SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 1, 2014

Timberlane asked to restore "Sweeney Todd"

By Doug Ireland
Staff writer

---- — PLAISTOW, N.H. — Timberlane Regional High School’s decision to cancel next year’s production of the musical “Sweeney Todd” is drawing national attention.

Since school administrators in Plaistow, N.H., decided to stop the show, news of the decision has circulated around the country and has drawn support for the play from many theater notables.

Some of them may show up at a public forum tomorrow night at the school.

“Sweeney Todd” is the story of a barber who murders his victims. His landlady then bakes them into pies and sells them. But the play is more than a gory tale; it’s about how tyrants can abuse their power.

The performance would have been a PG version of the Stephen Sondheim play, specifically adapted for high school students.

In fact, “Sweeney Todd” is scheduled to be performed later this spring at Windham (N.H.) High School, according to principal Ryan Kaplan.

When students asked to do the play, the administration backed their request, Kaplan said. But, he added, they reserved the right to change the script if necessary if they found the content objectionable.

He said the script is a “PG” version for high school students.

“As a district, we are willing to support the students,” Kaplan said. “We will make it clear this is not a kids show.”

Members of the entertainment industry are weighing in on a Facebook page devoted to conversation about the play and the administration’s decision. It was established by members of the Timberlane community opposed to the move.

Timberlane students were asked to take down their own “Sweeney Todd” Facebook page. The new page was created by Randall Mikkelsen of Plaistow, the parent of a Timberlane graduate.

It has attracted a lot of attention, including that of Broadway producer and Grammy nominee Van Dean and Howard Sherman, a New York-based columnist and arts administrator and producer.

Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing, said yesterday he plans to attend a forum at the school tomorrow to give the public a chance to comment on the cancellation. The forum begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Timberlane library.

Sherman said he hopes to speak if nonresidents are allowed to comment.

“I want to be there to be supportive, and I will speak if I have the opportunity to,” he said. “I will certainly make my feelings known.”

If not allowed to speak, Sherman said, he still will support those fighting to let the show go on.

Sherman’s latest column, published yesterday, urges any student or adult involved in a production of “Sweeney Todd” to tell Timberlane administrators about how well the show was received by the public.

He also appeals to others in the entertainment industry to weigh in.

“If you are a theater professional who cares about our next generation of theater artists and the next generation of audiences,” Sherman said, “write and tell them why you think students should — perhaps even must — take on work like ‘Sweeney Todd.’”

Sherman said the situation at Timberlane is comparable to threats to cancel a performance of “Rent” last weekend at a high school in Trumbull, Conn. The play went on as scheduled, he said.

When plans to perform “Sweeney Todd” created an uproar at his alma mater in Woodbridge, Conn., last year, Sherman expressed his concerns about censorship. The show went on.

Mikkelsen said yesterday that Superintendent Earl Metzler will moderate the one-hour public forum, and speakers will be given three minutes to speak.

Metzler did not return multiple calls for comment yesterday. When finally reached, Metzler said he was too busy to speak. He said last week he wanted “an all-inclusive performance that the community can enjoy.”

School Board Chairman Nancy Steenson also did not return calls for comment yesterday.