On July 1, WNEP reported that South Williamsport Junior Senior High School dropped its plans to present the Tony Award-winning musical Monty Python's Spamalot after parents and administration officials expressed concerns over gay content in the production.
The school was contracted to present the musical with students in grades 7-12 from March 26-28, 2015. WNEP reported that the school's drama director Dawn Burch said she received an email from South Williamsport principal Jesse Smith citing homosexual themes in the musical comedy as a reason for the cancellation. Burch, who is not a full-time faculty member, has been a contracted drama director at the school since 2013.
The WNEP report also stated that Smith told Burch via email that homosexuality did not exist in the conservative South Williamsport Community. Smith did not respond to Playbill.com's request for comment at the time and Burch directed all inquiries to her legal counsel.
While he did not specifically address inquiries that Spamalot was canceled over gay content, South Williamsport Area School District superintendent Mark Stamm sent the following statement to Playbill.com on July 2. "The drama program includes students from grades 7-12. The performances are open to the public and will include members of the community, families, and children of all ages. We want our performances to be appropriate for the student performers and audiences so that anyone participating or watching can enjoy all aspects of the show."
WNEP later retracted its report that principal Smith emailed statements about homosexuals not existing in the South Williamsport Area community, while Burch maintained that homosexual content still stood as the reasoning behind the decision. Smith denied that he had "officially approved" the production; however, Theatrical Rights Worldwide, which licenses Spamalot, had included the school among its list of upcoming productions, a move licensing companies only make after receiving a signed contract and deposit for production.
"I don't know why they're saying it was never approved when Smith signed the check granting us permission. We got the license," Burch told the Sun-Gazette July 3. "He signed the check for $1,923 and I don't know what he thought that was going for. The check even said Spamalot license right in the memo."
Requests to view correspondance between Burch and school officials had been denied until now. Keystone Progress, a PA non-profit, submitted Right to Know requests for all public records surrounding the Spamalot controversy. Some 63 pages of documents from South Williamsport Area School District Superintendent Mark Stamm were released to the organization as well as other news outlets on Aug. 18, including the online blog curated by producer, administrator and writer Howard Sherman – the former director of the American Theatre Wing. Keystone Progress provided the documents to Playbill.com.
Copies of the contract, which were signed by Burch and a check for the production, signed by Smith, were among the documents released.
In an email sent June 27, principal Smith informed director Burch, "Finally, you told me late in the school year that you were looking to perform Spamalot for your Spring 2015 musical. I have some concerns such as a guy sending another guy a message on girl's underwear and a gay wedding being performed. If you are still planning on performing this then we will need to talk."
Burch replied that the script contained no such scene in which a message was sent on girl's underwear. She also noted, "As for the presence of homosexual themes in the show, I am fully aware of their place in the script, and am not certain what offense they create. As a public high school, an institution funded by the state, I do not understand the problem, especially considering the state's recent ruling in Whitewood v. Wolf," citing the case that legalized gay marriage in PA.
Smith conferred with Stamm on the matter and replied to Burch that he had authority to disallow any productions which he did not feel comfortable with.
"I am not comfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual themes for two main reasons," he wrote. "Drama productions are supposed to be community events. They are supposed to be performances that families can attend. To me, this type of material makes it very hard for that to take place. I don't want families to be afraid of bringing small kids because of the content. I don't want members of the community staying home because they feel the material is too risqué or controversial."
He added, "I think that choosing productions with this type of material or productions that may be deemed controversial put students in a tough spot. I don't want students to have to choose between their own personal beliefs and whether or not to take part in a production. I think there are many plays/musicals you can choose from that don't rise to that level. My overall feeling is that if the choice for the play or musical needs to be drastically cut to make it suitable or might not be suitable for families to attend then select something else. Please choose another musical for the Spring." Burch defended her choice of Spamalot in a June 30 email, in which she pointed out that Theatrical Rights Worldwide provided notes from the writers that offered organizations alternate ways in which to make the show middle school/high school appropriate. She also said that she invited Smith to attend an area production of Spamalot before he made his final decision to cancel the show, but "he did not seem open to that," expressing her disappointment that none of the school officials took the time to look at the script with her in person to point out specific concerns in the text.
She went on to point out that the students had been requesting to do Spamalot and that she would never force them to participate in something they were not comfortable with. She also wrote, "However, it is also naive of you to think that there are not gay students in your building currently and that there have been others in the past. I think it is extremely disappointing that homosexuality would be the basis of not approving a show, even if I were to have it performed this way. This is how we raise children to be haters. I have raised my daughters to be diverse and accepting of all people, faith, sexual preferences, etc. If these families know anything about theatre, then they should know that Broadway is a pretty large gay community. I have so many gay and lesbian friends that I am hurting for them today. Understanding how difficult it must have been for them in high school to have to hide who they are."
Burch closed by saying that Spamalot was a large-cast show that provided roles for all students who auditioned and it allowed her to build a lesson plan around the material. She also argued that producing Spamalot gave South Williamsport Junior Senior High School the opportunity to develop a strong artistic reputation that other schools in the area enjoyed, reminding them that other local schools packed their auditoriums by producing such shows as 9 to 5, as well as another school that included a lesbian kiss in its production. "Have they received complaints, certainly, but their administration supports them." She added, "The Disney movie 'Frozen' has been under attack for it's [sic] gay references... many of the girls in drama loved this movie and probably don't even realize that the popular song 'Let It Go' is anthem to those suffering behind doors for being different."
Superintendent Stamm replied, "Jesse has given the drama program considerable time and attention this year. He has thoroughly explained his reasons regarding show selections to you and discussed them with me as well. His decision is sound."
Burch, Smith and Stamm quickly found themselves at the center of national media attention as outlets began to pick up the news of Spamalot's cancellation.
Smith expressed concern that the initial WNEP account of what took place made him look like "a bigot among other things." Burch suggested that Smith issue an apology for using homosexual content as the reason for the show's cancelation.
An apology was never issued, and on July 3 the Sun-Gazette published an article that stated that homosexual content was not, in fact, the reason for pulling the plug on Spamalot. Stamm was quoted as saying, "It was a play that was submitted for consideration. It was never officially approved." "Board policy requires the building principal to approve public performances," he continued. "The building principal discussed it with me and there were concerns over the content that was not appropriate for audiences of all ages."
Burch shot back with an email to Stamm on July 3 calling the follow-up article "a complete lie." She wrote, "You know full well what was said in the email. Why are we lying? The focus at our meeting was to clarify that the quote being used by the media was not in fact from the email. We did not talk about complete denial. You have completely thrown me under the bus with your comments. Jesse did approve the show and in fact signed the check himself for the license. Why are we fabricating lies to try and fix this now?"
In a reply, Stamm characterized the situation as "unfortunate for all involved," pointing out that the feedback they "received from the community, both local and national, is being given appropriate consideration."
According to additional emails released, Burch questioned whether or not she would be able to continue her work with the school district following the controversy, but was working with TRW to select another production for spring 2015. Among the shows suggested was the Tony-nominated Andrew Lippa musical The Addams Family.
Playbill.com's request to interview Smith was re-directed to the school's district office. Stamm did not immediately reply to Playbill.com's request for comment.
Reached by phone Aug. 21, Burch told Playbill.com that she hoped she would be able to continue her work with the school as they move to select a new production. According to Burch, new guidelines from school officials are now in place in order to find material deemed appropriate for school-age audiences and performers. There had not been a clear selection process in place prior to the Spamalot controversy, she said.
The school is starting from scratch to find a new spring 2015 production and Spamalot is officially off the table Burch confirmed to Playbill.com. Several productions of a more classic Broadway theme are under consideration. She added that she hoped to have students offer their own input in the selection process when they returned to school next week.
"It's been a very disappointing event," she said, while saying that process to find a new "appropriate" show could still prove difficult. "I think that they're picking apart musicals," she said. "Even in classics there are things there that people can find offensive." While she was not hopeful that a clear way forward existed with school officials for a positive outcome regarding acceptance and diversity, Burch said some sort of gathering with the student body and the administration about the matter "would be nice."
Burch also said the reaction from students and the community regarding the selection of Spamalot and the ensuing media attention had been mixed. "I'm glad that the emails have been released," she insisted. "It's not about me, it's about the students. The administration has to admit to their mistakes and work to create an inclusive environment for all of the students."