Cardinal School Board Drops Curtain on Spring Musical: ‘Not Family-Friendly’
January 31, 2023 by Ann Wishart

After weeks of rehearsing and set-building, the curtain came down on Cardinal Schools’ spring production before audience members could even get their hands on a playbill.  

UPDATE: This online story has been updated from the print version to include the emailed complaint sent to two Cardinal Schools Board of Education members.

 

After weeks of rehearsing and set-building, the curtain came down on Cardinal Schools’ spring production before audience members could even get their hands on a playbill.

On Jan. 25, following a lengthy executive session, Cardinal Schools Board of Education told musical director Vanessa Allen the drama department’s show, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” would not go on.

“We received a complaint from a resident on Jan. 11,” board President Linda Smallwood said Jan. 27, adding several other families registered concerns about the production.

Obtained through a public records request, the complain read: “I have heard some rumblings about the content of this year’s musical. I read the script and did find it very troubling for a school performance (sexual and religious references). I also understand that the performance for the middle school will not happen due to the content. Also, hearsay from a student in the show is that the musical staff is trying to see how far they can go with it now and in the future. I would appreciate you looking into this and letting us know your thoughts. Thank you in advance.”

The musical comedy is based on a book by Rachel Sheinkin, with music and lyrics by William Finn. It started off-Broadway in 2005 and has been widely seen in a variety of venues, including middle and high schools, since its inception, according to the All Musicals website.

Both Kenston and West Geauga high schools performed the musical in 2020 and 2019, respectively.

The Cardinal Schools Theater website announced the production for March 10-12 and noted: “Winner of the Tony and the Drama Desk Awards for Best Book, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has charmed audiences across the country with its effortless wit and humor. An eclectic group of six mid-pubescents vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime.”

The drama department chose the musical in October and began rehearsals and stage creation when school resumed after the Christmas break.

Musical Deemed ‘Not Family-Friendly’

On Jan. 12, after a discussion with district Superintendent Jack Cunningham, Smallwood said Allen was asked if the PG-13 musical was appropriate.

Allen gave board members copies of the script for their review. Smallwood said the director was invited to the Jan. 25 meeting, where four members of the board agreed to cancel the show.

No vote was taken and one board member, whom Smallwood did not name, believed pulling the plug on the production was a bad idea, she said, adding Allen did not come to the meeting.

In a phone interview Jan. 27, Allen’s husband, Brad Allen, volunteer production assistant, said she presented arguments to the board at the first meeting earlier in the month, but was not aware she was invited to attend the executive session.

“The board had issues with the song (“My Unfortunate Erection”), but Vanessa was planning on doing the alternate song (“My Unfortunate Distraction”),” Brad said.

Other issues may have included profane language, a scene where Jesus takes the stage to assure the students He loves them no matter what happens, and one of the competitors having two male parents, he added.

“The board felt the show is not family-friendly,” said Brad, adding the district never has had a formal approval process, but the administration is informed which production is in the works.

Smallwood said Cunningham does not recall approving the musical and the school board traditionally is not involved.

“The board doesn’t approve the play in the first place,” Smallwood said.

However, seventh- and eighth-grade students need permission slips signed by parents in order to see “Spelling Bee” and the board determined it is inappropriate for viewing by younger students.

“Our school musical should be appropriate for all students to see,” said Smallwood, pointing to “Spelling Bee’s” PG-13 rating. “We want kids to be able to see it.”

Mandi Matchinga, Cardinal’s volunteer assistant director for “Spelling Bee,” told school board members her confusion over their decision is an understatement.

“I’ve been racking my brain to figure out what the problem is. Why now? Why this show? I need some clarification,” she said in a letter to the board. “When asked what exactly is inappropriate about the show, the only answer we get is that it is not family-friendly. That is a very subjective term. Without expressing specific concerns and guidelines, the production team has no way to choose future shows so that we don’t end up in this exact situation. What does ‘family-friendly’ mean?”

Cunningham said Jan. 30 the Cardinal administration and board were most concerned with the vulgarity and bad language in some of the scenes, and were not confident they would be excluded.

“We are not trying to sabotage anything,” he said. “The rating was a big deal for the board.”

Other school boards have faced this same dilemma in the past.

In April 2019, middle school students in Hyattsville, Md., had been practicing “Spelling Bee” for a couple of months when the board sent a letter canceling it for similar reasons.

Howard Sherman, writing on the Independent Publisher website, reported no one was willing to specify the reasons for the cancellation, leading to protests by staff, students and parents.

Sherman wrote, “A letter from Principal Thornton Boone to the school community has announced that ‘Spelling Bee’ will go on, however, it is delayed by two weeks to make up for lost rehearsal time and with one less performance than originally scheduled. The students participating in the show will be required to have signed permission slips from their parents and students at the area elementary schools will not be invited to performances, which will be noted as being rated PG-13.”

Parents Claim Censorship

In an email to the Cardinal community Jan. 27, Matchinga said the teachers’ union president told staff members they could risk their jobs if they try to fight this.

“We have been advised not to speak at the board meeting,” she wrote. “This also means we may no longer rehearse/build for this show. The parents, students and community members have to be the ones to fight (starting with emails like we are doing) and show up at the board meeting on Feb. 8. In order to speak at the board meeting during the public comments portion, you must be on the board agenda ahead of time.”

Matchinga offered to assist anyone wanting to address the board.

Brad said he met with the parents of the nine cast members and 12 stage crew members on Jan. 26. Two of the parents emailed the following statements:

“Hi, my name is Nicole Clinger. I am the mother of two Cardinal theater program children.

“We are deeply disappointed by the recent decision made by the Cardinal school board to cancel ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ under the vague and misguided pretense that it is not ‘family-friendly.’ This kind of censorship is not only detrimental to the education and personal growth of our students, but it also sends a harmful message to our community that discrimination and prejudice are acceptable.

“Artistic expression is a fundamental right, and the censorship of this play is a violation of that right. It is important for our students to have access to diverse perspectives and experiences and this play offered just that.

“We call on the school board to reconsider their decision and to work towards creating a more inclusive and accepting environment for all students. We also call on the community to support the rights of our students to express themselves through art and to stand up against censorship and discrimination in all forms.”

Time, Energy Invested, Now What?

Matchinga, also the mother of two participants, resigned from her teaching position with the district last May, which she said gave her more freedom to speak up without fear of losing her job.

“I may lose my position as an assistant director, but if the students get their show back, it is well worth it,” she told the board in her letter. “I am not sure if you are aware, but Cardinal students have put hours and hours of work into this production. We hit the ground running when we came back from winter break. Cast members have invested hours of their time in rehearsals, characterization lessons, and group and individual voice lessons. The crew has spent equal time creating and building set pieces, scenery and props. The decision to shut this production down is heartbreaking.

“I’ve heard it suggested that we do a different show,” she continued. “I am not sure if those suggesting that realize that it can take up to six weeks to obtain license approval for a musical. You are not guaranteed a license if you apply. If we did get approval, we could begin rehearsing around March 15. We need 10 weeks to prepare for the show. That gives us a performance date of May 19.”

Matchinga said with the show’s cancelation, senior students will have had only one traditional musical experience in their high school career.

“Their freshman show was canceled the day before opening due to COVID. Their sophomore show had to be live-streamed, which is a different experience,” she said.
“They had their first ‘normal’ theater experience in their junior year. Canceling their senior show will crush them.”

District Treasurer Seth Cales said the rights to “Spelling Bee” cost $1,745 and he is not sure if a refund is likely.

Allen was scheduled to meet with Cunningham this week to go over alternative musicals, Smallwood said, adding the production date would be moved to the end of April or early May.