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When adults complained about a teen theater production, the show's creators stepped in

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Pretty much everything from pandemic masks to M&M commercials have become a part of the culture wars. So, too, has high school theater. Plays and musicals are being challenged or canceled over content that's deemed not family-friendly. One such case is in Cardinal High School in Middlefield, Ohio. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the story there took an unexpected pirouette.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2005, ran for nearly three years and won two Tony Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE")

JOSE LLANA: (As Charlito Tolentino, singing) At the 25th annual Putnam County spelling bee, my parents keep on telling me just being here is winning.

BLAIR: High schools love this show and perform it often.

RILEY MATCHINGA: In the show, a lot of the kids are dealing with problems at home or, like, self-image issues.

BLAIR: Riley Matchinga is a senior at Cardinal High School. She was cast as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, a competitor in the spelling bee who has two gay dads.

MATCHINGA: Carl Dad is kind of like a drill sergeant with spelling. Like, he wants his daughter to be super successful and win, win, win, where Dan is more like, OK, it's time for a break. Like, we can let her chill out for a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOE IS ME")

MATCHINGA: (As Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, singing) All my so-called friends roll their eyes. They're incredibly petty because my dads are my dads and all right, enough, already. Woe is me. Woe is me, which is why I got to win the spelling bee.

BLAIR: Rehearsals were going well, but about three weeks in, the director, music teacher Vanessa Allen, got a call from the Cardinal Schools' superintendent.

VANESSA ALLEN: Asking, why was the school board getting - I don't know if he said phone calls or emails about the school musical. And he mentioned something about inappropriate content.

BLAIR: There's some dispute over what the objections were. Allen says she was told they were sexual innuendo, the appearance of Jesus and the two 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 because of vulgarity. Director Vanessa Allen called a meeting with the cast and crew and their parents and told them the show was canceled.

ALLEN: And then we gave them the option and said we are willing to - for lack of a better word, to fight this decision, but only if that's what you want us to do.

MATCHINGA: And we were all like, yes, let's fight it. Let's do it. We love this show. We think it's a really good show and something worth putting on.

BLAIR: Don't mess with the tightknit world of theater people. Word spread.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: There's something I sort of feel like I have to get off my chest.

BLAIR: Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who starred in "Modern Family," was in the original cast of "Spelling Bee." He took to Instagram.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERGUSON: I guarantee that there's someone at this school who is maybe being raised by gay parents, but definitely more than one person at the school is gay or lesbian or bisexual. And the message that this sends to them that that is not family appropriate - or family-friendly, rather - is toxic and...

BLAIR: His message reached thousands of people and ended up on the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: A school musical here in Northeast Ohio is getting national attention over some controversy.

BLAIR: In the meantime, the original creators of "Spelling Bee" called Vanessa Allen in Middlefield.

ALLEN: They found my contact information and offered to make changes.

BLAIR: Got that? Creators of a beloved Broadway musical offered to make changes for a high school in Middlefield, Ohio.

RACHEL SHEINKIN: It's heartbreaking for the kids if you cancel it in the middle of rehearsals and construction and the rest.

BLAIR: That's librettist Rachel Sheinkin, who won a Tony for "Spelling Bee." Now, a lot of shows have junior versions kids can perform. There isn't one for "Spelling Bee," except for an alternate version of a song about puberty. But what's pretty unusual here - the creators agreed to consider the school board's specific changes - more than 20 of them.

SHEINKIN: 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 - a whole lot of damn and [expletive]. Can you say [expletive] on NPR?

BLAIR: No, we have to bleep it.

SHEINKIN: If you can't say it on NPR, then you can understand why they don't want to say it in Middlefield, and we can be sympathetic to that.

BLAIR: She agreed to change good Lord to good grief. She changed a line about someone being a virgin. She did not agree to change this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT THAT SMART")

FERGUSON: (As Leaf Coneybear, singing) I'm not that smart. My siblings have been telling me that for years.

SHEINKIN: There was a request in the song "I'm Not That Smart." Change "I'm Not That Smart."

BLAIR: The kid sings I'm not that smart because that's what he hears from his family.

SHEINKIN: Clearly, that's a bigger change than we're going to be able to make. And it has to do with the character's story, who comes to appreciate his own intelligence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT THAT SMART")

FERGUSON: (As Leaf Coneybear, singing) I might be smart. My siblings can't believe that I got it right.

BLAIR: A lot of the changes the board wanted would have made the show kinder and gentler. But the show is about a competition. School board officials asked that one character not be a bully. They asked that another not lament feeling like a loser.

SHEINKIN: We thought it sounds like they're wanting all the characters to be nice, and not all characters in drama are nice.

MATCHINGA: Theater is about more than just getting on stage and singing a song and dancing a dance or whatever.

BLAIR: Cardinal High School senior Riley Matchinga.

MATCHINGA: It's about making people think critically, think about life in ways that you wouldn't on a day-to-day basis and empathize with people.

BLAIR: Empathy - in some ways, that's what happened at Cardinal High School. The school board announced the show would go on. In an email to NPR, Superintendent Jack Cunningham wrote, we are focused on learning from our situation and moving forward internally.

SHEINKIN: Whatever the original reasons for the objections might have been, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We ideate.

LISA HOWARD: (As Rona Lisa Peretti) To ideate is to form an immature idea - to think.

BLAIR: Nice ending to a difficult story. Vanessa Allen is thrilled her students are getting to perform, but this experience has shaken her.

ALLEN: 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 mean, I'm starting to question everything I'm doing now.

DREW COHEN: Teachers are definitely nervous. They're nervous about just saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing.

BLAIR: Drew Cohen is CEO of Music Theatre International, which licenses musicals to, among others, thousands of high schools.

COHEN: The last thing they want to do is have a problem with the parent body or the board because they picked the wrong show.

BLAIR: Wrong is subjective. And that makes it a tough environment for high school theater programs.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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