PLAISTOW— Timberlane Regional School District Superintendent Earl Metzler said since canceling “Sweeney Todd” as next spring’s musical, he has heard strong opinions on both sides of the debate over whether the play is appropriate for a high school production.
He expects to hear more Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. during a forum at the high school. “I’ll keep an open mind and listen to everyone,” Metzler said.
“Sweeney Todd,” regarded as one of Stephen Sondheim's masterpieces, centers on a barber who, after he escapes prison, seeks revenge through murder and, alongside his accomplice Mrs. Lovett, bakes his victims into meat pies, according to Playbill magazine. The production took home eight 1979 Tony Awards.
Since last week’s announcement that the play would not be performed, Plaistow parent Randall Mikkelsen has set up a public Facebook group titled “Friends of Sweeney Todd, transparency and free expression at Timberlane.” The page currently has more than 300 members.
Mikkelsen said the arts community of Timberlane — actors, musicians, and their parents — overwhelmingly want to see “Sweeney Todd” performed next year.
“It challenges the student actors and it challenges the students’ musical skills,” said Mikkelsen. “It's one of the great musicals of our time, and students across the country are passionate about acting in it.”
Timberlane graduate Andrew Hobgood, now a seasoned theater professional and adjunct professor of theater and performance studies at the University of Chicago, has also spoken in support of letting Timberlane theater students perform “Sweeney Todd.”
In a letter to Metzler, Hobgood said he heard about the controversy from other theater professionals on Broadway and across the country.
“Fifteen years ago, your district taught me that the arts aren’t just entertainment — they are communal education,” Hobgood stated. “They are an opportunity for discussion. They are an opportunity for positive action. ‘Sweeney Todd’ provides you with an absolutely amazing opportunity for all of those things.”
Metzler said there will be several experts on hand to discuss the themes and deeper messages of the play. The ultimate decision on whether “Sweeney Todd” is performed is Metzler’s. He said his goal is to make sure the high school presents a performance that meets the core values of the school district and is within the comfort level of the entire community.
Metzler said there are other versions of the script that might be more acceptable, though he noted any revised script would have to do the production justice.
Music Theatre International licenses a school edition of Sweeney Todd with a few lyric and key changes to facilitate high school productions, according to Playbill magazine.
The superintendent said a change in the district leadership team last spring led to him not being consulted on the selection.
“The production was put on hold last spring, with the administrative team asking to review the script, which we did not get until this fall,” Metzler said.