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Tim Carroll, artistic director for the Shaw Festival, at a theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., on April 17 2018.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Shaw Festival has cancelled a summer concert run of a Stephen Sondheim musical after the rights holders objected to a substitution of a racial slur in the lyrics, the theatre company said in a statement Monday.

In a letter posted on Facebook “in response to customer enquiries,” artistic director Tim Carroll and executive director Tim Jennings wrote they had personally made the decision to pull Assassins: In Concert after a single preview performance. There was not enough time to go back into rehearsal and follow an internal process that would have allowed the production to reincorporate the original lyric, they wrote.

“We’re still hopeful to do this again at some point in the future when we do have time to do the process properly,” Mr. Jennings told The Globe and Mail Monday evening.

Acclaimed linguist John McWhorter muses on the taboos of our time in Nine Nasty Words

Assassins, described by theatrical licensing agency Music Theatre International as “perhaps the most controversial musical ever written,” is a darkly satirical revue about the American dream, with music and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim and book by John Weidman.

Its characters are a collection of historical figures who attempted or succeeded in assassinating U.S. presidents. One of them is John Wilkes Booth, the stage actor who shot Abraham Lincoln as he was attending a play on April 14, 1865. In the song The Ballad of Booth, the killer paints himself as a heroic figure – a portrait that is undercut when he refers to Lincoln using a racial slur.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., theatre company was originally scheduled to stage a full production of Assassins in its 2020 season, but further rehearsals were cancelled that year when it became clear it would be impossible to mount the show amid the pandemic.

According to Mr. Jennings and Mr. Carroll’s statement, the racial slur was not used in the early rehearsals of the show, which took place over Zoom in 2020, because “it would have been inappropriate to do so in such an isolating system.” When rehearsals resumed this year for a concert version of the musical with a different creative team, however, “the substitution had unwittingly become established as a fact even though rights holders had not been alerted to the change,” they wrote.

“Consequently it was only very late in the day when the rights holders learnt that the lyric had been changed,” the statement said. “They felt that Booth’s character, along with the context of the song, makes the word crucial and asked, as is their right, that the piece be performed unchanged.”

It was at that point that Mr. Carroll and Mr. Jennings made the decision to pull the remaining public performances of Assassins: In Concert. A total of 12 outdoor shows between July and September had been scheduled.

Racial slurs have been used on stage at the Shaw Festival in past seasons, in both classic and contemporary plays. They have also been omitted from plays in the public domain or with the blessing of the rights holders.

The slur in Assassins also occurs in another production scheduled to open at the Shaw Festival this month, Alice Childress’s 1955 play Trouble in Mind. In that case, the theatre company’s leadership team said in their statement, “our process has properly dealt with the use of the same word.”

“[We] are committed to doing challenging and difficult work, but to do so without time for proper consideration and understanding, as was the case with Assassins, would be unfair to both our company and our audience,” Mr. Carroll and Mr. Jennings wrote, adding they both hoped that “this will be a postponement, not a cancellation.”

The Shaw Festival pulled information about the concert production of Assassins from its website late in July, and box-office staff subsequently told at least one ticket buyer that they could not provide any information on why ”due to privacy concerns,” according to an e-mail forwarded to The Globe by a patron last week.

Theatre companies must get the go-ahead from rights holders to change dialogue or lyrics – and sometimes even stage directions – in plays and musicals; it is unusual to proceed with performances until that permission has been granted.

On Monday, Mr. Jennings said the Shaw Festival had reached out about making a lyrical change before Assassins: In Concert begin public performances – but only heard back from the rights holders after it had been performed once for an audience. He said the company – which only announced the concert run at the end of June – took full responsibility for the cancellation, however. “It was a process issue on our end … the rights holders have done nothing wrong,” he said.

The company has been in constant adaptation mode since March, 2020. It had to cancel all its productions last year and a number of shows this year because of pandemic restrictions.

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