Earlier this summer, South Williamsport Jr/Sr High School in northern Pennsylvania announced it was canceling a production of the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot next spring because it included a same-sex wedding. Despite the school’s attempt to spin a different rationale, emails procured by Keystone Progress through Pennsylvania’s “Right To Know” law confirm that it was, in fact, canceled specifically for its “homosexual themes.”
Keystone uncovered a series of emails exchanged among Principal Jesse Smith, musical director Dawn Burch, and Superintendent Mark Stamm that confirm that the only justification Smith ever gave for canceling the production was its “homosexual themes.” Furthermore, documents show that, contrary to claims made by Stamm that the musical had not actually been canceled because it was only “under consideration,” Smith had already signed a check for nearly $2,000 to order the licensing rights specifically for Spamalot back in May.
In emails sent at the end of June, Principal Smith identified two concerns about the show to Burch: “a guy sending another guy a message on girl’s underwear and a gay wedding being performed.” Burch replied that there was no such underwear-sending anywhere in the script, which was in her possession and which she had already read multiple times. As to homosexual themes, she wrote, “I am fully aware of their place in the script and am not certain what offense they create,” noting that marriage equality had recently arrived in Pennsylvania.
Smith followed up by explaining that he was “not comfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual themes for two main reasons.” First, he wrote that drama productions “are supposed to be performances that families can attend” and that “this type of material makes it very hard for that to take place.” Secondly, he claimed that controversial productions “put students in a tough spot,” adding, “I don’t want students to have to choose between their own personal beliefs and whether or not to take part in a production.”
Burch then reached out to Superintendent Stamm, expressing that she was “very shocked” by Smith’s decision and rationale. “It is extremely disappointing that homosexuality would be the basis of not approving a show,” she wrote, suggesting that “this is how we raise children to be haters.” Stamm replied that he was familiar with Smith’s objections and stood by them: “His decision is sound.”
Burch conceded to put the disagreement behind them and committed to setting up a time to meet with Smith to select a new musical. At some point in the back-and-forth scheduling process, WNEP had caught wind of the controversy and began asking Burch for comment, prompting her to write, “If the goal was to make me look bad publicly, then mission accomplished.”
When news of the canceled production first broke, WNEP reported that when making the decision, Smith had informed Burch that homosexuality does not exist in a conservative community such as South Williamsport. ThinkProgress had reached out to the school at the time for comment about the remark, but Stamm merely replied that the school wanted performances “to be appropriate for the student performers and audiences.” The following day, WNEP corrected its story, retracting Smith’s comments and apologizing for the misattribution.
In another story about the controversy, Stamm informed PennLive that the play was not even canceled, but had simply been removed from consideration as next spring’s potential musical. School Board President John J. Engel Jr. also spoke with PennLive, asserting that homosexuality did not enter into the decision to cancel the production, but that they had merely decided it was not an appropriate show.
Additionally, in talking points Stamm had circulated to other school officials, acknowledge the script modifications that were available — and which have been used by plenty of other schools — but suggested that they were insufficient to address “the concerns we have for the elementary age children who will also be in attendance.”
After the WNEP story ran with his misattributed quote, Smith asked Stamm about sending out an email to staff. Stamm was less concerned because Burch is not a full-time employee of the district, noting that in WNEP’s report, “Every adult they interviewed agreed with our decision to selected [sic] a different play.” Smith still expressed concern about “the inaccuracy of the statement” that had been attributed to him because “it makes me look like a bigot among other things.”
Burch successfully worked with WNEP to retract Smith’s erroneous quote, but wrote to Stamm that she felt the school needed to address why the show was cancelled: “After many hours of careful thought I really feel that it is Jesse [Smith] that needs to fix this by issuing a statement that he apologizes for using homosexual content as the reason to cancel this show.” Stamm replied that the school had made its final public statement, adding, “The article in the sun was really good and will help.”
In the article by the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, like the one published by PennLive, Stamm had again asserted, “It was a play that was submitted for consideration. It was never officially approved.” Also, the article’s only mention of homosexuality was the correction of Smith’s comment, allowing Stamm to imply that there were other unrelated reasons for not-canceling the show. Burch called the Sun-Gazette article a “complete lie.”
“You have completely thrown me under the bus with your comments,” she wrote. “Jesse [Smith] did approve the show and in fact signed the check himself for the license. Why are we fabricating lies to try to fix this now?”
Aside from follow-up emails from Burch working to arrange a different production — which the licensing company agreed to do at no additional charge — that is the last email in the exchange obtained by Keystone Progress. However, it was not the last time that school officials chimed in on the topic.
After the story broke, Keystone Progress and Equality Central PA held a meeting at a church in Williamsport about the controversy. Both Superintendent Stamm and Board President Engel showed up and spoke. As had been done in the Sun-Gazette that day, Engel rebuked Smith’s erroneous comment about there not being any gay students, avoiding any mention that Spamalot was still canceled because of “homosexual themes.” Watch it:
When Stamm spoke, he reiterated his talking points that even the suggested script changes that other schools have used were insufficient for South Williamsport’s audiences, but did not specify why. Thanks to the document dump, the true motives of Smith, Stamm, and Engel are now apparent.
Superintendent Stamm did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress request for comment about the emails.