parent body or the board because they picked the wrong show," says Cohen.

In the current culture war, it seems that what's "wrong" is increasingly subjective, making it a tough environment for high school theater programs.

This story was edited by Rose Friedman and produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.