Sweeney Todd at Timberland High in Plaistow NH seems to have a lot in common with the threatened but ultimately triumphant production of Rent this past weekend in Trumbull CT. A musical is announced months in advance and, after some time has passed, the administration, citing both a failure to follow a previously unknown approvals process and concerns over inappropriate content, cancels the production. In Trumbull, it was just weeks before auditions were to begin; in Plaistow it’s over a show in the next school year.
If you look beyond the decision itself, politics at the school board level, in each case, seem to coincide with the dispute. In Trumbull, the school board suddenly ruled that only town residents would be permitted to speak at meetings, for the first time; in Plaistow, there was a declaration, currently being challenged on constitutional grounds, that once a decision is made by the school board, all members have to support it publicly.
A mature-themed school musical is once again at the center of a local controversy, but the pattern is a national one. While I urge you to read about the Plaistow situation in its entirety, as well as a sharply worded local editorial about the free speech issues regarding the school board, here’s the gist of what’s transpired, as reported by Alex Lippa of the Eagle-Tribune.
Timberlane Regional High School officials have canceled next year’s production of the musical “Sweeney Todd,” citing concerns over the nature of the script.
“I want an all-inclusive performance that the community can enjoy,” Superintendent Earl Metzler said yesterday. “We were uncomfortable with the script and agreed that this was not the right time or place for the performance.”
“Sweeney Todd” tells the story of a barber who murders his victims. His landlady then bakes them into pies and sells them.
The decision has caused a stir in the Timberlane community and efforts are being made through social media to convince the administration to reverse the decision.
“In the past, we have done shows with a wide range of difficult material and none of them have ever been opposed until now,” Timberlane senior Alexis Bolduc said. “And the only people who seem to disapprove of this show are the ones in charge.”
I have made the argument that high school theatre should be, first and foremost, for the students. I have made the argument that school theatre should challenge students so they can grow and learn. There’s little point in recounting those.
However it does appear that Dr. Metzler, the superintendent, is giving some manner of weight to missives he’s begun receiving from outside the community, triggered by social media and websites carrying the Timberlane tale of Sweeney Todd to the larger world. That’s where you come in.
If you are a student, parent, teacher or administrator who has had the experience of Sweeney Todd at your high school, recently or in past years, take a moment to write the Timberlane leadership and tell them about how the show was received and what it meant. If you are a theatre professional who cares about our next generation of theatre artists and the next generation of audiences, write and tell them why you think students should – perhaps even must – take on work like Sweeney Todd. If you are an audience member, a theatre aficionado, who believes in the value of Sweeney Todd, write about that and why students should be able to explore it in the Sondheim-approved, judiciously pruned school edition. Let’s demonstrate the level of commitment that exists among those who believe in the arts, and that we care not only what happens in the big cities, but in each and every community where theatre and the arts as a whole can be nurtured, not just in your own backyard.
Worth keeping in mind? Timberlane has already done The Laramie Project. Twice. That says something about the people in the Timberlane district, although there have been some subsequent leadership changes and the show was confined to the smaller studio space on the Timberlane campus. Let me also note that Dr. Metzler will be leading an open conversation with the community this coming Wednesday, April 2, so an iron wall has not necessarily gone up, despite the announced cancelation. The distinct possibility for constructive dialogue remains, so I urge you to refrain from sarcasm, from rash generalizations, from anger, and instead focus on your stories, your experiences, your thoughts and how they can apply to the students in Plaistow.
Let’s operate under the genuine assumption that everyone wants the best for the students and just have differing perceptions of what that is. I’ve been strident in some of my past writing, but the Trumbull students proved you get more with judicious diplomacy than with unbridled passion, valuable as that can be at certain times.
You can share your thoughts and experiences with:
Dr. Earl Metzler, Superintendent, Timberlane Regional School District, 30 Greenough Road, Plaistow NH 03865
Mr. Donald Woodworth, Principal, Timberlane Regional High School, 36 Greenough Road, Plaistow, NH 03865
And while you’re at it, would you copy me as well? I’m driving to New Hampshire on Wednesday and I’d like to be able to print out and share a sheaf of thoughtful, supportive and constructive messages with those those in attendance at the forum.
Sweeney Todd is, at its core, about how insidious miscarriages of justice can be in a society, driving some to heinous acts in retaliation – ultimately for nought. That’s a valuable lesson, especially when told by an artist as skilled and respected as Stephen Sondheim. Let’s hope it can still be sung at Timberlane High next school year.