Ohio's Cardinal School District has reversed course after canceling a planned production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee due to "vulgarity" in the "dialogue and song lyrics ... not suitable for our preteen and teenage students." As reported by local news outlet FOX8, the district announced at a February 8 school board meeting that the production was back on, and will now use author-approved substitutions to address the "offending" material.
The school reportedly requested 23 revisions, all of which were granted by licensor Music Theatre International. It is not clear whether that list of requests went beyond the pre-approved alternate lyrics and dialogue made available by MTI, which removes obscenities and adjusts other content that could be inappropriate for younger performers. With and without these author-approved revisions, the 2005 musical has become among the most-produced shows by high schools since being made available for licensing.
Department leadership at Cardinal High School alleged that district administration had canceled the production due to issues with the musical's comedic depiction of Jesus, explicit language, and gay characters. District Superintendent Jack Cunningham fought back against those particular claims, saying "the district vigorously enforces its prohibition against discriminatory harassment based on race, color, national origin, [and] sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity)..." It remains unclear whether Cardinal's Spelling Bee will include the musical's gay characters as originally depicted or not.
Original Spelling Bee Broadway cast member Jesse Tyler Ferguson spoke out after the initial cancellation in an Instagram video. “I guarantee there’s someone at this school who’s maybe being raised by gay parents, but definitely more than one person at this school is gay or lesbian or bisexual,” he said. “The message that this sends to them, that that is not 'family appropriate' or 'family friendly,' rather, is toxic and harmful and kind of abusive.”
Ferguson and other members of the musical's original company ultimately participated in a Zoom session with Cardinal High School's Spelling Bee cast, a show of support from the Broadway favorites.
In fact, the theatre industry has largely coalesced around the disturbing trend of play and musical cancellations that have followed a nationwide rise in censorship of LGBTQ+ characters and themes, particularly in schools. Among those speaking out following the cancellation of a production of Paula Vogel's Indecent at a Florida High School were its Pulitzer-winning playwright, Vogel; and Slave Play writer Jeremy O. Harris. Plans are reportedly underfoot to find a way for the production to perform off of school grounds. The Dramatists Guild released a statement objecting to the cancellations February 6, offering support for alternate performance possibilities through their legal defense fund and launching a reporting system aimed at streamlining activism around similar cancellations.