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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund (DLDF), in partnership with PEN America, is pleased to present the fourth annual Banned Together: A Censorship Cabaret as a part of Banned Books Week (September 22-28), the annual celebration of the freedom to read.
The show will be performed in eight cities around the country:
- Atlanta – The Atlanta Cuban Club/ Kalliope Studios (September 25, 7:30 – 9:30 PM EDT; event info)
- Boston – Boston Public Library (September 23, 7:00 – 8:30 PM EDT; event info)
- Chicago – Roosevelt University (September 23, 7:30 – 9:00 PM CDT; event info)
- Houston – Alley Theater (September 23, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM CDT; event info)
- Dallas – Bishop Arts Theater (September 27, 8:00 – 9:30 PM CDT; event info)
- Nashville – Actors Bridge Studio at Darkhorse Chapel (September 29, 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM CDT; event info)
- Philadelphia – Free Library of Philadelphia (September 23, 7:00 – 10:00 PM EDT; event info)
- St. Petersburg, FL – Palladium Theater (September 23, 7:00 PM EDT; event info)
Banned Together: A Censorship Cabaret is a celebration of songs and scenes from shows that have been censored or challenged on America’s stages, created to raise awareness around issues of censorship and free expression in the theater. The performances will feature selections from Cabaret, Chicago, An Octoroon, Rent and Angels in America, among other notable works, with a libretto by DLDF President John Weidman (Assassins) and J.T. Rogers (Oslo, Blood and Gifts).
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit organization created by the Dramatists Guild to advocate for free expression in the dramatic arts and a vibrant public domain for all, and to educate the public about the industry standards surrounding theatrical production and about the protections afforded dramatists under copyright law. www.dldf.org @TheDLDF
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. www.pen.org @PENamerican
Looking for something to read during your Banned Books Week celebrations? Start here!
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has published their annual list of the ten most frequently challenged and banned books, along with an analysis of the censorship threats facing U.S. schools and libraries.
In 2017, the following books were among the most frequently attacked:
- Banned Spotlight: Thirteen Reasons Why
- Banned Spotlight: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- Banned Spotlight: Drama
- Banned Spotlight: The Kite Runner
- Banned Spotlight: George
- Banned Spotlight: Sex Is a Funny Word
- Banned Spotlight: To Kill a Mockingbird
- Banned Spotlight: The Hate U Give
- Banned Spotlight: And Tango Makes Three
- Banned Spotlight: I Am Jazz
If you’re looking for EVEN MORE challenged and banned books to read, check out the top ten lists for previous years here!
The National Council for Teachers of English has also compiled a comprehensive list of books that have been challenged between 2002 and 2018. View the list here!
Comics are challenged for all of the same reasons that other books are challenged, but they are uniquely vulnerable to challenges because of their visual nature. Because comics thrive on the power of the static image, a single page or panel can be the impetus for a challenge in a way that’s different from a passage in a book. Some people still believe that comics are low value speech or are made exclusively for children, and object to comics in the library because of these misconceptions. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund specializes in the defense of comics and graphic novels and the First Amendment rights of the comics community. Find out more about these 30 comics, which CBLDF has helped defend!
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund works to protect the rights of playwrights and performers, including their First Amendment rights to stage a work. One of the tools DLDF provides is The Defender, a database of dramatic works that have been challenged or censored. At present, the list includes more than 70 works that have been targeted by censors. Find out more here…
Books aren’t the only focus of Banned Books Week. Plays, musicals, and other theatrical productions are frequent targets of censors, from the bright lights of Broadway to the smallest grade school.
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund works to protect the rights of playwrights and performers, including their First Amendment rights to stage a work. One of the tools DLDF provides is The Defender, a database of dramatic works that have been challenged or censored in the United States. The database provides a way to track challenges to staged works, examples of ways in which challenges were overcome, and an idea of who is challenging plays and musicals and why.
At present, the list includes more than 70 works that have been targeted by censors. The attacks range from censorship of the source material, to calls for boycotts, to cancellations of productions, to termination of staff who supported the staging of the work.
A few highlights from the list:
- A production of American Idiot, the stage version of Green Day’s hit album, was cancelled at Enfield High School in Connecticut after a handful of parents complained about mature content in the musical and threatened to keep their children from participating. Several members of the Banned Books Week Coalition signed a letter in support of the play.
- Avenue Q, a hit musical comedy starring puppets that satirizes the anxieties of adulthood, saw the removal of ads in Colorado Springs because of visible puppet cleavage.
- Members of a church in Fulton, Missouri, objected to the depiction of smoking, drinking, and kissing in Grease.
- The Loveland High School in Ohio fired the director of the school’s production of Legally Blonde over “bootie-bounce dance moves” and the use of the word “skank”
- The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Greenwich Village cancelled Playwrights for a Cause, a benefit supporting the National Coalition Against Censorship, because of Neil LaBute’s anti-censorship monologue Mohammed Gets a Boner.
- A Pennsylvania high school cancelled a production of Spamalot over homosexual themes and subsequently fired the drama teacher for speaking about the cancellation.
You can view the entirety of DLDF’s database here.
Previous Banned Spotlights: