Observations On The Cardinal Local School District’s Abrupt Cancellation Of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” [Expanded]

Let’s get one thing settled right off the metaphorical bat: the Cardinal Local School District is run by a bunch of incompetents and ethics dunces. However one thinks this fiasco could and should have been handled, they made the worst possible mess of it possible.

On January 25, 2023, the school board for the district (in Middlefield, Ohio) killed  a student production of the 2005 Tony-winning Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” citing as a justification their assessment  that it was “vulgar.”The show is, as that date would suggest, 18 years old now, and has been performed all over the world as well as at many high schools. Its artistic pedigree is impeccable: the lyrics and music is by William Finn (“Falsettos”) and the original production was directed by Stephen Sondheim collaborator James Lapine. The show is excellent theatrical training for students as it involves improvisation.

Presumably the “vulgar” accusation arises from “Chip’s Lament,” a controversial song in which one of the young characters blames his failure in the competition on an embarrassing erection. Here are the lyrics:

Fritos! M&M’s? Oreos. All for one dollar!
It is tradition
that the person eliminated from the competition,
is fair game for derision,
especially the Alpha-Male,
who will sell goodies at the bake sale.
Anyone for brownies?
Anyone for chocolate chips?
Anyone for anything that isn’t dated?
How could I have been eliminated?
You wanna know how?
You wanna know how?
You wanna know WHY?
My unfortunate erection
Is destroying my perfection
It is my recollection that everything I once did
I did perfectly.
Because of
Marigold Coneybear
Because there’s something and not a thing between us
I don’t blame my brain but I do blame my penis.
My unfortunate protuberance,
seems to have its own exuberance.
Anyone for M&M’s?
Delicious and appropriate!
Anyone for Chewy Goobers?
Anyone for buying the SHIT that I’m selling
because my stiffie has ruined my spelling.
Is ruining my life
Is ruining my world
Is ruining my
Ruining Ruining Ruining
My Life
Adulthood brings its own peculiar rejection
Which is why I’m selling this PTA
It will ruin your complexion
All because of my unfortunate
Oh God!

Following accusations in the wake of its decision, the Cardinal School District denied that the move was made because the musical includes two gay parents. Jesus also makes a comic appearance in the show. (He also appears rather prominently in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which is frequently performed in high schools.) If that had anything to do with the show’s demise, this school district is a danger to intelligent life on earth.


1. “The Cardinal Local School District has decided that its spring musical production will not be ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ Its dialogue and song lyrics contain vulgarity and are therefore not suitable for our pre-teen and teenage students in an educational setting,” Cardinal High School Superintendent Jack Cunningham said in a statement. And why was the production approved and allowed to be cast and go into production, sir? If it’s unsuitable now, it was unsuitable when the school approved it.

Whatever the reason for the cancellation, there is no excuse for giving it the green light and then reversing the decision. The production had been underway for a month.  It is unfair and cruel to the students involved. Cunningham’s statement should have been accompanied by an abject apology and the announcement of one or more resignations.

“Cast members have invested hours of their time in rehearsals, characterization lessons, and group and individual voice lessons. The crew has spent equal time creating and building set pieces, scenery and props. The decision to shut this production down is heartbreaking,” Mandi Matchinga, Cardinal’s volunteer assistant director for “Spelling Bee,” told the school board in a letter.

The decision apparently blind-sided everyone. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” had been performed by two other high schools in neighboring communities without incident.

2. Cunningham told the school board that he “didn’t recall” approving the show. It was being produced in his high school, under his supervision, on school property, by school employees and students! He’s lying. Fire him.

3. Isn’t it obvious that students participating in a show with potentially controversial should have been required to get informed consent from their parents?

4. The same show was cancelled in similar unethical fashion in 2019 at Hyattsville Middle School in Maryland. I wrote about that episode (too briefly) here about a year ago. I guess they don’t read Ethics Alarms in Ohio. At least that production, which also was cancelled after students had begun working on it, was at a middle school. I wrote about that debacle in part,

The reason [for the cancellation] according to Interim CEO at Prince George’s County Public Schools, was that

“…Teachers expressed concern given the extended use of profanity in the play even though it was play was identified as PG13 appropriate. The supervisor for Performing Arts, was then requested to review content during which time it was decided that the play should be cancelled since copyright laws did not permit the change in language when she reached out to the company. It was then deemed more appropriate for high school and not middle school.”

The explanation added,

“In addition, we will work with the central office Creative and Visual Performing Arts team to create a process for approval of plays prior to students practicing and preparing to ensure this does not happen again.”

Wait:  Gee-Schmidtke, the Hyattsville Middle School Theatre Arts Director, didn’t already read the script and lyrics before approving the show? What are her duties as arts director if she doesn’t know what the shows being performed by students are like? The students were punished in this case because the administrator didn’t, or couldn’t, do her job.

5. The administrators clearly don’t know what they are doing, or what theater involves. Matchinga tried to enlighten them:

“I’ve heard it suggested that we do a different show. I am not sure if those suggesting that realize that it can take up to six weeks to obtain license approval for a musical. You are not guaranteed a license if you apply. If we did get approval, we could begin rehearsing around March 15. We need 10 weeks to prepare for the show. That gives us a performance date of May 19.

In her letter, the mother of two students pointed out that the show’s cancellation meant that seniors will have had only one traditional musical experience in their high school career. (I had four. And it made a big difference in my life.)

“Their freshman show was canceled the day before opening due to COVID. Their sophomore show had to be live-streamed, which is a different experience. They had their first ‘normal’ theater experience in their junior year. Canceling their senior show will crush them.”

District Treasurer Seth Cales said the rights to “Spelling Bee” cost $1,745 and he is not sure if a refund can be obtained. In my experience, it probably can’t be.

6. Now the mess has caught the attention of some professional actors involved in the original production, including Jesse Tyler Ferguson, best known for his role in “Modern Family.” He was an original member of the “Putnam County Spelling Bee.”  “The message that this sends to them, that that is not ‘family appropriate’ or ‘family friendly,’ rather, is toxic and harmful and kind of abusive,” Jesse Tyler Ferguson said in an Instagram video shared by Playbill last week. Ferguson also told the outlet he and other in the original Broadway cast members are “working on connecting with the [Cardinal High School] cast via Zoom.”

Good. Make this a national embarrassment and disgrace for the school, the district, the school board and especially Cunningham. If it brings all of them sufficiently bad publicity, maybe schools will learn to actually read and think about what shows their students perform in before rehearsals get underway.

ADDED: Over at his blog, Curmudgeon Central, Curmie has an even more disgusted take on this story than mine. Do visit and read it.

16 thoughts on “Observations On The Cardinal Local School District’s Abrupt Cancellation Of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” [Expanded]

  1. Why does this keep happening? Why do theater people keep pushing questionable musicals onto high school kids? I attended a rehearsal for “Damned Yankees” at the main Phoenix Catholic girls’ high school. They’d hired a professional director who was running around screaming at the kids as if she had escaped from a Mel Brooks movie mocking high school musicals. But I was stunned by the roles the girls were playing. Lots of sluttiness and bumping and grinding. At a school where the girls uniforms have to be a certain minimal length above their knees! What principal approved that? Bizarre. Why can’t kids just be kids?

    • 1. Kid like playing adults.
      2. What you described is mostly direction. Lola is a temptress, but there’s no reason a teenager couldn’t play the part without crossing reasonable lines. It is a Fifties show, after all.

      • In a Catholic girls’ high school? Run by nuns and paid for by parents paying tuition for their kids to go to a different kind of school? Kids like to do lots of things. So what?

        • Bill, it’s not “Oh Calcutta!” It’s “Damn Yankees.” There are romantic relationships and suggested sex in 90% of all musicals. Musicals are educational for students to participate in. Are you suggesting that the only musical teens can perform or see is “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown”?

          • YOU could name twenty musicals that would be perfect for kids to do without their having slutty characters and situations. I can’t, Jack. I’m straight. I could give a rat’s ass about most musical theater. Gilbert and Sullivan, “My Fair Lady” and “Springtime for Hitler in Germany” are enough for me. I happen to think “Some Enchanted Evening” is perhaps THE all-time great love song. Maybe “South Pacific” would be okay, but with all the WWII military cross-dressing and other shenanigans, maybe not (certainly not in the current “every girl really wants to be a boy” environment). But surely there are plenty of musicals out there that would work.

  2. “Whatever the reason for the cancellation, there is no excuse for giving it the green light and then reversing the decision. The production had been underway for a month. It is unfair and cruel to the students involved.”


    Whatever the reason for ending the pogrom, there is no excuse for giving it the green light and then reversing the decision.

    Whatever the reason for ending the unconstitutional law, there is no excuse for giving it the green light and then reversing the decision.

    How on earth, once something is reasonably determined to be unethical, is it magically protected from being stopped simply because it was started?

    The problem is whether or not it was reasonably determined to be unethical.

    If it is so – then it must be stopped.

    If it isn’t so – then it shouldn’t be stopped.

    • Huh? The ethical principle is reasonable reliance. The eccentric decision that the show is unethical must be made before people devote time, energy and emotion to the production. After that, the cancellation is more unethical than whatever the problem with the show might be. The reversal is irresponsible, unfair, and, as I once held when a production of mine was at issue, making the school’s problem MY problem. I showed them how the cancellation would result in a bigger problem for the school, because I would make sure of it.

      • And…what if the administrators decide the show is unethical a week before performance? On opening night? Mid-performance? Their delay becomes genuine harm to be balanced against theoretical harm.

      • Huh? The principle is that nothing is unstoppable if it is determined after starting that it is unethical. I’m not sure how “theater” gets a magic dispensation for this. If any event or action is reasonably shown to be unethical after the decision to go forward – the event or action *SHOULD BE STOPPED*…

        This maxim:

        ““Whatever the reason for the cancellation, there is no excuse for giving it the green light and then reversing the decision. The production had been underway for a month. It is unfair and cruel to the students involved.””

        Is odd.

        In general, here’s how it plays out:

        “Sir, we have solid proof that there are 2 SS panzer divisions operating around Arnhem, we probably shouldn’t do this operation as planned.”

        “Sorry mate, the show must go on!”

        No… it didn’t have to go on. Market Garden could be stopped and the disaster that many foresaw didn’t have to happen.

        In specific, I’m not sure how theater gets an exception. The real problem in this real situation is that you see no reason based on evaluating the musical itself that it should have been cancelled – even if it was cancelled in a reasonable time frame. And that’s a perfectly fine evaluation. But it doesn’t make any sense – if a play or musical is found determined to be inappropriate after other deciding authorities either didn’t do their due diligence or made lazy choices that the “show must go on”. No. The show should stop and the lazy authorities who initiated the fiasco by not doing their jobs should also suffer.

        • Not theater! Any project where participants rely on a process, commit to it, and no new data has occurred to change the conditions under which the project was approved. I agree that if there is impending substantive, serious harm that somehow was overlooked AND that is certain to occur, and that it outweighs the certain harm that results from the reversal, then a project cancellation might be ethical justified.

          If your quibble is with “whatever,” I’ll concur. By “whatever” I meant in the universe of all possible harm that might occur by performing a musical comedy successfully and safely produced for almost two decades. This would not encompass, say, the discovery that an anomaly in the magnetic field would suddenly react to the sympathetic vibrations in a unique chord in the arrangement and trigger a chain reaction that would end with the detruction of all life on earth. Yes…cancel the show. The kids will understand.

  3. I’m especially angry about this one, as my wife, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew all attended Cardinal and worked on shows there–onstage, backstage, and/or the pit orchestra.

    One thing you omitted here: the production team had already long since decided to do the “alternate version” of the one song, and Rachel Sheinkin, who wrote the Tony-winning book to the musical, is on record as willing to make tweaks if the superintendent/board tell her what specific problems they see. They can’t, or won’t, or whatever.

    Closing line of my piece on the subject: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee does not deserve to be censored just because a couple of school board members need more bran in their diet.”

  4. High school??

    I’m quite sure teaching material about erections is presented during late elementary school.

    I bet if you told the administrators the song is really about a MtF transexual aspect of the character, they’d greenlight it.

    • WP, I think sex education about erections is significantly different than a song/scene in a musical being performed by high school kids is another. I think I read in Curmie’s post that there’s a cleaned-up version of the song that is available for use. Again, I think various musicals are inappropriate for high school productions. The screw up in the dock here is the administration’s not timely paying attention to what was going on in the drama department.

  5. I guess it’s time to reveal that I personally would not approve of this show for a high school musical, just as I would not approve “A Chorus Line,” if the show wasn’t too difficult to perform at that level anyway. I don’t think high school musicals should be so close to the fuzzy age-appropriateness line that a rational parent would have a valid argument for objecting to it. Whether it’s erections or “tits and ass,” some adult subject matter goes beyond what musical comedies were originally designed for when performed in a school context: fantasy, music, and fun.

    But that’s me: I’ll support any school’s decision to do “Spelling Bee,” provided that it’s an informed decision, carefully considered. This obviously wasn’t, and the students were the victims.

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