The Evolution of a High School Play

April, 2024

How Bellerose Composite High School stages a theatrical production.

It’s received wisdom among many at Bellerose that basketball season is the longest season of the year at the St. Albert high school.

English teachers Jacey Burkholder and Mason McGuire, director and assistant director respectively of the school’s upcoming production of Sweeney Todd might disagree with that statement. 

“Theatre season is much longer, so when we hear someone talk about basketball we kind of chuckle. It’s a busy time with department head meetings on Mondays, rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays and a flex block on Wednesdays where we sometimes ask certain departments to come in. There is definitely a level of commitment.”

Jacey Burkholder says over the phone while McGuire chuckles beside her

No doubt. McGuire and Burkholder aren’t just working with a troupe of actors, they’re overseeing multiple departments responsible for every facet of the production. Assignments have been given to the tech departments such as sets, props, lighting and sound, costuming and stage management. Another group of students is responsible for organizing media. As with the school sports teams, the yearly theatrical performance might take place within the school year, but the seeds are planted in the summer months. It wasn’t long after the three-night April run of Anything Goes that Burkholder was brainstorming for 2024. 


Burkholder and her producing partner from that year choose Sweeney Todd after discussing the pros and cons of any number of other possibilities. “There were some scripts that you would think would be appropriate, but turned out to be not very school appropriate,” Burkholder says. 

Turns out that Sweeney Todd, for all of its grisly subject matter involving rape, murder, and cannibalism, is rated PG-13. According to the licensing web site Music Theatre International, the cost of licensing is based on such elements as ticket price and venue capacity; even a free performance demands as much as $1,000. The final step is to have the play signed off by the principal. 

“It’s not hard to licence Sweeney Todd, but it can be expensive,” Burkholder stresses.


By the second week of September the gears are already rolling. Auditions and interviews take two weeks, followed by rehearsals; students are assigned roles at the first rehearsal on September 23.

“For Sweeney Todd, each actor, regardless of whether they were auditioning for a named character or ensemble, had to audition with a monologue, a song, and a speaking piece where they had to present with an English accent,”

Jacey Burkholder

With Sweeney Todd, the school has taken on a difficult assignment. “We chose a tough musical,” Burkholder wryly admits. “It’s technically quite complex. For instance, there’s a mechanized chair that can slide a person off. It’s intricate and requires a great deal more work than the average prop.”

Based on a mid-19th century Penny Dreadful, the basic premise of the musical revolves around a London barber who murders his clients and gives the corpses to an accomplice, who makes pies from them. The plot has been through a number of different iterations, but the most popular has to be Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This was the version that inspired the successful Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film in 2007, thus inspiring a new generation of theatre kids.


With Burkholder’s usual directing accomplice away on leave, Mason McGuire is pulled into the production. Things are beginning to coalesce, though the director and co-director still have a great deal of work to do. Behind the scenes, activity is ramping up, and there’s a great deal of talk about motivations as the actors grapple with their characters.

“We’re talking about what Sweeney Todd‘s purpose was and having a lot of moral discussions with the kids. The character of The Judge is very disturbing, for instance, so we have discussions where we give strategies to the students.”

Mason McGuire, notes

“Sometimes it’s a pep talk,” Burkholder says. “We kind of say that the work you are doing is important, and it is good. We need to keep going. You know we have a show that’s going to be coming up in April, and we just need to do the best that we can. Hopefully, that gets through and makes them feel a little bit better.”


By now the team are very aware that they’re in for the long haul. “We’ve used the metaphor of being on a roller coaster,” says Burkholder. “Sometimes you’re up and it’s awesome, sometimes you hit that low. That is when we remember why we’re doing it, and that’s because we become a family. It’s absolutely worthwhile and you will remember these moments for the rest of your life, but right now you are in the trenches and it’s not awesome.”

It’s important to remember that this is a musical, and Sweeney Todd has a lot of songs for the students to memorise. “Oh, it’s tough,” Burkholder affirms. “There are 51 songs.” “A typical musical would have something like 21 or 22 songs,” McGuire chimes in. “And we have the added bonus of these songs being about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”


The bleakest months of the year sees the production looking at specifics. “We’re kind of getting through some of our bigger ensemble pieces,” Burkholder says. “Because those take the most time, coordination, and the most larger scale student involvement. We would like to be farther than we are, but that’s how it goes with something this complex.”

While the actors and crew struggle with their own Sisyphean tasks, Burkholder and McGuire put out the small fires that are constantly erupting. “We’re always dealing with a few glitches,” McGuire admits. “Materials that we need and whether we can get them. This is all very normal.” 


Miracle of miracles, it will all have to come together, just as high school musicals always do. Everything is still up in the air, but Burkholder hopes that there will be matinee and dinner theatre performances (with Foods teacher Chris Tom-Kee in charge of the culinary part) taking place April 25-27 at the school theatre. 

By that time, whatever chaos may happen behind the set, the audience will never know. There’s just one more thing for Burkholder and McGuire to do, and that’s to accommodate the possibility of the presence of the now-deceased Stephen Sondheim. 

“We need to put aside a seat for the screenwriter,” Burkholder wryly acknowledges. “That’s part of the licensing fee with any production, in case they decide to show up.”


Students in three St. Albert high schools have found themselves immersed in staging popular musicals throughout the 2023/24 school year.

Already completed at Paul Kane High School was the Feb. 5-7 mounting of the Broadway blockbuster Little Shop of Horrors by the playwright tandem of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The musical about a love-obsessed florist who creates a mysterious plant breed took place on the high school’s recently-constructed theatre facility.

April 25-27 will see Bellerose Composite High School stage its in-house production of Sweeney Todd, which has enjoyed repeated runs on Broadway, winning several Tony awards in the process. Its playwright, Stephen Sondheim, garnered a great deal of acclaim for other shows he’s created, from A Little Night Music to West Side Story.

The Arden Theatre will host Les Mis, being put on by École Secondaire St. Albert Catholic High School May 15-16. Better known as Les Misérables, the multiple Tony-winning musical take on the Victor Hugo classic novel chronicles the exploits of a freed French thief adjusting to life on the outside during the 19th-century June Rebellion.

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