A recent Lynchburg high school production of the musical “The Prom” met with controversy from one Lynchburg City Council member, who called for the show to be canceled over what he said were anti-Christian sentiments depicted — but the show went on to become Heritage High School’s best-attended production post-COVID.
The theater departments at Heritage and E. C. Glass High School collaborated on the production, becoming one of the first high school drama groups in Virginia to put on “The Prom,” a musical that tells the story of discrimination faced by a lesbian couple trying to go to their high school prom together.
“The Prom” is based on the true story of Constance McMillen, a high school senior from Mississippi who wanted to bring her girlfriend to prom, and also asked to wear a tuxedo. The couple ended up banned from the event, and the school division withdrew its sponsorship of the prom.
The musical by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin follows an Indiana high school senior as she requests to bring her girlfriend to prom, but the couple gets banned. The PTA instead sponsors a different prom elsewhere for other students. Four fading Broadway stars who are desperate for anything that might propel them back into the spotlight hear about the case, and make their way to the Midwest to involve themselves in a bid for attention.
The real-life case from 2010 made its way to court. The Itawamba County School District was sued with assistance from the ACLU, and it was found that the district violated McMillen’s First Amendment rights, according to ACLU’s records of the case. Ultimately, McMillen won the case.
The play is relatively new. It first debuted in 2016 and hit Broadway around 2018. “The Prom” got a Netflix adaptation in 2020, and last year, the play became available for theater groups to buy the rights to produce it. Since then, high schools in multiple states have put the show on.
A Charlottesville high school performed the show earlier this year, according to Larry Hart, artistic director of Heritage’s Pioneer Theatre for the past 30 years. A Woodbridge high school theater group also put on “The Prom” this year.
The show at Pioneer Theatre ran April 21-23 and April 26-28. It featured 27 students from the two schools and a technical crew of 10, Hart said. The show was directed by guest director Jeff Krantz, a longtime area director and actor who has contracted with Pioneer Theatre for the last several years.
The first weekend of performances went smoothly, Krantz said.
Then, during a city council work session on April 25, Lynchburg City Council member Marty Misjuns raised the topic of the production, which he said was brought to his attention by “constituents concerned about the content of the play.”
Misjuns’ objection to the show was what he perceived to be anti-Christian sentiments.
“It’s absolutely appalling to me that the publicly funded Lynchburg City Schools would put on a production with children that openly mocks the vast Judeo-Christian majority in our city,” Misjuns wrote in a public social media post on April 26, the day that the final performance weekend of “The Prom” began.
Reading selected lines from the play’s original script during the work session, and later sharing them on his Facebook page, Misjuns demanded that Heritage’s Pioneer Theatre cancel the remaining performance of the show immediately, and said the city school board should ask for the superintendent’s resignation for permitting production of “The Prom.”
In both his work session comments and his public post, he asserted the content of the play contributed to student behavior problems.
“We’ve got behavior problems in our schools, and when we’re teaching kids completely disrespectful garbage like that, that’s the problem,” Misjuns said at the work session.
“Lynchburg City Schools should immediately cancel the rest of these productions out of respect for those that believe in, prescribe to, and practice the Christian faith. Teachers came out in droves last night discussing behavior problems in schools. If our school superintendent does not cancel the rest of these plays for the offensive content, the school board should ask for her resignation,” he wrote in a public statement.
In further comments to Cardinal News last Friday, Misjuns reiterated his primary issue with the show.
“The only concern that I ever stated was about the anti-Christian sentiment in the performance,” he said in an email. “It is completely unacceptable for publicly funded facilities to be used to promote anything that openly mocks any race, religion or creed.”
During the work session, Misjuns read a portion of lyrics from one of the original songs to illustrate his concern, in which some Christians from the small town are described as: “Those fist pumping, Bible thumping, spam eating, cousin humping, cow tipping, shoulder slumping, tea bagging, Jesus jumping losers and their inbred wives, They’ll learn compassion…”
Misjuns said such sentiments were “completely disrespectful and marginalizing” to the city’s Christian population.
“Imagine if that was the other way around. Imagine if that marginalized some other segment of the population other than the Judeo-Christian part of our community? This woke mind virus has infected the school system so much that they think it’s OK to do that,” he said during the work session.
As for relating the musical to student behavior issues, Misjuns added, “I cannot see how promoting disrespect of someone’s faith will teach the children in our schools how to respect one another.”
Misjuns did not attend any of the performances. Fellow council members did not weigh in heavily on the topic of the play, but listened to Misjun’s remarks. (Misjuns was once a fire department captain for Lynchburg. After he posted what some called a transphobic cartoon on his Facebook page, he was terminated and sued the city. A federal judge recently dismissed his suit over wrongful termination but allowed a suit over infringement of his First Amendment rights to go forward.)
Lynchburg Mayor Stephanie Reed, a fellow Republican, said she was not aware of the production prior to Misjun’s work session comments.
“I had not heard about it from any voters, from any parents, from any citizens, nothing. I hadn’t actually even ever heard of the play,” she said. After Misjuns’s comments spread publicly, Reed said the only messages she received from constituents were ones in support of the play.
“I still, to this day, have not received any calls or emails from any parents or citizens that were against the play. I’m not saying that there weren’t; I’m just saying I never personally received them,” she said.
Certain lyrics and lines from the original script were revised in a bid to be less divisive, according to Hart, Krantz, and the production’s musical director, Heather Brand, in a public Facebook comment.
“What you are reading is the original script and not what is being presented on stage. Anticipating backlash of this nature, every effort has been made to remove divisive language, while still providing a place and space to speak about the subjugation and denial of basic rights and common sense considerations a large portion of our society faces each day,” Brand said.
The very line Misjun quoted from the play’s original script during the work session was another portion revised slightly for the high school production, Hart said.
“One of the rhymes that changed was putting Forrest Gumpin’ instead of cousin hump in’. And instead of Bible thumping I think it was something like Bible Lovin’,” he said, adding this line was delivered by a “very liberal” Broadway star, when they first heard about the discrimination.
“Once the Broadway stars got to Indiana they found the humanity of people who actually live there and everybody grew some. But they represent one aspect of the antagonist when they arrive to the small town in Indiana,” Hart said. “Not everything antagonists say is pretty. Gaston does not say nice things about women, Pontius Pilate does not say nice things about Jesus Christ.”
Reed said city council’s legal department informed the council through an internal email about the revisions made to the original script, although she clarified she had not seen the performance personally.
“Anything that you see, in or out of context can make a huge difference. I really can’t comment to the show since I haven’t seen it. I have not watched it; I haven’t read the script,” Reed said.
Hart said that students initiated the production.
Several seniors had begged to do “The Prom” since they were freshmen, Hart said. After the rights became available last year, the students chose the show.
“I read the script and loved its overarching messages of love and acceptance because I know so many students past and present that this story speaks to,” Hart said.
The theater group obtained the rights to produce the play and set about producing it.
“This year these students were tired of the children’s theater and wanted something with relevance,” Hart said. “In the recent past we have performed ‘Les Miserables’ about the injustices of post revolution France and Ragtime which dealt with prejudices in early 20th Century America.”
A production of “Cabaret” last February dealt with the rise of Nazi Germany.
“When you deal with the ‘Wizard of Oz’ or other children’s shows, your villain is the Wicked Witch of the West. But, for non-children shows, the ‘villains’ as well as the ‘heroes’ are real people,” Hart said. “The interesting thing about a villain is that you cannot play a villain as if he or she knows they are evil. A villain thinks they are acting for the good.”
After Misjuns’ comments, other community members came out in support of the school and the show. Numerous people responding to Misjuns via social media, many of whom said they had either seen or read the play, commented on a lack of context surrounding Misjun’s selected lines and lyrics.
“I believe that politicians should actually do their due diligence before taking a stand against something. The arts have always been and always will be a place for exploring ideologies, this should be encouraged, especially for those against indoctrination. I am against indoctrination on either side,” Amber Carderelli wrote in a public response to the Facebook post from Misjuns.
Describing herself as a Christian and “staunchly pro-life,” Carderelli pointed out how often Christians fail to obey their greatest command to “love thy neighbor” and continued, “It is clear sir, that you really don’t know the city you represent, because the 2 things Lynchburg loves most are Christianity and Theatre… and you have greatly disrespected both.”
Hart said this isn’t the first time someone criticized a play selected for Pioneer Theatre; the principal of Heritage High School received a letter from a disgruntled individual over a production of “Cinderella” two years ago.
“I am sorry that someone took offense to the show — someone who didn’t see the show,” Hart said.
Krantz said he did not go into the production intending to cause controversy.
“I didn’t go into it thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going into it to upset people,’” he said. “I went into it thinking, ‘This story needs to be told, and it needs to be told in Lynchburg.’”
Krantz said he began acting in community theater groups at age 5, and is currently on the board of directors for Lynchburg-based Renaissance Theatre Company. In his long theater career, Krantz said he has never seen reactions quite like the one drawn recently. The backlash lately seems to come from a vocal minority.
“It didn’t surprise me that some people made comments. What surprised me was that it was an elected official, who’s elected to represent all people,” he said.
Hart and Krantz both said they were proud of their students, and their school division.
“The audience size tripled on the last night from the outpouring from the community. Lynchburg has a deep tradition of gentle, intelligent and educated people. Our town is uniquely traditional and creative,” said Allison Daugherty, director of E.C. Glass theater. “I am proud of the students involved who are especially kind, accepting and loving people. They worked, and used their talent to tell someone’s story. Happily, many came to enjoy and appreciate it.”
Pioneer Theatre’s production of “The Prom” is not the only one that faced backlash.
While in Lynchburg the outcry came from primarily one individual, Cedar Grove High School in Essex County, New Jersey, initially scrapped plans to perform the play after facing similar community backlash. The controversy was primarily driven by concerns over what was called “inappropriate content.” When supporters of the show pushed back, however, the school came back and announced it would put on a “high school version” of “The Prom” that was made available through the play’s licensing organization, according to an article from NJ Advance Media last October.
Such a trend is not isolated to Lynchburg and its surrounding counties. School theater is one of the latest platforms to be targeted in cultural wars playing out in schools nationwide.
Book banning and censorship efforts that target material dealing mostly with sexual orientation, race and what some call “sexually explicit” material have been ongoing, along with pushes to alter certain curriculums. These movements within school systems are led primarily by conservative groups and individuals including local chapters of Florida-based “Moms for Liberty.” Across the U.S., school administrators have had to contend with the turmoil. Responses vary from division to division.
Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Florida — in these states and more, The Washington Post recently reported, musical theater productions in high schools have been targeted. These instances, too, predominantly deal with queerness or address race and racism, or contain what those who object call “inappropriate content” like language or mature themes. In some cases, scripts were edited to appease disgruntled community members and groups; other times, a high school theater department ended up putting on a different show altogether.
“Art by its nature begs criticism. And everyone is a critic,” Hart said. “The most important thing to remember about critiquing is when one critiques something they most generally say more about themselves that they do about the thing they are critiquing.”