11 Challenged and Banned Plays and Musicals

Books aren’t the only thing we celebrate during Banned Books Week. We also celebrate plays and musicals that have drawn the ire of censors. Let’s take a look at a few of the performances that have been attacked…

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 

by William Finn and Rachel Sheinken

A performance of The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Hyattsville Middle School in Maryland was cancelled about a week before it was supposed to start, ostensibly because teachers in the school raised concerns about the use of profanity, sexual innuendo, and racial humor in the play. Students were performing a slightly modified version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, in which the song “My Unfortunate Erection,” has been changed “My Unfortunate Distraction,” and school officials contended that licensing agency MTI wouldn’t allow further changes to remove offensive language. But the cancellation may not be as clear-cut as officials claim. Reporters who contacted MTI were informed that the agency had allowed such changes in the past. Further, there were rumors that the play had actually been cancelled because one of the characters has two dads. After the cancellation gained national attention, the school relented and allowed the performance to go on.

American Idiot

by Michael Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong

In early 2016, the Enfield, Connecticut, high school cancelled a production of the rock opera American Idiot. The Lamplighters student drama club was well into the planning stages had even held preliminary auditions, and faculty advisor Nate Ferreira was also in the process of editing the original (with the permission of MTI) to produce a “modified script and production notes [which] maintain the integrity of the show, while removing profanity and the more adult scenarios in the original Broadway production.” Unfortunately, some members of Lamplighters would be barred by their parents from participating in the production. Together with EHS principal Andrew Longey, Ferreira made the decision to call off “a show that most of the kids were extremely excited about” so that everyone who wanted to participate would be able to do so. The group opted to perform Little Shop of Horrors instead.

And Then Came Tango

Arguing it was “the best thing for our community”, the Sierra Foothill Charter School near Fresno, California, cancelled a showing of the play And Then Came Tango. Based on the story of a pair of male penguins that raise a chick (which also inspired a bestselling and frequently challenged children’s picture book), the play put on by Fresno State’s Theatre for Young Adults was initially shown at the anti-censorship conference Outlawed: The Naked Truth About Censored Literature for Young People. The school board voted unanimously to cancel the play after parent protest.

Cabaret

by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Parents at a Catholic school in the San Fernando Valley campaigned against the performance of the musical Cabaret, calling the award-winning musical “vulgar” and claiming it “would subject these children to performing acts of grave indecency, immodesty, immorality, and homosexual behavior on the stage.” The school principal stood behind the performance, arguing it would benefit students.

Calendar Girls

by Tim Firth

In May 2019, a performance of Calendar Girls at the Carrollton Center for the Arts in Carrollton, Texas, was cancelled due to the “implication of nudity.” “This is a conservative town, a conservative mayor and council, and we are not comfortable having our name on this production,” City Manager Time Grizzard told WLBB radio. “I understand that it is not in any way pornographic. I know there’s no actual nudity involved. It just has the appearance of that sort of thing. It just sends a message that we are not comfortable having our name on.” City officials did say they would allow the performance to happen independently, but it would have required finding sponsors and paying to use the theater space. While that funding was ostensibly available, the group behind the performance elected not to do it in fear that they might upset city officials and put future productions at risk. Carrollton officials have a track record of canceling plays they think racy; they had previously cancelled a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 2011.

Legally Blonde

by Heather Hach, Nell Benjamine, Laurence O’Keefe

An Ohio high school fired Sonja Hansen after she directed and choreographed a well-attended production of the musical Legally Blonde. Students were permitted to finish the run of Legally Blonde, which reportedly received standing ovations, but Hansen was reprimanded by the administration for allegedly “going against the school’s code of conduct.” Principal Christopher Kloesz allegedly cited “bootie-bounce dance moves” and the use of the word “skank” as reasons for the punishment.

The Producers

by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

A high school in Orangetown, New York, decided to remove all swastikas from a performance of The Producers, a satirical musical about Adolf Hitler. A small group of parents had complained about the offensive imagery, and Superintendent Bob Pritchard responded by requiring the removal of all swastikas from the set. “There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate,” he said. “The optic, the visual, to me was very disturbing. I considered it to be an obscenity like any obscenity.”

Rent

by Jonathan Larson

A 2014 production of Rent was cancelled by the first-year principal at Trumbull High School in Trumbull Connecticut after complaints over “sensitive” and “controversial” content. The young thespians were performing a version of the Tony Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that had been adapted for younger performers with the permission of the Larson estate and did not include the song “Contact,” which describes sexual activity. Students themselves pushed back against the cancellation to no avail.

Spamalot

by Eric Idle and John Du Prez

In 2014, the South Williamsport Area School District in Pennsylvania cancelled a planned production of Monty Python’s Spamalot due to “homosexual themes,” and then fired drama teacher Dawn Burch in apparent retaliation for speaking out in protest.

Sweeney Todd

by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

A Timberline Regional High School production of Sweeney Todd was cancelled in 2014 after administrators deemed parts of the play unacceptable. “We were uncomfortable with the script and agreed that this was not the right time or place for the performance,” said Superintendent Earl Metzler. The censorship went beyond the play. Students made a Facebook page in protest, but Metzler said much of what was written on it was “beyond disrespectful and rude, as well as illegal” and advised the creator to delete the page.

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s play about a young woman who disguises herself as a man was banned in a New Hampshire school system due to a rule that called for the “prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction.”

The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund maintains The Defender, a database of dramatic works that have been challenged or censored in the United States. Find more banned plays and musicals here.

 

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