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'Sweeney Todd' Pros & Cons Aired at Amity High

Critics ask the Board of Education why Amity High administration couldn't review appropriateness of theater selections.


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.

Alex March 12, 2013 at 12:03 PM
I never had the desire to see this play on Broadway for myself, so definitely not taking my children, as we've enjoyed Amity High performances in the past. I was truly hoping it would have been canceled & was also very curious as to know if this was chosen before or after 12/14/12. With much respect to the victims and families of Sandy Hook, very, very poor judgement was made in regards to this.
Aldon Hynes March 12, 2013 at 03:17 PM
I saw a summer stock production of Sweeney Todd many years ago in upstate New York. It was a wonderful production, and I'm sure that Amity will have a wonderful production as well. The production is raising a lot of important issues, which I'm glad of. I am especially excited to hear that the Orange Interfaith Clergy is providing an opportunity to continue the discussion at a gathering a couple weeks after the production ends. The Rev. Ann Ritonia's commented to the article in the Orange Patch: All are invited to attend a continuation of a community dialogue on April 23rd at St. Barbara's Greek Orthodox Church sponsored by the Orange Interfaith Clergy Fellowship. Prevention of Violence in our Culture: The Next Steps will begin at 7 pm and childcare will be provided. The public is welcome and Middle and High School Students are most welcome to participate in the discussion.
broke taxpayer March 12, 2013 at 05:53 PM
Oh brother! For chrissakes, people, it's a PLAY. If our society has become so twisted and demented that we have to worry about a play that depicts violence, then why the hell isn't anybody up in arms over the crap that's all over the TV and in the movies? I swear, if A&E showed the trailer for the show Bates Motel any more, it'd be all they ran! I have to change the channel every commercial break because I don't want my kid to see it (since it depicts not only violence but incestual sex, too). And people will say that I have the choice to change the channel. And I do. And you have the choice not to go see the play. So don't go. Last I checked, America was still a free country (though not for long).
parent March 12, 2013 at 06:42 PM
To "Alex": All the plays are chosen in September, and it actually is NOT on poor taste. you are a moron.
orange mom March 12, 2013 at 10:38 PM
Please folks. To attack those who have reservations about the choice to produce this musical in a public high school...to refer to them as small minded and uneducated, is in itself small minded and uneducated. Have you so little respect for the rights of others to express their views that you need to turn to name calling and bullying? I have a child participating in the production of this show and very much look forward to seeing it, however I fully respect others rights to free speech. I encourage these discussions as they are a healthy part of maintaining balance and respect within our high school community, as well as the community at large. Why is it that we only have the right to free speech if we're on the "right" side? Think on it and if you are an adult, please set a healthy example for the kids and refrain from your bullying and name calling.
Alex March 14, 2013 at 12:53 PM
Thanks "Orange Mom!" Well said!
Dorothy McCrum March 14, 2013 at 05:08 PM
Oh c'mon! I'm quite certain that this production is not going to hatch homicidal maniacs. In 1944 there was "Arsenic and Old Lace" In 1945, there was "And Then there was One" Both productions were basically serial killer stories. Sadly, today's people are hardened to the realities of crimes of this nature because of the gory films they see in the theaters, on TV and the internet. But, to imply that, by doing this play at a high school is poor judgement .....no one is being forced to see it.
Karla DeMaris March 15, 2013 at 11:47 PM
I guess we can forget Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth.

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