Blitz bombs but TheatreWorks’ Sweeney still soars

Sweeney 1
Tonsorial expert Sweeney Todd (David Studwell) and Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) concoct a recipe for revenge in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Below: Tobias (Spencer Kiley) revels in the booming business of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Photos by Kevin Berne

Tory Ross’ sublime performance as Mrs. Lovett, maker of the “worst pies in London,” threatens to hijack the TheatreWorks production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and turn it into Nellie Lovett: People Who Eat People Are the Luckiest People.

There’s no escaping the genius of Angela Lansbury’s indelible performance (captured on video) in the original production of what composer Stephen Sondheim describes as a “dark operetta,” but that star turn was a Victorian cartoon, a manically genial grotesque with shadings of a real flesh-and-bone woman under all the goofiness.

But Ross is a whole lot less cartoon and a whole lot more human being. She’s still funny and sharp and kind of crazy, but she’s also a little sexy, a lot smart and quite adorable. She’s not some zany old broad but a vibrant woman who looks to be around Sweeney’s age (if a little younger). She’s a bright spot in a dark show and she makes more of an impression than David Studwell in the title role or director Robert Kelley’s strained updating of the show to World War II London.

This updating is vague at best. Set designer Andrea Bechert has built what looks like an underground factory that turns into a Tube station, which doesn’t entirely make sense, and the beginning of the show sees officials running around with air raid sirens wailing and people decamping to the safety of the subterranean setting. But then it gets fuzzy. Are we to believe that the evacuees are performing Sweeney Todd in its entirety complete with sets, orchestra, swirling stage smoke and lots of lighting cues? Or perhaps that’s too literal. But otherwise why is a Victorian tale of murder being performed during a potentially deadly bombing raid?

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There’s a song later in the show called “City on Fire,” which takes Sondheim’s metaphorical firestorm (“City on fire! Rats in the grass/And the lunatics yelling in the streets!/ It’s the end of the word! Yes! City on fire!”) and makes it a literal bomb fest. That’s the only time the setting makes actual sense, but it doesn’t really add much to what Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler (working from Christopher Bond’s play) have already so masterfully created.

The best news about the “Keep Calm and Carry On”-ization of Sweeney is that it doesn’t really matter. Kelley’s production is otherwise tip-top. The voices are gorgeous and William Liberatore’s nine-piece orchestra sounds lush and full and heavy and bloody in all the right places, especially in the show’s cinematic underscore.

Sweeney Toddd is an extraordinary musical – incredibly efficient in its storytelling and full of comical and emotional surprises. It purports to be a horror show, but Sondheim’s score is constantly igniting laughs and sparking human connections. I’m not a fan of the Tim Burton movie except for the 64-piece orchestra and glorious orchestrations because the performances, for the most part, are cold and empty, as is the arm’s-length filmmaking.

But on stage, Sweeney pulses with life in all its operatic, chaotic craziness, and Kelley’s cast handles it all with tremendous gusto. Studwell’s Sweeney may not be as deeply felt or as vocally powerful as he might be, but he’s a strong, menacing presence who knows his way around a a dark ballad (“Epiphany”) and a straight razor. Jack Mosbacher as Anthony Hope makes a fine impression with his lustrous “Johanna,” one of Sondheim’s most achingly beautiful melodies, and Spencer Kiely couldn’t be any sweeter as Tobias Ragg on “Not While I’m Around.”

The entire ensemble sounds fantastic, but the musical highlights belong to Ross’ Mrs. Lovett. Her duet with Sweeney, “A Little Priest,” ends Act 1 on the highest of notes, and her “By the Sea” is at once delightful and sad (because it’s a fantasy that can never be).

There’s no blood in this production (just splashes of red light from designer Steven B. Mannshardt), but there’s plenty of melodrama, high and low, which is as it should be in a tale of revenge, murder and love, sweet love. Once this story gets going, it’s an efficient machine, not unlike Sweeney’s slick barber chair, which, with the pull of a lever, dumps bodies down a chute and into the butcher shop/cellar. As long as that machine is in motion, not even a cosmetic overlay like the Blitz setting, can keep it from accomplishing its wicked yet somehow wonderful musical magic.

TheatreWorks’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

‘Sweeney Todd’ on screen: Nice slice

The movies have not been all that kind to Stephen Sondheim.

His early Broadway hits, for which he supplied lyrics only, West Side Story and Gypsy, became classic studio musicals (with West Side Story being a movie for the ages and Gypsy being an interesting movie with some good work by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood).

But once Sondheim emerged as SONDHEIM, cinema got a little tricky. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) cut about half of the songs, and let’s not even talk about the movie of A Little Night Music (1978). His incidental music for Stavisky and Reds is lovely, but Sondheim is best when he’s pairing music and words.

Sondheim did win an Academy Award for “Sooner or Later,” one of five songs he contributed to the 1990 Warren Beatty version of Dick Tracy, so he has some film pedigree (compared to his seven some Tony Awards, but Sondheim’s theatrical pedigree has never been in question).

Given the Sondheim-cinema track record, lowered expectations might be considered acceptable for the new Sweeney Todd movie from the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp team (this is their fifth collaboration after Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Well, I’m here to tell you that heightened expectations are OK. I saw Sweeney Todd last week and was delighted and horrified – a good reaction for Sweeney.

The thing that amazed me most is how faithful Burton is to Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Broadway musical (which is in turn based on a Christopher Bond play). You wouldn’t know it from the trailers, but this Sweeney is a full-blown movie musical with as much (if not more) singing than talking.

Earlier this fall, the Bay Area got a taste of the Sweeney Broadway revival, which pared down the orchestrations so that the actors could play their own instruments. That stage version had its merits (attention to Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, for one), but oh, the lush, glorious orchestrations in the movie (courtesy of Jonathan Tunick), conducted by Paul Gemignani.

Those massive, bone-rattling movie theater sound systems are put to wondrous effect as Sondheim’s dark, chilling score pours out of them. This is one thing movies can do better than Broadway – a massive orchestra playing so loudly you feel every instrument and note.

Most discussions I’ve had about this movie Sweeney have begun with one question: How are the voices? And my answer is: fine. Not great. Not Broadway. But fine in the context of the movie. Depp’s Sweeney, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who wields straight razors and slices necks like a jungle explorer clearing a path, has an appealing pop-rock voice with touches of early David Bowie.

Depp’s co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, isn’t quite as successful. Her wispy vocals don’t really register. In fact, Bonham Carter is miscast. Her Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who turns Sweeney’s victims into deliciously greasy meat pies, is simply too sexy. No matter how much dark makeup they slather on her eyes, no matter how gaunt and pale they make her, she’s still sexy.

An older, more desperate Mrs. Lovett makes more sense in the context of the story. She’s smart enough to know how to woo Sweeney and desperate enough to do horrible things simply because she has run out of options. Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is just too young and hot to be at the end of her rope.

Still, she looks great, and because Burton’s approach has so much to do with creating a sinister gothic look, looking good is half the battle.

The supporting cast is stellar. Hard to go wrong with Alan Rickman (as the creepily sexy Judge Turpin) and Sacha Baron Cohen (as Signor Adolfo Pirelli), both of whom appear to be having a great time being bad. Jamie Campbell Bower is an impressive Anthony (and he’s only 19), and Jayne Wisener (another youngster at 20) is an angelic Johanna (though in her early scenes she looks a little like one of the big-eyed aliens at the end of Close Encounters). Special mention must be made of seemingly older-than-his-years Ed Sanders as Toby. He’s all of about 14 years old, and he more than holds up his end of the movie (which is fairly significant). He and Bonham Carter are wonderful together on “Not While I’m Around.”

When making holiday plans to slice and dice with Sweeney, keep in mind that this musical is rated R for very good reason. The blood flows like pub ale, and Sweeney’s specially rigged barber’s chair is incredibly violent. Even though the gore is self-consciously theatrical, it still packs a wallop. This is the bloodiest movie musical since Can’t Stop the Music.

At long last, Stephen Sondheim’s genius has been captured on film in a way that doesn’t cheapen or apologize or dumb down.

Here’s a Sweeney Todd behind-the-scenes teaser to whet your whistle.


In response to my interview with Sweeney Todd orchestrator Sarah Travis, I received an e-mail from Jenifer Tice, who had some interesting thoughts on the whole actors-as-musicians phenomenon (in director John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd, currently at American Conservatory Thaeter in San Francisco, the actors are also the orchestra). With Jenifer’s permission, I want to share some of her observations and encourage you to leave your thoughts — either via a comment on the blog or e-mail me at

I find the idea of having actors/singers multi-task as the orchestra to be a very disturbing trend. I want to see the full performance of the character, and adding this layer detracts from the performances, as least for e. It seems like a cheap parlor trick. (Case in point: Watching Raul Esparza accompany himself as he sang “Being Alive” at the Tony’s was annoying to me — that is not why I go to the theater. Let a pianist play the song while he embodies the character of Bobby. His take on Bobby was somewhat overwrought anyway, but having him play piano for himself put me off his performance immediately. This is not a hotel lounge act; it’s an expensive theater ticket. And I want an orchestra!) The fact that Judy Kaye should have to learn to play the tuba (“marginally” by her own account) in order to play Mrs. Lovett seems absurd to me. Having actors serve as the orchestra also fights the whole illusion of their being these characters. Although I admit it would have been fun to watch Patti Lupone play the tuba (for five minutes anyway), I loved the concert version a few years ago when she & George Hearn were not distracted by instruments or elaborate sets and played the hell out of their roles. Sometimes less is truly more. Actors have more than enough to do, and talented musicians deserve the gig. Audiences paying over a hundred bucks a seat deserve better, too. I hope this will be a short-lived gimmick.

Review: `Sweeney Todd’

Opened Sept. 4, 2007

Demons and all, Sweeney Todd resurrected at ACT
Three stars Merry musical mayhem

Let’s go straight for the jugular here: When it comes to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the most important factor is the Stephen Sondheim score.

Directors can do their good work with the show. Harold Prince turned the original 1979 Broadway production into grand-scale opera, but the glorious music and the genius lyrics were the star. Nearly 30 years later, British director John Doyle stripped away the 27-piece orchestra and giant cast to expose, yet again, a masterful score by a musical theater composer working at the peak of his craft.

San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater opens its 41st season with Doyle’s bare-bones Sweeney. The production is essentially the Broadway tour – a pre-stop if you will – and it’s exciting and thrilling but unfortunately flawed.

Performed in Doyle’s “actor musician’’ style, the 10 actors play their own instruments. They are cast and orchestra all at once. Why? It’s cheaper. And Doyle’s direction is so precise, and his stage pictures so arresting, it’s actually quite interesting.

The concept works largely because the performers are so dazzlingly talented and because it’s always interesting to watch people play instruments. Aside from concerts and trips to the symphony, we don’t get to see instruments played all that often.

Sondheim’s score – bolstered by Hugh Wheeler’s sturdy book, which is, in turn, based on Christopher Hampton’s 1973 play – shines in any context. Surprisingly, the actor-musician approach doesn’t slight the music. Sure, this is a chamber musical version – spare, eloquent, a little raw and messy – but it suits the madness of the story. The glorious excess of the original orchestrations is replaced by music supervisor/orchestrator Sarah Travis’ lean, attractive arrangements.

In telling the story of a deeply angry, razor-wielding barber exacting revenge on his enemies by slicing their throats and baking their remains into savory meat pies, Sondheim is writing in three basic styles.

There’s the fist-in-your-gut melodrama of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’’ and “City on Fire!’’ There’s the broad humor of British music hall in “The Worst Pies in London’’ and “By the Sea.’’ And there’s the lilting melodies so gorgeous you practically melt by the end of “Johanna,’’ “Pretty Women’’ and “Not While I’m Around.’’

The brilliance of “A Little Priest,’’ the Act 1 closer, puts the song in a class by itself. Sung by Sweeney and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, the song imagines filling meat pies with every kind of human, from vicar to fiddle player. It’s a real man-devouring-man number with the kind of humor and bit that most musicals dream of achieving.

The score is served well in Doyle’s 2 ½-hour production (music direction by David Loud), but the Gothic drama suffers.

Doyle, who also designed the rough-hewn production (though Richard G. Jones is responsible for the stark, imaginative lighting) begins the show with a vague concept: we’re in an asylum of some kind complete with straightjackets and white lab coats. It’s a shadowy idea that never really amounts to much. (Hey, kids, Marat/Sade sings Sondheim!).

This production is so sharp I desperately wanted it to slice into the show more effectively. I hoped for chills and thrills but settled for pleasant entertainment.

The cast – seven of the 10 were involved with the Broadway production – is able to shuttle between playing instruments and performing scenes, but few of the performances truly connect.

A brilliant observer (my date, actually) said it was like we were watching the understudies get ready for the big show. And that’s it exactly.

David Hess as Sweeney has scaled down his demons, which is appropriate for the chamber musical setting, but he’s never really scary enough.

Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett is appealing and vocally sure, but she misses laughs all over the place. There needs to be something crazy, sexy, sleazy and saintly about Mrs. Lovett, and Kaye is still finding her way through the role.

Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna make a strong impression with their cello duets, and the impressive Edmund Bagnell is as strong vocally as he is on the violin.

The big disappointment is Keith Buterbaugh as the evil Judge Turpin, who pulls a Woody Allen and attempts to marry his adopted daughter. Buterbaugh’s great on the trumpet, but there’s no menace in his performance. Much better at conveying smiling immorality is Benjamin Eakeley as The Beadle.

There’s brilliance in Sweeney Todd, and that comes through in this production, which is, in the end, vivid enough to keep you from missing the full production. If only the razor were sharper.

For information about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, visit

Scary `Sweeney’ sounds

American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is wowing audiences in San Francisco with its stripped-down intensity, nerve-jangling performances and bloody stagecraft.

The show boasts the same director — John Doyle — who jolted audiences with Sweeney in London and on Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for best director.

As on Broadway and in London, Doyle’s accomplice in this bloody musical feat (if you don’t know the story, a barber enacts revenge by slitting certain customers’ throats and then, with the help of the crazy lady downstairs, bakes them into meat pies) is musical supervisor and orchestrator Sarah Travis.

Travis’ work on Sweeney is nothing short of miraculous. All the performers play their own instruments. There is no orchestra. This means that, when Mrs. Lovett (the crazy baker lady) and Sweeney (the throat slicer) have a number, the remaining eight cast members have to provide musical backup.

She and Doyle have worked on a number of what Doyle calls “actor musician” shows, including Mack and Mabel and Fiddler on the Roof.

I conducted an e-mail interview with Travis from her home in England.

Q: How difficult is it to find performers who are strong enough actors for the story and equally strong as musicians for the exacting demands of Stephen Sondheim’s score?
A: It never ceases to amaze me just how many talented, multi-skilled performers there are out there, on both sides of the pond. With every new show we discover a whole new batch of people. For the last 10 years I have been working on “actor musician” shows, mainly in the U.K, and there is an ever-growing pool of experienced performers in this field, and also many new ones coming through the training system. There is even an “actor musician” course in London now bringing on new talent.
The auditions are fun — it’s always good to have an instrumental lineup in mind, but it doesn’t always work out exactly as planned, and luck sometimes does play a part. On the last day of the original U.K. Sweeney auditions, for example, two cellists auditioned one after the other, and they ended up playing our Joanna and Anthony. I had never envisioned they would both play the same instruments, let alone cello, but it just seemed right — and it’s been that way ever since.

Q: It seems that putting a show like this together is an incredibly intricate puzzle. Not only do you have to pare down the orchestrations (the original Broadway production had 27 players, this one has a maximum of 10), you have to figure out which of the actors is available at any given time to play when they’re not needed in a scene.
A: I have a sort of imaginary chart in my head. It gets pretty cluttered in there at times, too!
The process is indeed a jigsaw puzzle. With Sweeney now, it’s all pretty set in how it’s staged and who plays when, who moves a chair when, and so on. But when a show is first produced, it’s pretty complicated.
I can have a rough overview of how a piece will develop through pre-rehearsal discussions with the director and designer, but moment to moment, it’s impossible to know exactly who does what when.
So my only option is to over-orchestrate so that it gives us more choices in rehearsals. It then becomes a form of bartering, looking for the best choices all round, and inevitably, I start to strip the orchestration down to free up people for staging and begin to mold the sound I want as rehearsals progress.
I am re-orchestrating sometimes right up to previews and always thinking on my feet _ that’s the bit of the process I love.

Q: The production now at ACT will go on to tour the United States. How closely is it modeled on the Broadway production?
A: We did indeed set out to follow the Broadway blueprint when casting the tour. Several of the original Broadway cast are coming back to do the tour, so that was a great start. Judy Kaye, who is playing Mrs. Lovett (and who took over for Patti LuPone on Broadway), has learned to play tuba especially for this production — a fantastic achievement!
Otherwise, there have been a few tweaks and re-orchestrations, but nothing too complicated. We were very lucky this time, as it can be much more involved. It only takes one character with a slightly different instrumental lineup to affect the whole scoring — it can be a nightmare!

Q: Sondheim himself has said this production of Sweeney is the one that “comes closest to Grand Guignol, closest to what I originally wanted to do.” What have your interactions with Sondheim been like?
A: Sondheim has always been incredibly supportive and generous about my work on Sweeney. He has always let me get on with the job and has trusted the process all the way. He will come into rehearsals and listen with fresh ears and make suggestions or give notes once the show is up and running. He is always positive, and I find him a great teacher and inspiration.

Q: When you and John Doyle set to work on Sweeney, what kind of sound did you have in mind?
A: John always envisioned a claustrophobic, intimate chamger interpretation with a constant underlying feeling of the inevitable.
Musically, I wanted it to feel like a roller coaster — once the first bar is played, the tension starts to build, and it never lets up. We hope that the audience is pulled along with it. We took out some original applause points to keep the tension building right through. Sondheim’s score has a claustrophobic feel, and John’s set has a hemmed-in, coffin-like look, especially when the lights filter through the cracks in the boards.
I think the smaller orchestration for this production helps this stifling effect, as it draws the audience in to the story. I think Sondheim’s brilliant score has made my job easy with all its dramatic tension, its gritty harmonic construction and at times its soaringly beautiful melodies. The show is simply a masterpiece.

Q: So what’s next for you, Sarah? Are you aching to work with a full orchestra whose members never have to act?
A: I’m not really sure. I’m always a little scared of bigger orchestrations. If someone asked me to score West Side Story for 35 players, I’d probably run a mile! I’m always learning as I go, and finally accepting that it’s OK to make mistakes. I don’t tend to plan things, so anything that comes along presents its own challenges. As long as work is varied and fulfilling, than that’s OK.
Meanwhile, I have been busy this year in the U.K. working on an actor-musician version of Martin Guerre at the Watermill Theatre (where Sweeney began), a pantomime at the Barbican called Dick Whittington, ongoing cabaret work with my act Drop Dead Divas, and I am about to start scoring Honk, a version of “The Ugly Duckling” by Stiles and Drew (now famous for writing new songs for the Cameron Mackintosh/Disney Mary Poppins), also at the Watermill this Christmas.
I’m delighted to get to San Francisco for the second time this year. I was there in March on a holiday, and in three weeks drove 4,000 miles to Yosemite, Lasl Vegas, Canyonlands, Arches, Grand Canyon and back up the coast. I think withs was up there with great challenges but absolutely fantastic! Will be good to stay put in the city this time.

Sweeney Todd continues through Sept. 30 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 to $82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

`Sweeney’ update

We have confirmation that John Doyle’s revival of Sweeney Todd, the one in which the 10 actors also play all the instruments, will indeed open the American Conservatory Theater season on Aug. 30.

A press release from ACT stated: “The ACT presentation of Sweeney Todd launches the company’s 2007-08 season. Fruther details on the season’s offerings will be announced in March. Tickets for Sweeney Todd go on sale in August.

The press release also notes that next month, director Tim Burton begins filming the movie version of Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp (left, wearing my new glasses) as the title character and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett (a role originated by Angela “God Bless Her” Lansbury). Also in the cast are Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Sacha Baron Cohen (Pirelli). Vrrrry niiiiice.

Bloody good news

Can it be true?

John Doyle’s acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd — you know, the one where the actors also play all the instruments — is going on tour and SAN FRANCISCO is the first stop?

Yes indeed. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the worst pies in London will soon be mere blocks from Union Square. broke the story today. Read it here.

The gist of it is that Sweeney, which starred Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris on Broadway, will play a limited engagement at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco before heading out on tour. Dates are Aug. 30-Oct. 14th.

Bloody good

Halloween seems the appropriate time to talk about Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a dark, grisly 1979 musical about murder victims being ground into meat pies.

The show had an acclaimed but ultimately too-brief revival on Broadway recently with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris.

Then came news that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were going to make a movie of the musical, with Depp in the title role.

Now Variety reports that Depp’s leading lady has been cast. Helena Bonham Carter, best remembered for her period turns in Merchant-Ivory films and in Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake, will play Mrs. Lovett.

Can Bonham Carter sing? She sounded pretty good singing in the animated film Corpse Bride. But what about Depp? We know from Pirates of the Caribbean that he looks good in eye makeup, but can he warble? I guess we’ll find out. Filming is slated to begin early in 2007 for a release next fall.