VIENNA, Va, July 20, 2011 –Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street puzzled some audiences during its opening Broadway run. Was it a musical? Or was it something else? Friday evening at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, you can decide, as the Wolf Trap Opera Company and the National Symphony Orchestra combine forces to present a fully staged production of the show.
In recent decades, when Sweeney Todd was adopted as an opera by certain ensembles, the composer was said to be uneasy about this format. But Larry Blank, who guest conducts Friday’s performance, thinks that tale is hogwash. “Of course it’s an opera,” he says emphatically, and it was written operatically, not Broadway-style.” The composer “intended it as an opera when it was written,” he continues.
Kim Witman, the Wolf Trap Opera’s longtime director, agrees. Even in a recent book, Mr. Sondheim “has said it’s an opera, although it depends on who’s producing it,” she says. “Plus, it’s harder [to perform] than a lot of operas on any level” adds Mr. Blank.
Mr. Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning Sweeney Todd is based on Christopher Bond’s eponymous 1970 stage play which, in turn, is based on earlier British melodramas and penny dreadful tales about a character apparently based more on legend than on fact. In the original story, Todd was a simple thief with a fancy idea: a barber chair that ejected robbery victims to their sudden deaths by flinging them into a cavern below. There, they were relieved of their valuables. And, if they had survived the fall, they had their throats slit as well.
Mr. Sondheim transformed the tale into a kind of revenger’s tragedy. Deported to Australia by an evil judge who covets his wife and young daughter, Benjamin Barker—now disguised as Sweeney Todd—returns to London years later to discover that his wife is apparently dead and his daughter has become the ward of the judge who intends to marry her. In a fit of rage, he sets up his barbershop and chair apparatus with the hopes of eventually luring the judge to his death.
But practice makes perfect, and Sweeney dispatches many a victim en route to his goal, aided and abetted by the outwardly sweet but nefarious Mrs. Lovett who falls in love with the vengeful barber. Her novel, grisly solution to body disposal: employ the edible parts as the chief ingredients in her suddenly famous meat pies while incinerating the rest.
Mr. Sondheim’s revamped plot creates an unusually complex and layered entertainment. Adding the backstory and present events into the recipe, it’s a three-layer love story, a horror show, and a social satire about the meaning of justice all rolled into one. Add a highly inventive musical score, done up in a virtually verismo style, and tricky, witty lyrics that often assault you with a machine-gun staccato, and you have a unique and uniquely American musical work that defies categorization, yet is challenging enough artistically to qualify as a contemporary and very original take on operatic tradition.
Lately, Sweeney Todd has even been popularized in the wide-screen format, courtesy of Tim Burton’s haunting, although somewhat plushy, over-souped filmic take on the work, starring the effortlessly bizarre Johnny Depp in the title role.
Wolf Trap’s own operatic version places the NSO right up on stage, the better to project the full range of orchestral color. It’s a sound that Mr. Blank—well known in the entertainment world as a composer in his own right as well as a conductor—prefers for this work.
“I’ve seen this on Broadway. I’ve seen versions where the actors play the instruments. I’ve seen it in Covent Garden and in Paris and have conducted it at the Kennedy Center,” he says. “It works well anywhere, really, with big and small orchestras alike. But I think it’s most impressive with a big orchestra,” he says.
Conducting this performance will be a little tricky, though. Many of the performers, both orchestra members and singers alike, will have to keep an eye on Mr. Blank via numerous TV monitors rather than seeing his baton’s downbeat up close and personal. “Hopefully, the sound will get to everyone a few days later,” he laughs. But everyone seems to have gotten the kinks worked out at this point.
Wolf Trap’s new production is dark and foreboding, eschewing the usual elaborate sets for a new “Operascape” concept which uses video projections especially developed for use at the Filene Center.
Blood literally gushes forth in some productions of Sweeney Todd. But this one is more stylized according to Kim Witman, who thinks stage blood would actually be too difficult to see throughout the vast reaches of the Filene Center’s vast space, which also includes seating audience members on the lawn far outside the auditorium proper.
“This production makes us of a sort of stylized blood which we see projected through the clothing of those who’ve died,” she says. “It’s one way we make all the pieces of the production work together. We’re very happy with the way the whole thing has turned out.”
The young singers of the Wolf Trap Opera are keen to perform Sweeney Todd, according to Ms. Witman. “They’re already experienced with a broad range of material in concert, in recital, and in staged settings, and a 20th century opera is no further removed from their range of skills than Rossini or Handel,” she says.
Two of Sweeney Todd’s current stars would agree. Michael McGee, who portrays the title character, made the “standard adjustments” he’d make for taking on any new character.
“It’s like preparing for any other opera role,” he says. “But the dialogue here is extensive, so I mostly had to think about how I’d actually say the words, sing the little tunes. But again, preparation is pretty much the same. I’m still trying to tell a story with songs and dialogue,” he continues.
Both Mr. McGee and Maggie Gawrysiak, who co-stars as the cunning Mrs. Lovett, are aware of others’ interpretations of both their characters, but insist on discovering their own approach rather than copying earlier actor-performers.
For example, Ms. Gawrysiak is familiar with Angela Lansbury’s famous interpretation of the role and thinks she made any number of “brilliant choices.” “But I don’t want to be biased one way or the other,” she says, preferring to learn things on her own. “One of my big discoveries came out of working with language along with my dialogue coach. We worked through the dialect, exploring the words Mrs. Lovett chooses to use. Doing this, I came to see Sweeney as cold and detached, where Mrs. L is warmer but more evil,” she says.
Mr. McGee also finds Todd as an icy character. “He’s a pretty dark guy,” he says, “but I try not to make him too dark too soon.” Noting that Todd has been in prison for years, he finds he’s a little confused when he finally comes home. But at the outset, he’s determined “to do one thing,” he says. “That’s to find his wife. It’s his one goal before getting vengeance by killing the judge. In the meantime, he has the usual longings, fears, and hopes but he sees all this through a bit of a filter.”
When Sweeney is told his wife is dead, however, everything becomes a means to a final end. “Larry and I have worked together,” says Mr. McGee, “and I’ve discovered a lot” about the part. I’ve found my own ‘Sweeney Todd.’”
The sound of this production of Sweeney Todd might take some listeners a short time to adjust. Unlike pop music and modern Broadway fans, opera aficionados prefer unamplified sound from orchestra and singers alike. And indeed, that’s the way Wolf Trap first produced Sweeney Todd back in 2005 when the work was staged in the more intimate confines of The Barns.
But in the cavernous Filene Center space, the stage and the singers will be miked, the better to project the sound far out into the auditorium as well as the cricket-filled outdoor amphitheater space. Both Mr. McGee, Ms. Gawrysiak, and the other cast members have gradually gotten comfortable with the minimalist personal miking systems they’re using in this performance and feel they’ll provide realistic sound even for the most discriminating opera buff.
Now in its final rehearsals before the big night, The Wolf Trap Opera’s Sweeney Todd promises to be a special event that should attract a large, mixed crowd of music lovers to the Filene Center tomorrow evening. Aside from not selling some seats with a limited stage view, “we don’t expect a lot of empty seats,” says Kim Witman. However, some good inside seats should still available at the box office today and tomorrow.
Meanwhile, we plan to be there ourselves.
Wolf Trap Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (A Musical Thriller) by Stephen Sondheim.
Filene Center auditorium, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna, Virginia, Friday, July 22, 2011 at 8:15pm.
- For tickets, directions, and information, purchase tickets by phone at 877-965-3872; online via the Wolf Trap Box Office; or visit the Box Office (1551 Trap Road) in person.
- Monday - Friday: 10 am to 6 pm
- Saturday - Sunday and holidays*: 12 noon to 6 pm
- Performance days: until 9 pm
Parking is free, but the lot is large, so get there early. Wolf Trap provides convenient shuttle service for the disabled and the elderly.
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