Stephen Sondheim Writes Letter to Cast of Sweeney Todd, Whose School Production Was Almost Canceled

News   Stephen Sondheim Writes Letter to Cast of Sweeney Todd, Whose School Production Was Almost Canceled
 
When a high school production of Sweeney Todd was canceled due to the nature of the story one year before it was planned to bow at Timberlane Regional High School, the controversy in New Hampshire made headlines. Now, a year later, Sweeney took the stage… and Stephen Sondheim delivered a personal note to say thanks.

As previously reported in March 2014, Timberlane Regional School District superintendent Earl Metzler put a stop to the specially revised school edition of the musical because of concerns over the nature of the story.

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After Sweeney Todd: School Edition was canceled March 24, 2014, students and parents took action over social media to reinstate the production on the school's calendar. A Facebook page, community survey and school-circulated petition paved the way for a public forum.

Plaistow resident Randall Mikkelsen, a parent of a Timberlane graduate (previously involved with the school musical throughout his high-school career), told Playbilll.com, "Sweeney Todd hasn't even been staged yet, and already it's teaching hundreds of students and community members in the public at large." He created a private Facebook group entitled "Friends of Sweeney Todd, transparency and free expression at Timberlane."

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"I created the group to give a forum for discussion of the play after the student-run group was shut down at the order of the administration," he said. "It took off from there. I tried to run it really as an open forum for open discussion, although the overwhelming nature of the sentiment is in favor of rescuing the play. I have said on there that I believe this play should be shown, and I've said why. Again, my overall mission is to have the issue aired and discussed in the community."

He continued, "The purpose of a drama department in a school is education, so what they put on has to have an educational component. This play challenges the theatrical skills of the student actors and the musical skills of the pit. It's known for being challenging on both levels. It's recognized as one of the great musicals of our time…" Sweeney Todd, regarded as one of Sondheim's masterpieces, centers on a barber who, after getting out of prison, seeks revenge through murder and, alongside his accomplice Mrs. Lovett, bakes his victims into meat pies. The production took home eight 1979 Tony Awards — out of the nine it was nominated for.

Following the public performing-arts forum with Timberlane Regional School District superintendent Earl Metzler that was held April 2, 2014, the previously canceled 2015 production of Sweeney, directed by theatre teacher Eric Constantineau, was reinstated.

A letter from Sondheim, provided by theatre writer Howard Sherman — an integral part in the coverage of the controversy — to the cast follows:

To Eric Constantineau, the cast and crew of the Timberlane High School Sweeney Todd, their parents, the alumni, the faculty, and everyone who attended the public forum or wrote to a newspaper or in any way made their feelings public — in fact, the entire Plaistow community:

I want to offer my sincerest heartfelt thanks to you all for supporting this production and persuading the principal and superintendent of the school to allow it to take place.

I've never understood why Sweeney Todd is considered "controversial." The incidents in the plot may be lurid, but the show's themes are primarily injustice, morality and greed, as Howard Sherman pointed out. More important, it's a wonderful, scary story — what Sweeney Todd is really about is having a good time.

And that's what the arts are about. That's why students should take part in them as much and as often as possible — arts with as many different attitudes and genres as they can open themselves to. That's also why the school made the right decision.

Congratulations to everybody. I hope the show will turn out to merit your passion.

Stephen Sondheim

Check out the letter below.

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