The infraction seemed incredibly small.
Stephanie Lippman, one of the few Black students in the musical theater program at the Boston Conservatory back then, had directed a student performance of the 1970s’ cult classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show” without getting permission from its authors. The audience got in free. No one in the cast was paid. What was the harm?
So when an expulsion letter arrived in April 1999, Lippman was floored. She knew she had disobeyed the department chair by staging the musical, but Lippman was a good student with a pristine disciplinary record — and graduation was just weeks away.
“You are dismissed from the Musical Theater Program and The Boston Conservatory effective immediately,” the note from the Conservatory’s dean of academic affairs read. “These decisions are final and non-negotiable.”
During the graduation ceremony, Lippman sat teary-eyed in the balcony of the Cutler Majestic Theater while her peers collected their diplomas below. Most cheered for her when she rose silently with the Class of ‘99.
Even today, Lippman is unsure why the unauthorized show drew an outsized reaction from administrators who admonished her for allegedly breaking the law, for putting the school in legal jeopardy. Lippman understood she had angered Neil Donohoe, the high-powered chair of the theater department. But was it really grounds for expulsion? Other alumni theorized that Lippman rattled traditionalist faculty with her individuality — her caramel-colored skin, red curly hair, black lipstick, piercings.
“Was I too different? Too Black? Too rebellious?” she asked. “I don’t know.”
Lippman went on to big-time success, singing back-up for Cyndi Lauper and Twisted Sister, performing in professional “Rocky Horror” productions, and forging a Catwoman-esque alter ego named Militia Vox, who leads alternative metal albums and hosted a reality TV show.
But the expulsion burned inside her for decades. And in September 2020, she asked the Boston Conservatory to reconsider.
To Lippman’s surprise, the Conservancy agreed to give her a diploma, though college officials declined to discuss their change of heart with the Globe. “We are pleased that through our academic review processes we were able to determine a path for Ms. Lippman to receive her degree,” they wrote in a statement, “and we are honored to have her among our alumni.”
The long-overdue graduation is partly the story of a woman who was unceremoniously dumped from a prestigious institution in the ‘90s, only to be given her due years later. But Lippman contends it’s also about a college looking to make peace with its problematic past, one rife with complaints of systemic racism.
The Conservancy of the 1990s was overwhelmingly white and run by white men, a cloistered place where punks and people of color alike often felt conspicuous. Today’s institution is far more diverse, led by women, and is part of the larger Berklee College of Music, which draws students from over 100 countries.
“I honestly feel like it is a tale of redemption,” Lippman said. “Not just my own, but theirs, too.”
When Lippman started at the Conservatory in 1995, she thrived. Professors trained her to be a triple threat — acting, singing, and dancing. A state champion pianist back home in Maryland, she never regretted choosing the Conservatory over offers from Princeton and the University of Maryland College Park. Until, of course, she regretted everything.
Classmates saw Lippman as a burgeoning force in the musical theater program with a brassy voice. Mike Forte, a “Rocky Horror” castmate, was “drawn to her electric energy.” Brian Nash, the show’s music director, “loved that she refused to walk on the path the Conservatory had so carefully laid out for us.” At night, Lippman danced at clubs, fronted a rock band, and befriended drag queens.
But she followed the rules and remained acutely aware of how different she looked. Before junior year, she was the only Black woman in her musical theater class.
Looking back, Lippman feels she was already a marked woman when she began her final directing assignment, “Rocky Horror” — something she had been dreaming of for three years. The kitschy musical tells the story of an engaged couple who stumbles into the world of a cross-dressing mad scientist and his raunchy companions. It felt like the kind of production that the Conservatory would never choose independently, she said.
Soon after “Rocky Horror” casting began, Donohoe’s assistant Matthew Sandel pulled her aside.
He had faxed the theatrical company that owns the rights to “Rocky Horror,” asking for permission for a 70-person performance with no admission charge. They declined, sending a fax on Feb. 8, 1999, that read: “The creators of this show will not allow amateur production of this musical. ever.”
Lippman said she never saw the fax, but agrees that Sandel, who did not respond to requests for comment, informed her that she didn’t have permission.
Donohoe did not return calls and Facebook messages from the Globe, but he defended his actions in Lippman’s unsuccessful April 1999 lawsuit against the Conservatory. In his telling, the theater department supported Lippman’s desire to present “Rocky Horror” until they could not secure the rights. He said Lippman wanted to get special permission from the creators to move forward, though she said she understood that, without the owners’ approval, there could be no show.
Lippman remembers things differently. After the initial faxed rejection, she said, the institution was “hands off” and left her to acquire the performance rights alone — something that experts in the music industry say is too much to expect from an undergraduate. She called the rights owner, Samuel French Inc., multiple times. Lippman even e-mailed the “Rocky Horror” fan club president and sent a courier to author Richard O’Brien in London.
Finally, on April 13, the day of the dress rehearsal, Donohoe called Lippman into his office to lay down the law: There would be no performance. The Conservatory posted a handwritten sign on the door of the theater, “No Rocky Horror Tonight.”
Lippman was ready to call it off until a classmate told her about a potential loophole: She could put on the show without violating the copyright if they performed just a handful of songs, out of order — a “revue.”
The cast sang nine songs, and Lippman glowed. Nash, the “Rocky Horror” music director, thought it was glorious: “We were giving a gentle middle finger to the man.”
The next morning, Donohoe was furious.
Four university licensing experts said they have no memory of their institutions ever taking harsh disciplinary action against a student in Lippman’s position.
Technically, any public production needs to acquire rights, they said. But the system is mainly intended for performances where money changes hands, not unpaid class projects.
All agreed that the administration should have done more to help Lippman.
“As an educator, this seems like a problem with the chair or the faculty member,” said Henry Godinez, chair of the Northwestern University Theater Department. “Without offering assistance, you’re basically telling your student to go around the letter of the law.”
But Donohoe took the “Rocky Horror” performance as an act of insubordination. In an affidavit, Lippman said he called her “conniving and manipulative” and said she “was ‘purposefully trying to push his buttons.’”
Donohoe’s decision roiled the Conservatory’s small student body, striking many as excessive and spawning an unsuccessful petition drive to get her reinstated. Four former student directors said they were never contacted about obtaining rights for their senior productions.
“To us, it was an overexertion of power for no apparent reason,” said Forte, the “Rocky Horror” castmate. “There was no justice there.”
But the expulsion makes sense to 10 Conservatory alumni who told the Globe that administrators brooked little dissent from students and showed scant regard for their needs. Scot Allan, one-time student government president who joined the Conservatory in 1997, said school leaders viewed students as “product.”
The school produced its share of stars, but it also left alumni like Edward Hightower, a 2000 graduate, bitter.
“What the Boston Conservatory did was tear our souls out of our bodies and left them in the back alley with the dead rats,” Hightower said.
Now, change is afoot. All but one of Lippman’s former professors have left for various reasons, and Donohoe’s successor is Patsy Collins Bandes, “a purple haired woman looking to do good,” in Lippman’s words. The fall 2020 musical theater class included 26 percent people of color. Between 2019 and 2020, the institution saw a 40 percent increase in Black undergraduates.
Senior Tah-Janay Shayoñe said they don’t believe a woman of color would be expelled for Lippman’s offense today.
Sherill Gow, a Conservatory alumnus and head of postgraduate performance at the Mountain View Academy of Theatre Arts in London, added that students today are empowered by national movements and expert at using social media to hold their schools to account, to pinpoint hypocrisy. And that starts with stories like Lippman’s.
In May 2021, Lippman posted a photo of her diploma to Facebook with the caption, “CHECKMATE DONOHOE.”
On graduation day, she drove down a Connecticut road blasting harsh metal to “exorcise her demons.” The virtual ceremony streamed on her phone. A faculty member called her name.
“They really did it,” she thought. “They actually — finally — gave me my degree.”
Correspondent Linda Matchan contributed to this report.