PLAISTOW — Timberlane Regional High School officials have canceled next year’s production of the musical “Sweeney Todd,” citing concerns over the nature of the script.
“I want an all-inclusive performance that the community can enjoy,” Superintendent Earl Metzler said yesterday. “We were uncomfortable with the script and agreed that this was not the right time or place for the performance.”
“Sweeney Todd” tells the story of a barber who murders his victims. His landlady then bakes them into pies and sells them.
The decision has caused a stir in the Timberlane community and efforts are being made through social media to convince the administration to reverse the decision.
“In the past, we have done shows with a wide range of difficult material and none of them have ever been opposed until now,” Timberlane senior Alexis Bolduc said. “And the only people who seem to disapprove of this show are the ones in charge.”
After last year’s performance of “Les Miserables,” the Timberlane Players announced the spring plays for the next two years: “Fiddler on the Roof” this spring and “Sweeney Todd” next year.
But Metzler said they did not have permission to do that.
“Although (the plays) were announced at the conclusion of last year’s musical, they did not have the authority to do that,” Metzler said. “There is a process in place, but they were relying on an old process.”
Metzler said after a six-month process, principal Donald Woodworth, director of secondary education Scott Strainge, theater director Eric Constantineau and music director Anthony DiBartolomeo made the final decision on “Sweeney Todd”on Monday.
“(Woodworth) came to me and said he had several concerns over the script,” Metzler said. “We felt there were parts in there that just weren’t acceptable. We shared that with the group and decided to look for a performance which was more suited for the community.”
Woodworth declined comment yesterday.
Constantineau, who directs the Timberlane Players, also declined comment.
“I would imagine he’s disappointed,” Metzler said of the theater director. “They are always trying to push the envelope and get a top-notch effort with challenging music and challenging acting. He’ll find another way to challenge our students. I’m excited about what their next selection will be.”
Unhappy students created a Facebook page to protest, but Metzler said that got out of hand.
“There were things that were written which were beyond disrespectful and rude, as well as illegal,” he said. “It crossed the line. It’s not about free speech. Those students are free to let us know what they feel about things. But it does not give them the right to be rude and disrespectful.”
Metzler said an administrator advised the creator to delete the group.
“I think we were doing them a favor,” he said. “They could have faced suspension, expulsion or even legal consequences.”
Metzler said the students who made the comments apologized to him and no discipline was handed down.
The Timberlane Regional School Board did not discuss the play at any meetings, but Chairman Nancy Steenson said she agreed with the decision.
“We have great leaders in place, who are entrusted in making decisions,” Steenson said yesterday. “If they thought that this was the best decision, then we support it.”
Bolduc said the administration’s actions have made the students afraid to speak out.
“The thing that irritates me the most about this whole ordeal that we, as current Timberlane Players, have been silenced and have been threatened with expulsion as well as arrest,” she said.
Lisa Stavropoulos, parent of a Timberlane junior, agreed.
“I understand not discussing during school, but they have a right to react to this and speak freely on thoughts and try to still be able to do the musical in which they had already been told they could do,” she said.
The request to shut down the Facebook group prompted Randall Mikkelsen of Plaistow, a parent of a Timberlane graduate, to create a private Facebook group. The group had more than 150 members as of yesterday afternoon.
“I just want to give the students and parents an opportunity to discuss the cancellation of the play and to see if it’s a good idea,” Mikkelsen said.
Many in the Timberlane community disagreed with the decision.
“I’ve been a big fan of the play,” 2013 Timberlane graduate Howie Collyer said. “My biggest concern is that people are discussing why it might be inappropriate. In my sophomore year, we did ‘Chicago.’ It was extremely well received and done tastefully by the director. It’s interesting to me that there were subjects such as murder and adultery in ‘Chicago,’ but that was not a problem.”
Collyer said he thought it was ironic the administration chose to cancel the play.
“One of the themes is about the lower class being squeezed by the upper class or the 1 percent,” he said. “If this decision is held, they are only further encouraging that.”
Mikkelsen said the script was a toned-down version of the original play.
“It’s a high school edition of the play, which is rated PG,” he said. “There are artistic decisions that can be made to limit the in-your-face violence.”
He suggested a discussion group be held in conjunction with the play.
“If there are concerns about the content, it can be discussed then,” Mikkelsen said. “But the experience with high schools has been overly positive with schools which have presented it in competition and have won awards.”
Stavropoulos said her daughter was disappointed the play was canceled.
“She was so excited that this was the musical that they would be doing for her last year in the high school,” she said, “and then crushed when she was then told that they would not be able to do it.”
But Metzler said he also heard from students and parents who didn’t support the play choice.
“They didn’t want to be in the production because of the subject area,” he said. “I just want to agree to provide things which were inclusive. This isn’t censorship, we’re just trying to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.”
Bolduc said her efforts to meet with Metzler were denied.
But Metzler said he is directing students to go elsewhere.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for them to speak with me,” he said. “Instead, they should be speaking with the four administrators who made the decision.”
Stavropoulos said she thought a public meeting should have preceded the decision.
“They are also being given the reason that it was because the community did not want it,” she said. “Well, who was this community? Why wasn’t there an option for people to vote on this? It really does not seem fair.”
Metzler said a public forum will be held to discuss the issue in a few weeks, once DiBartolomeo returns from a trip to China.
“We just need to take a step back, take a look at where we are and go from there,” Metzler said. “The play wasn’t supposed to happen until next year, so this isn’t something which had to be discussed in the next five minutes.”