School musicals should be a fun experience for everyone involved, but the recent staging of Sweeney Todd by an exclusive school in Auckland, New Zealand, resulted in two students requiring surgery for life threatening injuries.

Sweeney Todd is the musical tale of an English barber who kills his customers with a razor and turns their bodies into meat pies. It’s not a musical generally tackled by school communities, but an audience should be able to watch the show knowing that the events taking place on stage are not actually real. Unfortunately for Saint Kentigern College, the events on stage become frightfully real.

During the opening night performance, one of the cast received an injury referred to as a “significant laceration” to his throat when his character was “killed by Sweeney Todd”. Despite the obvious injury, the show continued and a second cast member also sustained a significant laceration before an ambulanec was called and both boys were taken to Auckland City Hospital.

The students required surgical repair of the lacerations under a general anaesthetic. One student received an 8cm laceration across his throat, measuring nearly 5cm in depth, leaving his trachea and cartilage exposed.

A WorkSafe report stated: “Major veins and arteries are located in the region where contact with the straight razor is made. Damage to these veins, and especially the arteries, was life threatening.”

The performance was not stopped and continued to the end.

“No announcements were made to the audience that the throat slitting was not all just ‘fake blood’, the show went on, we never knew anything about the real blood being spilt until later,” an audience member said.

Sweeney Todd accident

Just days earlier, during the final rehearsals, another student sustained a cut to the throat. This was reported by the school as being only a “scratch”. The student, however, said the wound was deep enough to have caused some bleeding. Another student received a friction burn from having a covered razor run across his throat, also during a rehearsal.

Despite these incidents, the razor blade was deemed to be safe to use and the school went ahead with their production using real razor blades. These razor blades were identified by WorkSafe as being very sharp razors capable of easily slicing through paper – and clearly human tissue as well.

Sweeney Todd Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp in the movie version of Sweeney Todd

The obvious question is how did this happen?

Firstly, members of the production team ignored advice by a local prop supplier to use fake blades and instead opted for real ones. The school board has admitted they had failed to act upon the initial incident report and were unaware real razor blades were being used.

WorkSafe determined the students using the razors as “props” had not been instructed how to use them safely and were not aware of the dangers.

Teachers stated the razor blades had been dulled by placing tape across the edge and been tested by dragging them across their own skin with some pressure applied. However, the Director of the Sweeney Todd admitted to not providing any instruction to the cast on how to use the razors safely as props when pretending to be slitting the throats of the characters, stating, “I did not give any direction to [the student] as to whether or not the knife blade should touch the ‘victim’s’ skin – this was not a discussion we ever had.”

Usual practice for this scene is for the person performing the act of slitting a throat to do so with his/her thumb across the razor blade.

There was no formal record of any blades being checked and it remains unclear just how many razor blades were being used in the production.

The college has apologised for the incidents and has closed the season of Sweeney Todd.

Saint Kentigern College has entered an “enforceable undertaking agreement” with WorkSafe at a cost of $85,000, which avoids the risk of prosecution. WorkSafe New Zealand is continuing to investigate.

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