Arts Education, Performance, and Sweeney Todd: What Were They Thinking?

Posted by Merryl Goldberg, May 18, 2009 2 comments

This week I attended a performance of Sweeny Todd staged and performed by my local High school drama department, Carlsbad High School, (in southern California).  When my neighbor informed me that the high school was embarking on Sweeny Todd, I immediately thought to myself, "what the heck is this high school drama teacher, Monica Hall, thinking?!" 

Sweeny Todd is a complex dark piece of musical theater and musically challenging, even for professional actors and singers. It's not the kind of musical theater that one walks away from humming the songs.  Rather, it is more operatic, with dissonances and harmonies, flowing songs, and surprises.  The music is by Stephen Sondheim - a genius in my book.  Bottom line, and by any measure, add acting and choreography, set design, lighting design, technical design, a live orchestra, a production crew, fund raising, ticket sales, and advertising, and you've undertaken one heck of a big challenge.   Of course there's also the issue of the content of the play - which is seriously dark and brutal, and ask high schoolers to make sense of it?! I don't know.

Talk about engaging a village.  In real numbers, according to the program and witnessed by the sheer amount of kids on the stage, there were 47 high school actors, 51 kids in the production crew, and 30 students in the orchestra.  There were teachers of theater, dance, music, and tech involved; support for ticketing, costumes, set building, and so on.  Needless to say, there must have been at least a hundred parents who were involved, even if to simply drive their kids to and from rehearsals and performances. 

Judging by the overflow crowd on the night I attended the performance, the parents are also enthusiastic patrons.  An additional pack of kids handed out programs and ushered; a few more students sat selling raffle tickets to support the arts programs. On the walls outside of the performing hall mounted on Black construction paper were literally hundreds of art works created by the visual art students.  My daughter stopped to comment on numerous paintings and prints, especially the ones reminiscent of Twilight - a phenomena in and of itself.

Once inside the hall, sitting directly in front of us at the performance were a "gaggle" of teenagers - which admittedly can be somewhat of a frightening event for those not used to being surrounded by excited texting animated, and giggling teenagers.  They were clearly there to root for their friends in the production.  And when I write, "root," I mean it - they were truly enthusiastic and literally screaming for their friends.  It made me wonder if the theater kids ever got cheers outside of this arena. 

As the play began, with stage fog rolling onto the stage and a brooding organ playing haunting music, I was immediately drawn in.  The orchestra was really superb, and as the actors began entering from the wings, the hall was transformed.  As the play unfolded, we, the audience were privy to the extraordinary talent  of nearly 130 kids acting, singing, running the tech board, moving sets, working  the lights, playing their instruments.

So back to - "what was this teacher thinking when she chose such a challenging work?"  This teacher, whether she knew it or not (and I suspect she knew it),  was thinking about the enormous capacity and talent these kids have - given the opportunity to actually do something with it.  This is what great teaching is - recognizing kids' potential and taking them to a point that might be at their tipping point - but ultimately within their reach. 

I read a wonderful biography written by Betty Jean Lifton several years ago describing the life of Janunz  Korczak.   Korczak was a doctor, writer, and educator who lived within the Warsaw ghetto during World War II and oversaw orphanages for Jewish and Catholic kids.  He ran his orphanages much like small societies and arranged for the children to take enormous responsibilities for decisions, such as trying children's wrongdoings at tribunals and courts comprised of the children's peers.  He had deep convictions about how to talk with kids, and in the preface to one of his books (discussed in Lifton’s book), he writes, “You are mistaken if you think we have to lower ourselves to communicate with children.  On the contrary, we need to reach up to their feelings, stretch, stand on our tiptoes.” 

The teachers involved in this production recognized that they could step on their tiptoes in working with all these kids.  And what is even more remarkable given the present time and context, is that the teachers persevere even as arts are on the constant chopping block.  Our students are lucky to have the support of dedicated and completely overworked teachers.  The students no doubt greatly benefit from the passion of their teachers which translates to ensuring that the opportunity of the arts are available to as many kids as possible.  Bravo Carlsbad High School Theater students.  You really did great.  I hope that in the future if you don't find teachers like the ones you have now, you've learned enough to be your own motivation. 

Bravo teachers.  If it weren't for you, some of these kids wouldn't have had the chance realize or tap into the potential that they hold and own.   And bravo to all of you teachers, parents, and administrators in so many other districts for your determination to ensure that all kids have the opportunities to push themselves beyond whatever limitations they might have thought existed.  This is what really good education is all about - no matter what the subject.

2 responses for Arts Education, Performance, and Sweeney Todd: What Were They Thinking?


Kris says
May 19, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Thank goodness for teachers like this. I hope my own kids are so lucky.

  • Please login to post comments.
Richard says
May 20, 2009 at 7:32 pm

This is a very moving story, and you do a great job acknowledging how many community members this one art event engaged... powerful!

  • Please login to post comments.