Members of a community group concerned about the effects of violent entertainment on American culture told the Amity Region 5 school board Monday they thought a play about a serial killer is not appropriate for a high school musical performed by students.
But the emotional showdown that appeared to be shaping up between critics and supporters of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd,” scheduled for performances next month at Amity High School, never ignited.
Instead, the two sides engaged in a respectful debate during the public comments portion of the regional Board of Education meeting that was far calmer than online comments leading up to it.
And at the end of the meeting, a board member, Christopher Browe of Orange, asked Chairman William Blake to schedule a discussion for the next board meeting on whether the choice of school musical should be reviewed by a committee of parents.
“Sweeney Todd,” however, is not in jeopardy. Performances are scheduled for April 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13, and Thomas Falcigno, the Amity High student representative to the board, said $2,200 in tickets have already been sold.
The critics, in fact, said they did not intend to ask the regional school board to cancel the musical, only to draw attention to the dark subject matter and question whether school officials should have insisted on some other play instead.
“Sweeney Todd” is about a barber in London in the 1840s who is wrongly imprisoned by a judge who covets his wife. Years later, the barber returns seeking vengeance by slashing the throats of his enemies, whose bodies are then ground up and baked in meat pies by his accomplice, who serves them to her unsuspecting customers.
Region 5 Supt. John Brady noted that Amity High School students will perform a high school version that tones down the language and shifts the gory violence out of view of the audience.
But the critics, led by the Rev. Ann Ritonia, pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Orange, said the entertainment industries expose Americans to too much violence in movies, video games and even Broadway productions.
Ritonia said after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, in which 20 first graders and six educators were gunned down, concerned Orange residents from several congregations met at a local church and agreed something had to be done about violent entertainment.
Parents of some of the “Sweeney Todd” cast members were among the critics, admitting that they hadn’t realized until very recently that the play contained serial murders and cannibalism.
Nobody is asking for the play to be canceled, said Jim Hashem of Orange. But, he asked, is a play about a mass murderer the best one that could have been selected for the children of the Amity community?
“Sweeney Todd” supporters said the musical is considered a masterpiece of modern musical theater, and they congratulated Amity High School for allowing students to attempt such a challenging production.
Actor Howard Sherman, an Amity High School alumnus, said he traveled to Woodbridge from New York City to speak in favor of “Sweeney Todd.” He said the main theme of the musical is the futility of revenge, not the glorification of it.
Sherman also worried that the critics would limit Amity school productions to outdated, old musicals like “Oklahoma.”
Brady said he was pleased by the high level of debate by both sides, although he agreed with “Sweeney Todd” supporters that the play’s theme was anti-revenge and that it was appropriate for high school students.