Controversy Over 'Sweeney Todd:' Let's Take a Breath Here

The fact that the Drama Department chose it proves that they have set the bar very high, but they feel that their students can rise to the occasion.

Tickets are available for this production of Sweeney Todd

Update at 12:39 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12

The Board of Education decided Monday that the show will go on despite some protests from parents. Read about it and see a video here on the Bethany/Woodbridge Patch site.

Original Story

Some parents and community organizations in the Amity school district were planning a protest Monday at the Board of Education meeting for what they call a "despicable" decision. The protest, made public in an announcement posted on Patch, questions the high school Drama Department's musical production choice, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The announcement was posted by Laura Carroll, a first time contributor to Patch, with the (needlessly graphic and misleading) headline: "Violence Continues at Amity High School."

Ms. Carroll states:

"Amity High School students are assigned and taught to perform the horrific acts of gruesome murder, cannibalism, rape, suicide, etc."

"Our children and communities are still going through the effects of the Sandy Hook massacre. What is Amity’s message to these children? Amity High School is supporting violence in our community."

Ok, let's take a breath here. Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece by Stephen Sondheim and is highly regarded as a challenging opera to perform. The fact that the Drama Department chose it proves that they have set the bar very high, but they feel that their students can rise to the occasion. It is a musical with some dark themes, no doubt, but it is a piece of theater. I am sure the high school students that have chosen to take part can separate a gothic tale from reality.

I must admit that I have never been to a theatrical production of this piece, but I have watched and rewatched a DVD of a performance featuring Patti Lupone and Neil Patrick Harris with a symphony orchestra and a large chorus. It focused on the magnificent music, but was done in costume with some props and the violence was highly stylized. I did watch the movie version with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and was not as impressed; I couldn't get past the fact that it eliminated the entire first song.

I would guess that the show as written falls somewhere in between. I am sure that the violence of the murders by the barber will only be suggested in this student production and will be far less graphic than what can be seen in many movies and video games. I wonder if these parents would be as upset if the department had chosen to do a Shakesperean tragedy. And did they allow their high school students to see the new movie version of Les Miserables? Beautiful music, but not exactly a happy story.

It appears that the show was chosen before the tragedy of Sandy Hook, so the timing was a coincidence, and I concur with those who have expressed that theatre can be healing. These young performers have come together as a family to launch the production, a type of family that only happens in theatre. Some students may have chosen not to participate, but my guess is that most of the ones who did are very excited to be performing such a challenging piece. I suspect that tickets for the show will sell well to their proud family members and friends. However, as a teacher of primary students, I would not be comfortable allowing my young students to attend. This might mean that cast members would not be able to have their youngest siblings see their performance.

I read all the growing number of comments below posts regarding the protest after I wrote down my thoughts, and I am going to quote one of the best ones here. It was written by a friend, the very learned Garrett Stack:

Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," is quite rightly regarded as a masterpiece of musical theater and held in the highest regard by the theater community. Its origins date back more than 150 years to Victorian England and numerous vehicles have been mounted to tell the gruesome tale of revenge and enterprise. Like most Gothic literature it contains elements of horror and romance. The opportunity for young people to be exposed to this genre and more importantly to the magnificent score Sondheim created is without equal.

I have personal connections to the Sandy Hook tragedy and grieve every day. But to enjoin the production Sweeney Todd at Amity High School because it contains elements of gothic literature, yes violence and murder, is to say don't read Edgar Allen Poe and never watch a Frankenstein movie again. These high school students know the difference between fact and fiction. And Director Robert Kennedy is to applauded for his bold choice, made long before Sandy Hook, of this difficult opera. The students, as we have seen in the past, will rise to the challenge and thrill us.

Perhaps if teachers only expose their teen-aged students  to "cutesy" theatre, they are doing them a disservice. There are so many other genres that they should experience for a well-rounded education.

Consider this interesting fact. The show that Newtown High School produced last year at this time was Sweeney Todd. It was tastefully done and it was a huge success.

It will be interesting to see if the BOE decides to get involved in this matter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Amity Parent March 22, 2013 at 10:41 AM
First, who made you the spokesperson for Newtown: I am not the spokesperson for Newtown. However, everything I read/see on the news states that what the people of Newtown are fighting for in the wake of this horrific event is tougher gun control laws and improved mental health services, not censorship. If you want to help them, join their efforts in what they are trying to accomplish rather than using their tradgedy to justify censorship of the arts. That's fine, I won't go. But then don't use my tax dollars to put on a show if I am not invited. Pay for it yourselves: We DO pay for it ouselves!!!! The Amity Theater Department is essentially self funded through fundraising, generous donations and ticket sales. There is almost no money in the budget for the department. Interestingly I see by the Patch you are responding from that you are not from the Bethany Orange Woodbridge area so rest assured, your tax dollars are not buying so much as a light bulb at Amity High School. And then someone in the neighboring town committed 26 murders: Yes because Adam Lanza must have seen Legally Blonde and then became a homicidal/suicidal maniac. Really? Once again, one has nothing to do with the other. It would be like saying 5 year olds are on the verge of having the manual dexterity to use a hypodermic needle, so let's teach them about shooting up with heroin. I will not dignify this comment with a response.
Amity Parent March 22, 2013 at 11:28 AM
When you receive the documents, perhaps we can present them to all of the CT school systems to ensure that students everywhere receive a high quality censored education so they will be adequately preapared for life ahead.
JWolf March 22, 2013 at 12:08 PM
Have you ever actually Read Shakespere and the Bible Beck? Have you ever understood Sarcasim? From the Old testament after Sarah was turned to the Pillar of salt during the destruction of The cities of Sin. Lot went to live in a cave with his daughters and they had children....sounds like Incest. Read your bible you will find many instances. Shakespere had teen sex, crossdressing, Murder, Cheating spouses, Inter racial marrage, Insanity, Mothers and sons having sex. Read some Shakespere and you will see it.
Beck March 23, 2013 at 05:54 PM
Amity P sated that “We DO pay for it ouselves!!!! The Amity Theater Department is essentially self funded through fundraising, generous donations and ticket sales.” That is not true. I’m sure there are donations, just like booster clubs donate to sports teams, but the Amity high school theater department is funded by the board of education. Just like the new theater was built with tax money and the teachers are paid with tax money. Please don’t distort the facts. I notice you have a habit of doing that. You attempt to speak with such authority on things you can’t possible know. Like when you say I have no relationship to the Amity tax base. And you decree that a school play that turns murder into entertainment couldn’t possibly effect the mind of a young person. You in fact have no idea if that’s the case. Consider this, a few years ago Amity put on the play “Bang Bang Your Dead”. It is based on the story of a young man who shoots his mother in his home and then goes to a school and shoots 27 students. Two years later, a few miles away, Adam Lanza shoots his mother in his home and then goes to a school and shoots 26 students. That’s one remarkable coincidence. Now I’m not saying Amity is responsible for Adam’s actions, but what I’m saying is we can’t possibly know. So shouldn’t we err on the side of caution, and common sense, and courtesy and in this particular year avoid yet another murder-as-entertainment type school play.
Edward C June 09, 2013 at 04:52 PM
It seems as if for issues such as this, the actual effect of the play on the children, or lack thereof isn't the driving source of controversy. Rather, i think opportunistic individuals who see an opportunity to stand on a soapbox and indulge in self importance blow these situations up and create unnecessary strife.


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