The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about to settle in for a month’s stay at Barrington Stage Company (BSC). Producing Sweeney Todd is the equivalent of staging Grand Opera, and indeed the musical tale has often been given in Opera Houses around the world.
Not too much gossip has leaked out of the hermetically sealed rehearsal space, so we were pleased to catch up with the company’s artistic director, Julianne Boyd. She has been flat out the past several weeks directing, watching, listening, tweaking, and preparing the company’s big opening show of the season. A last preview tomorrow and then it opens Wednesday, June 23.
We grilled her about the production.
“I think we’re ready,” were the first words out of her mouth, “and I am tremendously excited. One more preview tomorrow night and then it’s open.”
The company has lucked out on its casting. With Jeff McCarthy as Todd, and Harriet Harris as Mrs. Lovett, they have a solid foundation. “And wait until you hear Ed Dixon as the Judge, what a spectacular voice. The feedback I have been hearing the most is that they just can’t believe all those voices are coming from one stage.
“But it is essential to have that. You can do Sweeney Todd as a theatre piece, and disregard some of the musical necessities of it, it can be done. But why. I want to have the best voices possible doing this very complex music, or I think it would shortchange the audience. ”
Since BSC began, musicals by Stephen Sondheim have often been on the company’s stages. In fact, they have likely produced more works by the great composer than all the other Berkshire Companies combined. Boyd has directed A Little Night Music, Company, Follies and West Side Story.This year there is not only Sweeney Todd, but also the BSC Youth Theatre is taking on Into the Woods next month at St. Joseph’s High School in Pittsfield.
So I asked her if she had a secret Sondheim obsession. After the laughter died down she said, “I do have an obsession and Sondheim is part of that. Because if you want to do great works in musical theatre, you have to include Sondheim. But I loved doing Mack and Mabel, and so many other shows that were not Sondheim.
“There is something about his intellect, complex music and stories that appeal to me. Much of it could not have been written before 1950 because it was a simpler time and our world is so much more complex today. His music and lyrics really define where we are – which is in many different places, all at once.
“The other thing that appeals to me is the depth and the darkness, even in his love stories. Some of the most gorgeous melodies he has ever written are in Sweeney Todd, with songs like Pretty Women and Joanna. His stories have held up for the past forty years, as well as his lush and complex music .”
Though Sondheim is getting along in years, I wondered why young people are drawn to his work. “Well, that’s an interesting phenomenon. As you know we are doing Into the Woods by Sondheim as this summer’s BSC Youth Theatre production, (beginning July 14) and we had more teenagers turn out to audition than we’ve seen in the past several years. They love this musical. They’ve been exposed to it in their schools, and not just Sondheim, but many of the more progressive musicals. Shows like Spring Awakening, American Idiot, Hair and Rent have drawn huge numbers of teens in the New York metro area to Broadway. Some think it is because these shows have an emotional life that the young audiences do not have in popular culture. ”
Of course it is the dream of all the Berkshire Theatre companies to develop these younger audiences. “We’ve seen a remarkable shift in the first few preview audiences for Sweeney Todd,” said Boyd. “There are more young people coming for this show, than for Carousel, it’s noticeable.”
Isn’t part of that the residual effect of the movie with Johnny Depp, we wondered. “Of course, that is one of the reasons we chose it, along with the fact that we hadn’t done it before. It’s going to be a transitional audience for us, something that older people won’t naturally gravitate towards until they read great reviews, or someone prods them to go.”
The subject matter, touching on murder, mayhem and cannibalism is not the old fashioned night at the theatre many of them are accustomed to. But in an age where Tim Burton and grand guignol films are hot properties, this 35 year old musical is as contemporary as they come.
We talked about other Sondheim musicals, including Do I Hear a Waltz which he wrote with Richard Rogers. “He hates it,” Boyd quipped. “The one that I want to do that everyone says wouldn’t sell is Passion. It might do well on the second stage, but it has too large a cast for the smaller stage. I am mad about Passion. And you know there are plenty of non-Sondheim musicals that I want to do, too.”
There does seem to be a pattern of doing a Sondheim one year, and another composer’s musical the next. “Though I must confess, I want to do A Little Night Music again. We did it in our fourth year, and it was just glorious. ”
That Boyd wants to share America’s treasure trove of musicals with her audiences is indeed an obsession. She wants audiences to love them as much as she does. That passion will be very much on display at Sweeney Todd. It will continue until July 17.
Performances are on the Main Stage on Union Street in Pittsfield. They take place Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, with Friday Matinees at 2pm, and Sunday at 5pm. Additional Wednesday Mat. on June 30 at 2pm. Opening Night: Wed., June 23 at 8pm. Tickets: $15-$58. Seniors: $35 all matinees. Pay What You Can Night: Wed., June 30 at 7pm.
For ticket availabilities and purchases at Barrington Stage Company call 413-499-5446 or visit barringtonstageco.org.