I first saw Sweeney Todd in the late Seventies during a Saturday matinee during the Broadway previews, before the Judge’s version of Johanna got cut, and I rushed to the record store the day the cast album was released. Sweeney Todd was the first show I saw at the Kennedy Center as freshman at Georgetown on election night 1980. (The politician line didn’t get a laugh.) While hanging around the back of the orchestra section of the Opera House during intermission (trying to sneak into an orchestra seat having spent Act I in the second balcony), I had a chat with the woman who was about to go in as the Beggar Woman, who answered several major questions I had about how the character was used in the original production. (She also told me that most of the cast members who had to go down the barber chair chute had ended up with back problems.) Along with The Sound of Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and Sunset Blvd, it is probably the show I have seen the most.
Among those productions were the Arlington Players version of the show, where Donna Migliaccio (then Lillard) first played Mrs. Lovett and the original Signature production which also featured my chums Michael Forest and Judy Simmons in Eric Schaeffer’s brilliant breakthrough staging in a black-box space at Gunston. I also saw the next Signature production on Four Mile Run where as much as I liked all the elements (especially Norm Lewis’s intense Sweeney), I missed a hand gesture that I loved that Migliaccio did on “fishies splashing” in the previous stagings. And for its Twentieth Anniversary season, Schaeffer and Signature are presenting Sweeney again, again in a new space.
Well, give Eric Shaeffer full credit for not resting on his laurels with this show. He has obviously taken a fresh look at the show and has obviously put a lot of thought into the effort. He has re-imagined the setting of the show as an abattoir-cum-construction-space, with the mood begins as one enters the anteroom* festooned with plastic drop cloths. The theme continues with welders during the opening number and is carried through the end with corpses dropping over the audience during the final “there”s.
In case anyone reading this doesn’t know the show, it’s a warmhearted romp set in Victorian London about a barber getting revenge on society by killing all his customers and his downstairs neighbor Mrs. Lovett who then turns the bodies into meat pies. It illustrates one of the biggest problems for investors in the musical theater – that you can never ultimately tell what stories will become successes (the competition to buy a girl’s picnic basket, The Comedy of Errors, dancing cats) and what will abysmally fail (the stories of Dr. Seuss, The Comedy of Errors, a troubled girl goes to the prom).
Unfortunately, this production as a whole didn’t really come together for me due to three problems this production seems to have. The first is that the very broad stage in the space often makes it difficult to focus correctly to locate parts of the action. Secondly, although Ed Gero has been one of Washington’s greatest theatrical resources for decades he is a highly problematic Sweeney Todd. Yes, he seems to be newly embarking on a career in musicals, evidenced by choices of melodic variations, shortened musical phrases, occasional rhythmic iffy-ness, and pitch problems when he’s attacking higher material (though his diction is flawless). However, I don’t get his interpretation of Sweeney. As a matter of fact, he is the only Sweeney I’ve ever seen who seems to get happier and more relaxed as the evening progresses. Finally, there seems to be something about the new, reduced 4-piece orchestrations that seems to occasionally throw the singers. Because that’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain how a number of great musical artists can seem to be so dicey with this score. During Kiss Me, for example, Gregory Maheu as Anthony and Erin Driscoll as Johanna were individually sounding great, but the whole effect didn’t come together. And the middle of the letter sequence in the second act was a vocal train wreck in the performance I saw.
Having heard so much praise for Sherri Edelen’s Mrs. Lovett , I tempered my expectations before going in. I needn’t have. She really brings some amazing, subtle insights into the role. And hers was the first time I found myself wondering about the backstory of her husband’s death and how the judge first got tipped off to Lucy’s beauty. And she has such energy, verve, and connectedness in the role, that when she did the line in Little Priest, “with is extra” that was added at least in the last revival, it felt like it was ad-libbed on the spot.
Some other notes on the production:
- In one of the first act iterations of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, “like a perfect machine he planned” is now “like a fucking machine he planned.” I’m told that this change comes directly at the suggestion of Sondheim.
- One of my pet peeves about most productions of Sweeney (including this) is that I feel it is unfair to the audience to have the wrong performer play Lucy in the rape scene, especially if the actors who play Judge Turpin and The Beadle are playing the characters. When I was talking to the actress from the Broadway run, she mentioned that this involved having a dresser and a makeup person in Mrs. Lovett’s house onstage to facilitate the change in and out of the Lucy outfit.
- Sherri Edelen’s reading of the “what are you going to do for money” scene was probably the best I’ve ever seen it played.
- Gregory Maheu is my favorite Anthony to date. (Sorry Mr. Garber.) The way they had him appearing so “normal” made him fabulously alien in the world of the show.
- Erin Driscol did her usually amazing job as Johanna, and it’s incredible to think that next month she’ll be Heidi in [title of show].
- The set for the show was meant to have a scaffolding / construction site feel. However, when the elevator descended during the opening number, instead of having an awe-struck, star-entrance moment, I found myself thinking, “Cool, they can just re-purpose the whole set and run Company in rep, too.”
- For the first time that I’ve ever seen (and I don’t know why it was such a shock), a thin Beadle !
- Given that Michael Bunce was one of the most charming Pirelli’s I’ve ever seen, I didn’t cringe when the tooth-pulling sequence was reinstated. However, the Beggar Woman’s lullaby is still out.
So, while not necessarily the most integrated theatrical experience, it’s a very good, interestingly-thought production of what is arguably the greatest musical of the second half of the Twentieth Century. And it’s a must-see for Sondheim Queens, especially so we’ll have a basis for comparison for the inevitable 30th Anniversary production featuring Will Gartshore and Kristen Chenoweth.
*By the way, I want to applaud whoever it is who decorates that anteroom space from show to show. I always look forward to see how it’s going to be themed for a particular production.