Two southwestern Ontario school boards – one public and one Catholic – have pulled their sponsorships from a musical about a gay teenager's fight to take his boyfriend to the prom because it does not reflect their culture of supporting all students and contains too much profanity.
For two decades, the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., has done one production a year in which local high school students act and do stage management. This year's musical, Prom Queen, which chronicles an Oshawa student's fight against his Catholic school board, is set to run in the fall.
But when the Thames Valley District School Board and the London District Catholic School Board read the script, the local districts decided this month, for the first time in 20 years, to withdraw their annual funding of $15,000 each.
"I feel disappointed," said Dennis Garnhum, Grand Theatre's artistic director. "It is an incredible celebratory experience of what it means to be a child and stand up for who you are and what you believe in. It's fun, it's joyful, they go to the prom at the end, and it's thrilling. …
"Is there a problem with a boy wanting to take a boy to a prom?" he asked.
The musical is based on the story of Marc Hall, a student from Oshawa, Ont., who took the Durham Catholic District School Board to court and won a legal battle in 2002 to bring his partner to his school's prom.
Matt Reid, the chair of the Thames Valley school board, said school administrators decided not to financially support the Grand Theatre production of Prom Queen because it contains strong language and portrays educators in a negative light. He said the musical could leave young students feeling they cannot trust educators, which is inconsistent with the board's approach and beliefs about the crucial and caring roles of adults in the lives of children.
"Upon a lot of reflection by the administration, it was felt that it didn't encapsulate a lot of the positive work that's happening in our schools and the culture of learning in supporting all of our students that we continue to strive towards," Mr. Reid said in an interview on Thursday. "If you read the script, there's a lot of profanity. Like, a lot."
Mr. Reid said he believed the musical was meant for a more mature audience. He defended the board's actions and said the issue has nothing to do with not supporting the LGBTQ community.
"I myself am the first openly gay chair of a school board in Canada. It's not a situation of not supporting [the musical] because of the LGBT content. It is how everything is being portrayed that is a concern," he said.
Ed De Decker, superintendent of education at the London Catholic school board, said young students may not necessarily have the experience or maturity to contextualize the play. He added that students need to understand that teachers and principals now are approachable, and would act with care and compassion.
"The script really feeds on dated stereotypes," Mr. De Decker said. "Unfortunately, we don't feel that it really represents the kind of persons that we know work in our schools. So we don't want to perpetuate that stereotype with our students."
Both school districts said students can still participate in the musical, and schools can take classes to see it.
Grand Theatre officials met with the school boards for two hours before the holidays to review the script. Mr. Garnhum said that despite some concerns the boards expressed, Grand Theatre decided to go ahead.
"We're always sad to lose a sponsor. But at the same time, that's their right," executive director Deb Harvey said.
The musical will involve as many as 50 students on stage, and another 30 in production.
The annual high-school project at the Grand Theatre has featured plays such as Evita, Grease and West Side Story. Prom Queen premiered at the Segal Centre in Montreal in 2016.
The school board funding was a fraction of the production's $250,000 budget.
As word spread this week about the sponsorships, an online campaign to replace them raised more than $48,000.
Mr. Hall, who now lives in Calgary, said he was surprised to learn how the school boards reacted to the script. He said the musical does not target boards, but shares a message that lets young people know that "they should stand up for themselves in the face of discrimination. They need to hold organizations accountable when they feel like they're being discriminated against."