High School Production of "The Lion King" Cancelled Mid-Run Due to Copyright Issue


Once again, when it comes to licensing permissions, it appears as though educators have failed their students as a high school production has been canceled due to copyrights not being secured.

Over the weekend, students at Nansemond River High School in Suffolk, VA were told that their production of Disney's The Lion King would not continue because rights to the show had not been obtained. The worst part is, they had already begun performances. 

The students had already performed the show five times, twice for area elementary schools and three more during their opening run. Upon learning of the rights issues, the school immediately canceled the remaining performances due to "unforeseen circumstances."

According to reports from local news, licensing fees were not paid in order to obtain permission to perform the musical. Fee payments are typically required before auditions and rehearsals take place. There also might be some other issues to address about this production as well. 

According to Music Theatre International, who owns the rights, the only properties available to license are The Lion King Jr and KIDS versions, which don't extend to high school productions. At this time it doesn't appear that a school edition of The Lion King is available. So if Nansemond River High School had tried to obtain rights to perform the show, it's more than likely that MTI would have rejected their request. I've also seen a video clip of the show and it looks like canned(Orchestral pre-recorded) music was used for the performance, which adds another issue as well. 

While MTI has said that the school can continue their performances depending on the results of their investigation, I don't think those results are going to be positive for the school and I don't expect performances to resume. 

Once again, this appears to be another example of theatre educators trying to sidestep copyright law in order to perform highly sought-after theatrical pieces. We've seen this happen many times overseas, in Indonesia with Hamilton and Brazil with The Book of Mormon. But rarely does it happen here in the U.S. because most theatre educators are fully aware of copyright laws when it comes to theatrical property. And in the case of Nansemond River High School, their director should definitely know better. 

An image of a performance of The Lion King at Nansemond River High School. 

An image of a performance of The Lion King at Nansemond River High School. 

The educator in question is Dr. Joleen Neighbours. Far from a newcomer to theatre education, Dr. Neighbours has served on the board of the Virginia Theatre Association and currently serving as their President-Elect. In my opinion, her position with the group, as well as her employment with Nansemond River High School should change severely after this. 

Performing licensed material without permission is an egregious action by any theatrical educator. Besides breaking copyright laws and being deceitful, it puts any future productions at the school at risk as licensing companies can refuse to grant rights. I've seen this happen to many schools and local theatre companies. 

I feel terribly for the students at Nansemond River High School. It's not on them to be aware of copyright laws. They put their trust in the adults in the room to make sure they can perform these shows and when those adults fail, only the students are punished. 

We'll update this story as more information becomes available.