Among the many responses I’ve received to my accounts of the censorship of the musical Spamalot at South Williamsport Junior/Senior High in Pennsylvania was a tweet from Dane Rooney, an English teacher and drama director in Shenandoah PA, who spoke of his own school’s Spamalot. I invited him to e-mail me with more information, but instead of a handful of bullet points, I got an essay. I asked if I could share his communication and, with a few adjustments by Dane for wider readership, this is his account of productions of both Spamalot and The Producers at this Central Pennsylvania school of less than 500 students across six grades. – Howard Sherman
BY DANE ROONEY
Ever since I was in kindergarten, I wanted to act and direct. Coming from Shenandoah – a small town in the hard coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania – opportunities to act were scarce. Even entering high school, there wasn’t a consistent theater organization. That is until 2001, when I was a sophomore and my brother Colin was in seventh grade. We joined the club and performed in Grease, and since then, the Shenandoah Valley Drama Club has produced a musical every spring. I graduated college and was hired as an English teacher at SV in 2007. I also began directing the musicals.
Every single year I hoped that Monty Python’s Spamalot would become available. Hours before the opening of Grease in 2001, we watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail to relieve some of our nerves. It became a ritual for a while, and so when Colin and I saw the Broadway tour in Hershey in 2008, I felt that one year, the SVDC would have the opportunity to produce the hit comedy. Colin passed away that year from meningitis, so producing Spamalot took on a deeper meaning than just a silly comedy.
Just like South Williamsport High School planned for their 2015 production, SVDC wanted to produce Spamalot after success with How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Once the rights were available in PA in February of 2013, the Shenandoah Valley High School principal and superintendent approved the show without any “school edition” edits or optional dialogue/lyrics, which Eric Idle makes available through Theatrical Rights Worldwide. The administration and school board trusted me with the show’s material and felt that it would be a great production choice. On April 19th 2013, the Shenandoah Valley Drama Club became the first high school in Pennsylvania to produce Monty Python’s Spamalot.
Not only was I excited to direct one of my dream shows, but the students were thrilled about the choice to perform in Spamalot as well; many of them already loved the film version. Typically high school drama clubs have a majority of girls in the cast, however over the last four years, our drama club has become a predominantly male cast. The show fit us perfectly: the cast, the humor, the edginess, and that certain strangeness in most Python works.
Though Shenandoah is an even smaller town than Williamsport (located about 60 miles from us), no questions were ever raised about the gay marriage or the gay characters in the show. In fact, I was more concerned about the song “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” which is a song poking fun at Broadway and the large Jewish community involved in Broadway productions.
The students who played Sir Lancelot and Prince Herbert (the couple who get married at the end of the show) treated their characters with seriousness and humor. Both actors were nominated for Best Comedic Actor at our local high school awards, and the senior who played Lancelot (and other various characters) won the award. “His Name Is Lancelot”, the song in which Lancelot comes out of the closet, was by far a crowd favorite. The trick was casting some of the most charismatic students in our school as the gay male rumba dancers. I assembled four football players, the school mascot, and a class clown and we tried to keep it as much of a secret from the student population as possible. We worked countless late night hours at dance rehearsals, working around their sports schedules. When they appeared and the song began, I could hardly hear the music; the crowd burst into an uproar of applause, laughter, and cheers. I’m not even sure if they know the impact they had on the drama club, the student body, and the community; but I hope they know now and I know they were proud to portray gay characters in such a great scene and I am proud of them for doing it so bravely.
This song and this play became a highlight for our drama club. The audience loved the show and, to up the ante even further, we chose to perform The Producers the next year (April 2014). Because of the success of Spamalot (in which our cast size was about 30), we had over 60 kids in seventh through twelfth grade make the cut for the cast of The Producers. With stellar comedic actors, we pulled off another edgy musical, even topping Spamalot according to most audience response.
In The Producers, the students who played Roger De Bris and Carmen Ghia, the gay director and his partner/assistant, were so believable that audience members were “aww-ing” at some of the more tender moments between the pair. During the song “Keep It Gay” in which Roger explains that all theater must have something gay in it, the members of Roger’s production team pulled audience members onto the stage to join in the dance and conga line. The audience couldn’t stop laughing and enjoying themselves. On our final performance, the junior who played Roger went all out after “Springtime for Hitler” by laying a surprise kiss on his onstage partner, sending the audience into an uproar that nearly resulted in a premature standing ovation. It was as if our audience wanted them to be as affectionate as any straight couple in a high school musical.
However, I heard of one concerned comment that was made. Someone was worried about any closeted seventh grader watching upperclassmen portray gay characters in a satiric way. This person’s concern was that a closeted youngster might feel even more afraid to be themselves. I, however, feel passionately that, by choosing shows with gay characters and portraying them in a truthful way, we lighten the weight that a closeted seventh grader holds on his or her shoulders. Seeing a popular junior and sophomore act as a loving gay couple in a successful show like The Producers allows that seventh grader to fear no more; it allows a community to accept, to laugh, and to love. It also opens the doors for other actors to expand the roles they audition for in upcoming years, to make it okay to play any type of role. The high school actors playing gay characters in both Spamalot and The Producers performed for the thrill of acting, entering the stage with humor and bravery; what they never expected is that when they took their final bows, they left that stage heroes.
This year, we estimate that 80 to 90 students will be auditioning for the musical – that’s nearly a fifth of the school’s population. We have become the most popular and largest organization in our school, including all sports and extracurricular activities. Theater is alive and well at Shenandoah Valley High School.
As an educator, it is my duty and an honor to provide my students with everything they need to succeed. It is my job to ensure the safety of my students, and that means creating an environment free of judgment, prejudice, and hate. This story of how the SV Drama Club includes gay characters is one that I’m proud of, but the fact of the matter is, it never needed to be explained or justified over a year ago when we produced it. I am happy to share our story if it means that a high school may stop and think about the harm they are doing upon their community and student body if they decide to exclude a show based on the show’s inclusion of gay characters.
The fact is this: Spamalot is a perfect show for any high school, and if you’re lucky, it will have an astounding effect on your students, community and organization as it did at Shenandoah Valley High School.