For months, students at Hyattsville Middle School in Maryland practiced for their spring musical. They recited lines, learned songs and imagined the world of the spelling bee contestants who were at the heart of their show.
Then, just before spring break, performances of the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” were canceled with little explanation — setting off a wave of concern and criticism from parents who questioned whether the decision was related to gay characters in the musical.
“This is Hyattsville, Maryland, in 2019, and I can’t believe that is a reason,” said Elizabeth Tornquist, whose daughter was rehearsing for the show in the Prince George’s County school.
By Tuesday evening, school officials had agreed to revisit the issue, saying they would look into whether it would suffice to simply let people know the show was for more mature audiences so that they could decide whether to bring younger children.
School officials also said they would go back to the licensing agent for the Broadway hit to ask again about modifying language they said contributed to a decision that the musical was not appropriate for middle school.
None of the changes being requested involve eliminating the gay characters, they said, despite chatter on social media.
“I know that there was a rumor and a concern, but we’re not seeking to remove gay characters, nor was the play canceled because of gay characters,” schools spokeswoman Raven Hill said.
Parents gathered at Hyattsville Middle for a meeting Tuesday, demanding answers for the abrupt cancellation. A small group protested before the meeting, bearing signs with messages that included, “The Show Must Go On!” and “Three Months of Work For Nothing?”
Robert Kapler, whose 13-year-old daughter was involved in the musical as part of the school’s creative and performing arts program, said he was dismayed to hear of the show being halted so close to curtain time.
“She would wake up and practice,” he said. “She practiced after school, and she practiced at night. She practiced her singing. She practiced her dancing. She practiced her lines.”
“My main concern is that they’re shutting down something that should have been allowed to go forward because they put so much work into it,” he said.
The issue hit a nerve in Hyattsville, a community that many say prides itself on being diverse, welcoming and LGBTQ-friendly.
School officials sent a letter to parents in mid-April, abruptly canceling a show not long from opening.
“Unfortunately we have decided to cancel the Spring Musical dates of May 2nd, 3rd and 4th,” the letter said, adding that a parent meeting would be held Tuesday to answer “any of your questions, comments or concerns.”
Some parents complained that they went through spring break without knowing why the show was being stopped.
Justine Christianson, president of the school’s PTSO, said she had received an email Tuesday morning from Monica Goldson, interim chief executive of the Prince George’s school system, saying the cancellation came after teachers expressed concerns about “the extended use of profanity” in the musical.
That email said the play’s content had been reviewed by school officials who decided to cancel the play because copyright laws did not permit a change in language.
“It was then deemed more appropriate for high school and not middle school,” the message from Goldson said. It added that school system officials would create a process for approval of plays before students begin practicing “to ensure this does not happen again.”
At the parent meeting Tuesday, school officials mentioned a number of concerns — with racial humor, sexual innuendo and what one described as some “cuss words.”
Parents pressed to know more about when and how concerns had arisen — and where the process had gone wrong.
“This play is two weeks out. . . . I find it completely unacceptable,” one mother said.
The decision to revisit the issue came after a student who was at the gathering suggested the disclaimer about more mature content, so families could decide if the show was suitable for the very young.
A school board member, Pamela Boozer-Strother, who represents the area and attended the meeting, supported the disclaimer.
“It was something that had been on my mind,” she said later. “I was glad the student asked it, and she was able to take us in a new direction of a solution that may be possible.”
The school system said it would report back within two days about whether the show will go on, Boozer-Strother said.
“I don’t think the reasons for all of this were made very clear, but I am glad there is a way forward and that the students don’t feel all of their hard work was for nothing,” Christianson said.
Karl Kippola, a professor and director of the theater and musical theater program at American University in Washington, directed a campus production of the musical. He called it a “lovely” show — lighthearted and irreverent but also moving as it depicts the struggles of young spelling bee contestants.
He said one contestant’s gay parents appear briefly, and there are a couple of instances of mild profanity “but not anything that people have not heard in school before.”
Jesus is invoked in an exclamation, he said — which leads to the appearance of an actor dressed as Jesus, who gives the speller advice.
“The idea that people would be offended by it, that seems to be a little bit of a stretch,” he said. He said he could not call it a safe, traditional pick for a middle school but could see how students would find it fun to work on.
“It would be something they could relate to much more personally and directly,” he said. “Above all, the musical is funny and it makes the problems accessible but not overwhelming.”
He added: “People who are looking to be offended can find something offensive in it, but I think you can do that with most musicals.”