The character Sweeney Todd was first introduced to the masses in Britain in 1846, when a weekly magazine featuring penny dreadfuls — macabre popular fiction that usually involved detectives, criminals, or supernatural beings — published a serialized story called The String of Pearls, in which the cannibalistic, psychotic barber appeared. The piece was an instant hit.
More than a century later, the demon barber of Fleet Street still entertains and chills audiences thanks to Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 1979 and will soon be playing at Laguna Blanca High School. “We chose this show because our students were ready for the challenge, to have something to bite their teeth into,” said LB theater teacher Dana Caldwell of tackling the Tony Award–winning musical.
High school theater is often a training ground for future professional thespians, and Caldwell takes that seriously. “My goal as a theater teacher is to provide my actors and crewmembers with the greatest range of experience I can to prepare them for university and beyond.” In contrast to last year’s spring offering, Seussical the Musical, Sweeney Todd delves into the wicked side of human nature, which allowed the students to explore sinister themes. “Exploring the darkness, along with the light, is vital for young artists,” said Caldwell, “and I believe they will be stronger for it, both as performers and as citizens of the world.”
Sweeney Todd’s subject matter is indeed grisly, and digging into it with teenagers can seem an ambitious exercise. Yet, according to Caldwell, it was what made the experience so gratifying. “[It was] the most challenging part of working with these young actors but, of course, the most important and rewarding,” she said. “[The] students have left me in awe, and I could not be more proud of their tremendous achievements both on and off the stage.
Sweeney Todd runs Thursday-Friday, April 27-28, 7 p.m., and Saturday, April 29, 2 p.m., at Laguna Blanca’s Spaulding Auditorium, 4125 Paloma Drive. Tickets are $10 at the door (for mature audiences).