I have just returned from a trip to Plaistow, New Hampshire, where I went to support students, parents, alumni and members of the community who wanted to speak out against the cancelation of a production of Sweeney Todd at Timberlane High School, announced for production a year ago, but scheduled for 2015. In the wake of the response to the cancelation, the school scheduled an open forum to hear from the community on the issue. This was an important and rare step, since each and every decision of school administrators cannot possibly be opened to organized public discussion, with the media present as well.
But in creating the opportunity, the administrators of Timberlane opened the door to two-and-a-half hours of speaker after speaker extolling the caliber of the show, the importance of theatre in their lives, and how deeply connected they are to the school’s arts program. Despite the opportunity, no one spoke up against the show. Even though some apparently made their feelings known privately to the administration, or in letters to local papers and on blogs, none would stand to say so in front of their peers in a public setting.
Because I don’t like to give speeches except when I’m invited to do so, I spoke at the session off the cuff, based on what I’d learned about the issue and the community in the days and hours leading up to the event in the high school cafeteria, attempting to address concerns specific to Timberlane. I want to share my remarks with you, with all of the imperfections of impromptu speech. I hope I spoke some sense and maybe even some truth.
The superintendent indicated he would render his decision very shortly, and as I write, a community awaits, as do I.
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Into the woods – you have to grope
But that’s the way you learn to cope
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know…
Those are the words of Stephen Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim is the greatest composer of musical theatre in the past 50 years and possibly in the history of the American musical theatre. His work deserves to be seen and while his work has never been known to as somebody to easily please audiences, the challenge that he presents to every audience is a special challenge for students.
I’ve come up from New York to represent to you that there are people far beyond this community who care about each and every student who wants a great experience in the arts. I don’t do it because I believe that every student in every drama club will go on and become a professional artist. Indeed, I suspect most of them won’t. I come here because I want better audiences for the arts and by being involved in the most challenging work at this stage in their lives, those who take part in his work, those who see this work, become better audiences so that we can have better arts.
You have an extraordinary performing arts center – I’m still in awe of that turntable, I’ve never seen anything like it – and with a facility like that you should be able to use it to its fullest.
No, you can’t please everyone all of the time. I’m amazed to find the number of performances that you have here. In the case of this show, it will not please everyone, it never has. But it is a masterwork of musical theatre. The original cast recording was just announced to be inducted into the Library of Congress today.
People like to focus on the more lurid aspects of Sweeney Todd. But Sweeney Todd is not about its actions; Sweeney Todd is about morality, about justice, about the lengths people will go to and the lengths they’re driven to when they face injustice.
No, I would not bring a seven year old to Sweeney Todd. But I believe and I am told that there are many other opportunities in this community for people of all ages at different times to have different experiences. This is not – and I do know this script, I know this script particularly well – that you are not proposing to do the original script. Stephen Sondheim has authorized a school edition of Sweeney Todd which removes some of the material which would be difficult for high schools to endorse or for students to perform. It’s not neutered but it is toned down. Countless high schools do this show every year across the country. The students here should be able to have the opportunities that their peers, who they will be facing when they go on to college, had at their schools.
There are many stories of school shows which are canceled at the last minute. This is by no means the case – you have a year. You have a year to place the show in context, to inform not just in the students in the drama club, but all of the students, all of the parents, all of this community, through a range of educational activities that can be put into place. Other schools have done it. I pledge myself as a resource to help you find what’s been done elsewhere, what’s been successful and even people who can come in and help with those programs. Nobody would walk into this show and be surprised by what is happening. Frankly, given what has surrounded this in the past week, I think we’re past that.
Fundamentally, I believe student theatre is first and foremost for the students who make it and then if there is there is the opportunity for people beyond their family members to come and see it, that’s fantastic. But the experience is for the students. That’s what school is for.
I truly hope that a year from now, I will be driving back up from the city to see Sweeney Todd.
Stephen Sondheim is a vastly smarter man than I am, so I will finish again with his words.
Careful with what you say,
Children will listen.
Careful you do it too.
Children will see.
Guide them but step away,
And children will glisten.
Tamper with what is true,
And children will turn,
If just to be free.
The more you protect them,
The more they reject you.
The more you reflect them,
The more they respect you.
Thank you very much.
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Update, April 10: I am delighted to report that late this afternoon, Dr. Earl Metzler of the Timberlane School District reversed the decision to cancel Sweeney Todd and the show is now back on the Timberlane High schedule for 2015. The decision came about thanks to the respectful yet passionate efforts of the students and parents of Timberlane and members of the greater Plaistow community. I look forward to seeing them once again, and my favorite musical, a year from now.