The letter, addressed to South Williamsport Junior Senior High School principal Jesse Smith on Sept. 11, was sent by Academy Award-winning Wicked, Pippin and Godspell composer-lyricist and Dramatists Guild president Stephen Schwartz "in strong and unequivocal protest of your discriminatory motivations for cancelling the show."
Emails between school officials and the show's director became public in August through Right to Know requests, which showed school officials had, in fact, canceled the production due to gay content. When news of the story originally broke, school officials including principal Smith and South Williamsport Area School District superintendent Mark Stamm, denied that the production had ever been officially approved, and went on the record as saying that homosexual content had not been at the root of the cancellation.
Documents released later showed that a production contract for Spamalot, including a deposit for show materials, had been signed and returned to the show's licensing company Theatrical Rights Worldwide. Emails released also revealed that Smith told Spamalot director Dawn Burch that he would not allow the show to go forward because he was "not comfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual themes."
After reading the correspondence, the Dramatists Guild stated that its normal channels for facilitating a positive outcome (as it had done with reinstating a CT school production of Rent) would be "futile." The Guild asserts that in cancelling the production, school officials "squander an opportunity for education by not only excluding so-called 'homosexual themes' from community discussion, but also by distinguishing between homophobia and discrimination against a particular gender, race, ethnicity or nationality," calling the move on the administrators' behalf a "specious decision."
The letter goes on to ask whether the school would use the same logic to cancel a school production of The Diary of Anne Frank so as not to offend Holocaust deniers, or those within the community who held anti-Semitic views. The Guild also states that in their decision not to stage Spamalot, school officials were catering to bigotry in order to avoid "controversy," which they "clearly failed on that account in rather dramatic fashion," citing the national media attention the story attracted since news broke in July. Producer, administrator and writer Howard Sherman, the former director of the American Theatre Wing, has been keeping a close eye on the progress of the situation as well and helped bring the story to the attention of the national theatre community.
"Your actions strike at the very heart of the function of art and culture, as well as the purpose of education," the Guild added, stating that it is the job of the arts to not only inspire and support social institutions, but to also unsettle society and to challenge cultures to evolve.
While the Guild offered to reach out and lend support to the school and the community, it was stern in its condemnation of the reasons behind Spamalot's cancelation. "You have canceled the production of a popular, established, award-winning and widely-produced theatrical work because of your expressed beliefe that homosexual themes are somehow at odds with your community's values and put students in a 'tough spot.' In this way you are using your authority to impose your own personal worldview on the choice of plays presented to the community. As the representative of writers of all political persuasions and sexual orientations, the writers of the Dramatists Guild vehemently oppose your actions and agenda."
The controversy was not discussed during a recent meeting with the South Williamsport Area School Board held Sept. 8, according to a report in the Williamsport Sun Gazette. Board members stated that "the issue" needed time and would be addressed at the next meeting, to be held Sept. 22.