Like Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of
Fleet Street was a collaborative production between Stetson's School
of Music and Theatre Arts program.
Todd is one of Sondheim darker works, which taps our society's
fascination with the macabre. Adapted from a modernized melodrama by
Christopher Bond, the play is at its heart a revenge drama infused with
music, and is operatic in substance and in scope.
The action of the play is set in nineteenth-century London. Sweeney is a
former barber who has been unjustly convicted of a crime and "transported"
to a penal colony in Australia in order that the perverse and hypocritical
Judge Turpin might have easy access to his beautiful and faithful young
wife. The play begins eighteen years later, when Sweeney escapes and returns
to London under an assumed identity to claim his wife and family. He is told
that his wife took poison after being raped by the Judge, and his daughter
Johanna is being raised as the Judge’s ward. As it turns out, the Judge now
plans to marry Johanna, ostensibly in order to save her from corruption by
young men, but in reality to satisfy his own lecherous desires. When Sweeney
fails in his first attempt to kill the Judge, he re-directs his murderous
rage onto society as a whole, and is aided by his landlady Mrs. Lovett,
whose pie shop finds a new source of meat in Sweeney’s victims. Eventually,
the judge is persuaded to return for the play’s powerful and surprising
production concept sought to highlight our present society’s uneasy
fascination with violence and sexual transgression. Presented as a carnival
"freak show," the characters in this "gallery of horrors" were painted from
a nightmarish palette, and contained more than a touch of Brechtian
theatricality. The set was basically a unit set, with the barber shop on the
lower level, and the "streets of London" on the wooden scaffolding above.
The pie shop and Johanna's room were on platforms extending into the house
on each side of the orchestra pit. Stage lights and orchestra musicians were
in plain view of the audience. The makeup on the chorus began with unadorned
base to suggest the waxy complexion of mannequins at the top of the show; as
the play progressed, they gradually received color around the eyes until
transformed into lunatics in the end. The chorus also facilitated swift and
smooth progression from one scene to the next, often serving as a kind of
"human curtain," to reveal actors who had taken places behind them during
their transitional narrative verses.
An example of the concept in action was in the staging of the Prologue,
which was a departure from the traditional Broadway staging:
The show begins with the actors taking places on the stage in horror
poses in shadowy "wax museum" lighting while the orchestra "tunes." A
spotlight hits a man dressed as a circus ringleader, in black top hat and
tailcoat, with a blazing red ascot and fingerless white gloves. He sits on
a stool on the upper level of the set with his back to the audience and
plays the "air organ" -- the show's opening number. When the piercing
sound of the factory whistle stops the music, he gestures to one of the
figures below, who begins to sing the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd." As this
soloist arrives at another's position, he takes that person's pose and is
followed by the spot as the second also moves through this gallery of
horror, singing the second line. Lights blaze as the chorus turns forward
to sing, then are returned to the shadowy lighting as the song continues.
Sweeney is wheeled in on a small platform, covered by a sheet as if he
were the next waxen work of art; on cue, he is "unveiled" with his razor
ready as he descends to sing. At the end of the song, Sweeney is led away
by a stagehand as if he were a subdued mental patient, as the chorus melts
away to transform the stage into the docks of London.
production was double-cast, with some roles played by different actors on
alternating shows. Two Stetson alumni (Wesley Whatley and Robb Ross) and a
Music voice coach (Russell Franks) played principal roles in the production.
Review from Ink19.com
Number 32: February, 2003
(page down to the fourth review)