Stars of the Broadway play “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” are speaking out after an Ohio school’s production was canceled over concerns about “vulgarity.”
Cardinal High School in Middlefield, Ohio, announced in January it was “DELIGHTED” for its upcoming production of the famed play, which originally premiered on Broadway in 2005.
But as concerns over the content of the musical mounted, the Cardinal Local School District canceled the spring production.
“Its dialogue and song lyrics contain vulgarity and are therefore not suitable for our pre-teen and teenage students in an educational setting,” Cardinal Local Schools said in a statement on Jan. 30.
The school board said the musical was “not family-friendly,” Brad Allen, a volunteer production assistant, told the Geauga County Maple Leaf.
What is ’The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ about?
The Tony Award-winning play is described as a musical that “follows a group of wonderfully unique and impassioned adolescents as they compete for the bee championship,” according to Playbill.
The production is said to contain explicit content.
For the Ohio high school, concerns were noted about the language, the appearance of Jesus and two parents being gay, musical assistant director Mandi Matchinga told WJW.
But Cardinal Local School District Superintendent Jack Cunningham disputes any suggestions that discrimination was a reason for the show’s cancelation.
“The district wants its student productions to be something that community members of all ages may enjoy without adult supervision,” Cunningham said in a statement. “In all aspects of its operations, the district vigorously enforces its prohibition against discriminatory harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), disability, age, religion, ancestry, or genetic information.”
Broadway stars show their support
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who was a part of the original production of “Spelling Bee” before starring on ABC’s “Modern Family,” said in a TikTok video that he was “heartbroken” over the decision to cancel the high school’s musical.
He said that he was “a little rattled” over the news. He keeps in touch with his former castmates and said they were all talking about it in a text message chain.
“It’s really disappointing for me,” Ferguson said. “I’ve spent the last 15 years playing a gay father on stage or on ‘Modern Family’ and I can only tell you because I’ve heard firsthand the impact that has had. How much that representation and visibility means to people.”
Ferguson, who currently stars in the Broadway play “Take Me Out,” said the original cast members of “Spelling Bee” hope to meet the Ohio students on a Zoom call.
“Definitely more than one person at this school is gay or lesbian or bisexual,” Ferguson said. “The message that this sends to them that this is not ‘family appropriate’ or ‘family friendly,’ rather, is toxic and harmful and kind of abusive.”
Ferguson’s castmate Derrick Baskin said in a post in his Instagram Story that he “stand(s) with Jesse and the rest of the cast.”
The original writers also reached out to the production team and offered to make changes to the script.
“Specific words are easy to change to match the community’s needs,” writer Rachel Sheinkin said in a letter to Matchinga, WEWS reported. “It sounds like this could be a mask for other issues and that by now you’ve moved on to considering other shows. But know that you and your students have our sympathy and support.”
Reaction from Cardinal High School students
Sabrina Clinger, a senior at the school, said “it didn’t seem real” when the cast learned of the cancelation.
“When I heard the news, my heart sank. I grabbed my friend’s hand and watched the face of every kid in that room drop with disappointment,” Clinger told The News-Herald. “The room went dead silent as the production team tried to explain.”
Riley Matchinga, a senior playing the lead role, told WJW that “everyone was just crying.”
The same play was scheduled to be put on by students at Maryland’s Hyattsville Middle School in 2019, but it was also canceled, WJLA reported.
Despite concerns over “profane language, racial jokes and sexual innuendo/content,” the school district reversed its decision and allowed the students to take part in the production under a PG-13 designation, according to WJLA.