Some school districts are canceling student musicals. Here's why.
"People in the arts don’t fight with our fists, we fight with our pens."
As concerned parents sound the alarm on the growing number of bans targeting LGBTQ-themed books and (some rainbow-themed) songs on school campuses, some arts educators say high school theater may be the next battleground in the culture wars.
Evidence comes from states including Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Ohio and New Jersey, where plays and musicals have recently been challenged, reformatted or canceled altogether after parents and teachers complained that the works' social themes weren't appropriate for minors.
Such was the case with a production of The Addams Family — based on the hit 1960s show about a goth, kooky family — at Northern Lebanon High School, in Fredericksburg, Pa. Earlier this month, the district’s school board voted to pull the show from the school’s 2024 theater season, citing concerns over scenes with violence, children smoking and subtle queer themes.
“If we promote it, we permit it," board member Troy Williams, who is also a pastor, explained when he voted in favor to pull the production earlier this month, according to local news coverage. “There are a number of scenes, lines, and phrases in this musical that I do not want to promote within our district.” Meanwhile, board member Michelle Buck voted in favor of the production, noting that it's been one of the top most-produced high school shows for several years in a row, and that several nearby schools have produced it without a hitch. She also pointed to past Lebanon high school productions with similar themes, such as Grease, which has messages of violence and subtle hints about teen sex. Still, her points held little weight against the majority vote.
Yahoo Life reached out to Williams and Buck, as well as representatives from Northern Lebanon High School, all of whom opted not to comment for this story.
Despite the challenges, high school drama clubs across the country are fighting back — and winning. In February, for example, an Ohio school district reversed course after previously cancelling a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which had been three weeks into rehearsal, citing its “vulgarity” and its portrayal of two gay dads.
The outcry from students was so fervent that original Spelling Bee cast member Jesse Tyler Ferguson responded in an Instagram video, where he implored advocates of the arts to speak out. Ultimately, the show was allowed to go on — but only after the production’s creators Rebecca Feldman and Rachel Sheinkin revised several lines in the show to meet the board’s standards.
Similarly, a Florida high school's production of Indecent — a play that is, ironically, about censorship of a Yiddish Broadway play in 1923 — was shut down in January, prompting students like Madeline Scotti, who announced the cancellation in an Instagram video, to forcefully speak about the censorship of "a queer Jewish love story" that she sees as being fueled by Florida’s "Don’t Say Gay" law.
Florida's Duval County school board has yet to reverse that decision in response to the determination of its students, despite their own personal fears of being physically harmed for performing the work on stage.
Jennifer Katona, executive director of the Educational Theater Association, the leading organization for middle and high school theater teachers across the country, says attempts at banning high school productions with social themes — including The Prom, about a lesbian couple going to prom together; Be More Chill, about a Black high schooler struggling to choose between popularity and being his true self; and Indecent — have reached new heights lately.
“We're seeing the ban on books and what's happened to our English and social studies colleagues permeating our theater spaces in a very concerning way,” she tells Yahoo Life, pointing to a 2022 joint statement of leading arts-education organizations calling for teachers to respect the freedom of expression in high school theater, speech and debate programs.
“All students have the right to explore this content in any way they would like," she adds. "Teachers also have the right to bring in the text and share that content with their students, and students have the right to explore content that represents them: that includes race, gender and gender identity."
‘Kids know they’re being censored’
As Katona explains, productions depicting drug-use or violence — such as West Side Story, Hair, Rent and The Crucible — have always been controversial in schools. What’s particularly noteworthy about the recent cancellations, however, is that they often prompt widespread social media campaigns that make it harder for those in the know to contextualize the conversation and combat misleading information.
“It’s also about the legislation that's happening,” Katona says directly, pointing to the number of bills in state courts that have challenged critical race theory and the trans community. “Teachers are very concerned for their LGBT students, in particular, about the message this sends, when they see school boards fighting productions or plays or books” reflecting their identities.
Tracey Grimaldi, a vocal coach and arts educator who works with middle and high school students in the New York City area, says banning such works puts vulnerable queer kids at a unique disadvantage.
“Kids know they’re being censored,” she says. “They know they're being dumbed down. They feel caught in the middle of a fight they don't think has anything to do with them, and they feel pandered to. They feel like adults don't trust them to handle material that they feel mature enough to handle.”
That includes shows like The Laramie Project, a play documenting the 1998 murder of gay teen Matthew Shepard, which was banned by a Kansas high school in January after several petitions from parents complained its content was too adult.
In response, the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Tectonic Theater Project made free copies of the play available for all students at the school, while also writing an open letter arguing that the play is an opportunity for young people to discuss “the hate they encounter in their own lives, and how they can work collectively to build a more understanding and compassionate community.”
Moisés Kaufman, the show's co-writer and lead producer, isn’t surprised that The Laramie Project continues to strike a nerve 23 years after it was first produced, pointing out the political nature of its continued backlash.
“Many of the conversations we were having back then are still pertinent to our current national dialogue,” Kaufman tells Yahoo Life. “I won’t say progress has not occurred. It has. But there are backlashes by reactionary politicians and reactionary political parties. So, the arguments themselves have changed, but not the core of the hatred.”
Jordan Roth, Tony Award-winning producer and president of production company Jujamcyn Theaters, through which he oversees five Broadway theaters, argues that anti-trans laws — as well as recent bans against drag shows — are at the heart of why school boards are cancelling shows with LGBTQ themes.
“Banning these shows is just one part of a calculated campaign to annihilate an entire sector of humanity,” Roth tells Yahoo Life. “This is not about one musical or book or bathroom or sports team or drag performance. This is a coordinated effort to vilify, erase and ultimately eradicate trans and gender-expansive humans.”
He adds, “The reason they come for our shows first is that theater lets us know and care about people we may never know in our own daily lives. You can walk into a performance of Kinky Boots or La Cage [aux Folles] having never met a drag artist, and leave two-and-a-half hours later best friends with [characters] Lola or Alban. That’s the power of theatre to connect us — and that’s the power and connection they want to prevent.”
That's why, Grimaldi says, it's never been more important for educators to create safe spaces for young people who may feel ostracized at home, by their peers or by society at large. "Theater class and the choir room are the ultimate safe spaces," she says. "Arts educators just want to create a space for kids to express themselves, to feel heard."
‘We’re all listening’
Looking ahead, Katona says she’s humbled by the number of student activists protesting against unfair censorship on school stages. Now, she adds, is the time for adults to join them.
“Theater provides students the ability to build on their skills of collaboration and confidence and public speaking. These are lifelong skills that will take them through adulthood and really set them up for success," she says. “What parents can do if they want to help is to be advocates for change and advocates for the building up of [theater] programs. So, for every parent in the town who might say a production isn't appropriate, or who has a concern about the arts, we need the parents of students who are impacted [by a cancellation] to be equally as loud — if not louder. And parents have probably the most significant power at local levels.”
Grimaldi adds that the best weapon student artists can use in this moment is to utilize the tools in their arsenal, which they probably learned in theater class.
“People in the arts don’t fight with our fists, we fight with our pens,” she says. “We’ve been around long before [the recent cancellations], and we’ll be around way after. Everything we go through in life can be turned into art, and this is a defining moment.”
Adds Kaufman: "The arts have a humanizing influence. They put us in touch with what we all have in common. Arts in high schools serve another very important function: They create community among the sensitive, the lonely. They become a safe haven for the kids who do not easily belong to other groups. And in those communities, lives are saved."
Roth, whose roster of hits includes Slave Play, Torch Song, Spring Awakening, Hadestown, Take Me Out and many other shows with queer-centered stories, believes that in the years ahead, student artists will be the ones leading the world to a brighter — and more inclusive — future.
“First, for the artists, the storytellers, the act of telling our stories is an act of self-actualization,” he says of the importance of queer visibility on stage. “For the audience, it is an opportunity to see ourselves, to expand the canvas of possibility of what our lives can be, and to come to know and love those whose lives are different from ours. This is how we grow closer and stronger.”
Finally, he advises students: “Keep singing your hearts. We’re all listening.”
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