SDRF bans ‘Sweeney Todd’ as fall musical

Posted 4/12/22

Theater students start petition, blast censorship RIVER FALLS – A group of River Falls High School theater students say district administration’s decision to ban “Sweeney Todd School Edition” …

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SDRF bans ‘Sweeney Todd’ as fall musical


Theater students start petition, blast censorship

RIVER FALLS – A group of River Falls High School theater students say district administration’s decision to ban “Sweeney Todd School Edition” as the Fall 2022 musical is censorship. Administration says the fact that they weren’t consulted before the theater director chose “Sweeney Todd” is a direct violation of school board policy.

While it’s clear there are multiple opinions on the appropriateness of the musical itself, these facts remain: RFHS Theater Director Kim Miller resigned, two students have collected close to 3,000 signatures on a petition, and a new vetting process for theater productions will take effect so something like this doesn’t happen again.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, RFHS theater student and petition co-writer Emily Odegard provided a brief synopsis of the play. She has watched a few high school productions of the “school edition” on YouTube and researched the play on Musical Theater International. In her opinion, the “school edition” is vastly tamer than the regular version.

“The story starts with Sweeney Todd returning to London after 15 years in prison,” Odegard said. “Once home, he learns that the judge who sent him to prison did so because he was madly in love with Sweeney’s wife. How-


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ever, once Sweeney learns that his wife drank a bottle of poison to escape the judge, Sweeney turns to violence in order to get revenge on the judge, destroying his life.

“What starts as a plot to murder one person quickly grows into an obsession, and Sweeney decides to cook his victims into pies to avoid questioning. However, never satisfied with his revenge, Sweeney grows mad, eventually leading him to kill his lovedones.

“At the end of the musical, Sweeney realizes the many, many errors in his ways. The musical is about a serial killer, yes, but Sondhiem makes you empathize with Sweeney and the pain he feels while grieving. The show is not an endorsement of murder, revenge, or cannibalism. On the contrary, it demonstrates how obsessing over revenge can lead to dangerous behavior, and the importance of grappling with grief in a healthy manner.”

Superintendent Jamie Benson agreed the “school edition” doesn’t have the blood and gore of the Johnny Depp movie version. A red scarf would perhaps be used to symbolize blood. However, the plot, theme and music are very much the same, though watered down.

“Much of administration’s concern centers on a vengeful serial killer who cuts the throats of his victims and puts them into meat pies,” Benson said. “Would you take your child to see this musical? No, not our own children or grandchildren. It doesn’t pass the family-friendly smell test. We believe there are great benefits to young children seeing older kids perform art and inspire them to perform, but it should be suitable for all students.”

Benson said administration found out in mid-February through the grapevine that “Sweeney Todd” had been selected by Miller and her staff as the Fall 2022 musical. This is a direct violation of Board Policy 372.378, which states that administration is to be consulted over the appropriateness of any theatrical performance, Benson said.

“This procedure was not followed and we are going back to the drawing board to select a musical for next fall. Administration found out secondhand information from a handful of community members that brought that to our attention,” Benson said. “There were a few other people who commented by phone or email, and one spoke at a school board meeting.”

Miller, who declined to comment for this article, met with administration in February to discuss how and why she chose “Sweeney Todd.” Benson said he and his team began to research the play, asked questions, watched video performances, reviewed national critics’ reviews, all with the goal to understand how the school version modifications might make it acceptable or not.

“This wasn’t a rash, knee-jerk reaction that was done by administration without some forethought, without talking to staff,” Benson said. “We met with staff to discuss the pros and cons. The perception that administration’s arms were twisted by a handful of people is not appropriate.”

“Sweeney Todd” was written by an award-winning composer, an attribute, Benson said. It would provide a challenging performance for students, as well as a new genre to try. However, the admin team asked themselves the following questions when evaluating the musical’s appropriateness, Benson said.

_ “Do we want to administratively be subjected to criticism for censorship or disallow a plot focused on a serial killer? There are many other options for theater that don’t involve a cannibalistic serial killer.

_ “Is the juice worth the squeeze? Are the benefits to the cast, crew and audience so profoundly exceptional that only ‘Sweeney Todd’ could fulfill them?

_ “Is this censorship? Should the school district censor music and art? Yes, there are times an individual should not be the sole person deciding this type of content. Some people want to shame us for censoring. I understand the concern with that and I respect that opinion, but it’s not the first time we’ve ever had to say it’s ok to do this or it’s not ok to do that. So, I guess the answer is, yes, it is censorship.

_ “Would you take your child to see this musical? No, we said.”

On March 9, administration conveyed the “challenging decision” to Miller, asking her to select a new musical. According to Benson, she asked that students not be told about the decision to pull “Sweeney Todd” until after the state Forensics tournament on April 2.

“We complied with her request,” Benson said about the announcement’s April 5 timing. “We knew our sequence of communication and the vetting was flawed from the get-go. Regardless of the decision there would be views lining up.”

On April 5, theater students were asked to assemble in the auditorium during their WIN period (homeroom), Odegard said. RFHS Activities Director David Crail broke the news to students and attempted to answer their questions. Odegard said she was shocked and disappointed.

“The students were not given any specifics on April 5,” Odegard said. “We were told that the plot was too dark, and the ideas of murder, cannibalism and revenge were too much for the community to handle at this time.”

Benson said the theater students and Miller met with administration and that the meeting was going well until Miller stood up inexplicably 30 minutes in and announced her resignation as the musical director (she did not resign her teaching or Forensics advisor position). Benson confirmed the verbal resignation has been made formal.

Odegard and classmate Eric Luebke said they felt they weren’t being heard at that meeting. They were upset they weren’t given a seat at the table or a voice during the two months the play was debated.

“We felt silenced,” Odegard said. “That’s when I asked Eric if we should start a petition (on Together, we wrote a brief statement describing our concerns and requesting a meeting with the administration. The next morning, we woke up to over 2,000 supporters, some even from the UK. I was truly astonished by the overwhelming response to our cry for help. On April 6, members of administration invited a group of students to discuss our thoughts regarding the cancellation of ‘Sweeney Todd School Edition.’” As of April 11, the petition has gathered support from 2,683 people.

Principal Kit Luedtke, Crail and the new musical directing team met with seven theater students to discuss the pros and cons of moving forward with “Sweeney Todd.”

“It seemed clear that the decision to pull ‘Sweeney’ would not be reversed, but that it would be considered in the future,” Odegard said.

The group reached a consensus in which Odegard and the six other students would be able to help design a “vetting process” to ensure clear guidelines for choosing future musicals.

“Our vetting process resembles that of a rubric which is used by the directors to ‘rank’ musicals based on criteria, such as number of students interested in being involved, the difficulty of the music, the size of the cast, and a variety in genres,” Odegard said. “This will assist the administration in learning about why a certain musical was chosen so they are better equipped to field questions from the public if they should arise.”

Luebke believes the petition helped the students get a seat at the table with administration.

“It was amazing to see how quickly we rallied support from the community,” Luebke said.

While the petition’s support is heartening and the students reached a compromise with administration, Odegard feels the issue is larger than “Sweeney Todd” and her work isn’t done yet.

“This is a matter of censorship. We were told repeatedly that the administration would never try to hurt our theater experience, but I feel that is what has happened,” Odegard said. “They withdrew a show that would’ve allowed students to grow musically, physically, and mentally. Isn’t that what theater is all about? High school musical productions are for the students involved, and our directors, our mentors, are the ones who know the students the best. There will still be many opportunities available for young families to watch kid-friendly performances.”

Despite the outcome, Odegard and Luebke are gleaning positives from the experience.

“Our past director taught us about the power we hold within our voices, and that words have the ability to bring change,” Odegard said. “It’s truly incredible seeing her words come to life throughout this process. We are still working through the development of this rubric, and I’m hopeful that student voices will continue to be heard in the future.”

Luebke believes it’s important for people to stand up for what they believe in.

“As high school students, we have a unique perspective on issues that matter to both kids and adults alike, so it's more important now than ever to make our voices heard — even if it entails a lot of work,” he said.

While a new musical has yet to be chosen, Odegard and Luebke are hopeful it will inspire students to reach new heights. Administration can agree to that. “RFHS has a phenomenal theater program, one we are gracious and thankful for,” an April 7 district Facebook post reads. “Our program is student-focused, led by amazing staff, and exists to showcase the talent and passions of our high school students.

“We will continue to move forward in a manner that ensures the participating cast, crew, and staff are at the center of our decisions. This is about our students — and we are very confident they will have an amazing experience performing a musical other than Sweeney Todd.”

To see the petition, head to and search “Allow RFHS to perform Sweeney Todd.”

River Falls High School theater students Emily Odegard and Eric Luebke used this “Sweeney Todd” photo on their petition. The petition has garnered more than 2,600 signatures. Photo courtesy of