There’s a high school musical in jeopardy? Quick, to the Howardmobile.
I’m kidding, of course. But when I got an e-mail at 11:30 a.m. yesterday, saying that parents and groups were going to protest a production of Sweeney Todd at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge CT at that evening’s board of education meeting, I was extremely, nerve-janglingly upset. While I have spoken out against censorship of high school productions before, most vocally in Waterbury CT, and written about other such efforts as well, this threatened action struck a bit too close to home.
Howard’s back. And this time it’s personal.
Amity was my high school, where I acted in six shows between 1977 and 1980, where I was recognized for my professional work in theatre by being inducted into the school’s “hall of fame.” I was still in high school when I saw the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd with a group of friends, chaperoned by one of our English teachers. Second only to Buried Child, Sweeney was a major part of why I chose a career in the theatre.
I happen to have Angela Lansbury right here.
I immediately reached out to the drama teacher, the school’s principal and a member of the school board. My instinct was to rush up to the meeting to speak on behalf of the show, but I didn’t want to inflame the situation, or be seen as an outsider, carpetbagging my way into a local issue. I also didn’t want to go if I wouldn’t be allowed to speak. In the meantime I thought, ‘Dammit, if only I had a day’s notice. I would call Hal, I would try to reach Mr. Sondheim, to gather letters of support. I even checked my “world clock” to see what time it was in Australia, where Angela Lansbury is currently performing in Driving Miss Daisy. Alas, she was presumably asleep, and likely wouldn’t rise before the board of ed meeting; otherwise, she is a rapid e-mail responder.
What we have here is a failure to communicate
When I was told by the school board member who I had contacted that my voice would be welcomed at the meeting, I did rush to rent a car. While the bright blue Honda hybrid from Zipcar was hardly the Batmobile, it whisked me to Connecticut, filled with a sense of purpose, as I thought all the while of what to say. I hadn’t had time to write anything; I was going to have to wing it. ‘Avoid inadvertent puns,’ I told myself. ‘Remember you can’t say that the opposition is half-baked, or that this is an issue of taste. You can’t risk inadvertent laughter. Listen and respond to the other speakers. Don’t talk about yourself. This is about the show, the school and the kids.’
No man is a failure who has friends
Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, there was rapid circulation of the situation among many people with whom I went to high school, and though I drove up on a lone mission, I was ultimately joined at the meeting by one of my drama club friends and by my sister, whose older daughter is a senior in the school. My brother, with whom I was not on speaking terms during high school, apologized that he couldn’t be at the meeting to support me and support the production. I learned that one of the “parent liaisons” to the drama club was the sister-in-law of one of my very closest friends and she welcomed me with a hug; her daughter is the stage manager for Sweeney Todd. The Facebook network reached out into the Connecticut media, resulting in a TV crew from the NBC affiliate; my own tweets and Facebook notice alerted The New York Times to the story.
They agreed to a sit-down
The meeting about the drama group was, ultimately, not one of high drama. A member of the clergy spoke first, saying her reservations arose from an interfaith leadership meeting two weeks prior, at which there was discussion about how to curb representations of violence, in the wake of the Newtown massacre. Several parents questioned the choice of the play and wondered whether there weren’t other vehicles available. One of those parents had a child in the show, and she wasn’t pulling her child from it, despite her own reservations. Others spoke of the story’s long history, of the musical’s fame, of the high regard in which Stephen Sondheim is held. So even when I stood up, with notes scribbled moments before, I was not in a lion’s den, but in the midst of a respectful exchange of ideas. (A balanced report appeared in The New Haven Register this morning.)
And so, from my off-the-cuff, at times ungrammatical, remarks: “Stephen Sondheim, who has already been lauded here, is very famous for a song that he wrote in another one of his other musicals in which we hear the line ‘Art isn’t easy.’ Creating art isn’t easy and the content of art isn’t easy…Sweeney Todd can create a learning opportunity. The responsibility of schools is to create a context for young people to understand the world around them and as much as we may want to keep that world away for as long as possible, it is not possible. While we can choose to do other works of literature, to read other books, to sing other songs, we are denying them the opportunity to learn.”
Stand down, but remain alert
No one demanded that the show be stopped. No vote was asked for or taken, and the board listened without response, since the whole discussion was not on the official agenda, but was merely part of “public comment.” To call it civil suggests a frostiness I did not feel, to call it polite suggests underlying anger. Might there be repercussions down the line, as some seek to exert authority over what can and can’t be performed in future years? That’s possible. If so, if welcome, I’ll be at those meetings as well.
I noted in my remarks that this was not an isolated incident, that censorship of high school theatre happens all too often. Some may dismiss it as merely a school problem, but it is important to anyone who loves theatre or believes in the value of the arts. Yes, I have taken up the cause of allowing students to grapple with challenging material before, and while yesterday struck particularly close to home, I’ll speak out in support of threatened high school drama whenever I hear about opposition (sorry, no Grapes of Wrath paraphrase at this point).
But I have only one hometown, one high school. The only way we can insure freedom of expression, freedom in the arts in teens – who will be our future artists and our future audiences – is if we are all aware of what is taking place near us, or back home, and if we speak out.
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Addendum, March 16, 10 am: On the Friday immediately following the Board of Education meeting described above, which took place on a Monday evening, Dr. Charles Britton, principal of Amity Regional High School, sent the following e-mail to the district. I hope it becomes a model for other schools that face such challenges:
“This past week, the media widely reported some objections that have been raised against this year’s spring production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Some members of the Amity community and parents believe this production is too graphic for a high school audience. The administration and Drama Department at Amity High School respectfully disagree with these objections. The production is PG-13 and designed for a high school level audience. The show is produced in high schools across the nation. When carefully considering all academic material for Amity students, the faculty and administration at Amity never select material that is gratuitously violent or purposefully titillating in nature. All material is selected for the deeper meaning and value of the work of art, literature, or related academic resource. In the hands of talented teachers and directors, this academic material engages students more effectively and promotes our efforts to stimulate critical and creative thinking.”
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Addendum, March 16, 3 pm: I have discovered some additional local reporting on the Sweeney Todd discussion, and will provide links with no comment, other than to say that it is worth reading not only the articles, but the comments that follow each of them. It is also worth noting which outlets reported from the event, and which reported solely from other news reports.
“Controversy Over Sweeney Todd: Let’s Take a Breath Here,” from The Naugatuck Patch, March 11
“Sweeney Todd Pros and Cons Aired at Amity High,” from The Orange Patch, March 12
“Sweeney Todd Protest: Residents Denounce Staging of Violent Musical at Connecticut High School,” from The Huffington Post, March 12, updated March 14