HUNT COLUMN: Can you spell Meddlesome?

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, March 15, 2023

By Cathy Hunt
Retired Troup County teacher and current school board member

I’ve been following a story about a high school theater production in Ohio that almost got shut down because the school board received complaints about it being inappropriate for teenagers. It got my attention because the show in question is one that I have performed in and co-directed here at, respectively, the LaFayette Theater Company and Troup High School: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

It’s a Tony-award-winning musical about six student finalists competing for the spelling crown in their regional competition. It’s alternately hilarious and heartrending. It’s a great choice for a high school production because the main characters are teenagers. Though all excellent spellers, they have different personal struggles. One is a stress-filled overachiever who’s not allowed to cry. One is painfully shy and has parents who are too busy pursuing their own interests to support her activities. One has developed a tough, unfriendly exterior because of his eccentricities and has become a bully as a defense mechanism. Another has ADD and is considered the slowest child in his huge family. Another has a speech impediment and has to endure explaining why she has two dads at home. The last is a well-adjusted, well-rounded young man who nevertheless is dealing with some embarrassing effects of puberty.

Any high school teacher can tell you that in their students they’ve seen all those challenges and many, many more. It’s real life.

The Ohio complaints about the production included sexual innuendo (puberty and gay dads); vulgarity (some mature language, which school directors will usually modify on their own, though they’re messing with the author’s words); bullying (though that character softens and becomes kinder through his interaction with the other kids); poor self-esteem (though the character who feels dumb learns during the competition that he is smart after all); and sacrilege (Jesus makes an appearance. His message to the girl who prays to him during the competition? He doesn’t care if she wins or loses. He loves her anyway).

Interestingly, the complaints must not have come from anyone who really understood what was happening in the theater program, because when the involved parents and students met with the teacher about having to stop the show, they unanimously agreed to fight but with a dose of compromise. And the show went on.

They received permission from the show’s lyricist, Rachel Sheinkin, who was very gracious and helpful, to use some alternate wording in places. But some of the “demands” she could not accommodate, such as taking the bullying out. Basically, the complainants wanted all the kids to be nicer. Sheinkin said that would change the story and character arcs, and undermine the basic themes of the story.

I researched other recently challenged school theatre picks. They include classics such as The Crucible (witches), Godspell (rock and roll Jesus), Oedipus Rex (see Oedipus complex), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (because its original title was ethnically insensitive), and Twelfth Night (Bill Shakespeare could be naughty sometimes). While I was at THS, we either produced or read all of those. Oops.

The teacher at the center of the Spelling Bee controversy said, “I’m starting to question everything I’m doing.” The CEO of Music Theatre International, which licenses shows to theatre companies, said, “Teachers are definitely nervous…about just saying…or doing the wrong thing.” That’s sad. Parental oversight of their children’s activities is natural and right; uninformed meddling is not.

The only time I caught grief as a high school director was when we were producing the 1934 musical Anything Goes. The LDN covered it with a front page story and picture. A community member wrote a long letter to the editor shaming all parties for promoting such an immoral attitude, based simply on seeing the title. Cole Porter probably rolled over in his grave.