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The tale of Sweeney Todd is not a Sunday in the park, with or without George. The enduringly popular 1979 musical-or-opera (depending on whom you ask) certainly has many moments of deep black comedy. But its view of human nature is unrelentingly, savagely pessimistic.
However, as Steve Ray, director of the production opening Friday at UTC says, for many people “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is also Stephen Sondheim’s most entertaining work. “Sondheim is often seen as ‘high brow’,” he says. “But even though this show explores complex themes, the story moves right along.”
Ray has used inspiration from Antonin Artaud’s concept of a “theatre of cruelty” to infuse the production with a sense of surrealism. “In a way, we see our darkest dreams on stage. Everyone in this work has been poisoned by something—revenge, lust, greed,” he says. “Yet at the same time, seeing these demons played out is cathartic.”
In the story, a man named Benjamin Barker returns from wrongful exile in Australia to find that his beloved wife has poisoned herself after being raped by the judge who falsely condemned him. Mad with rage, he transforms himself into Sweeney Todd, a barber from whose chair none ever get up. “His life has been ruined and he changes before our eyes into a monster,” says Ray. But in Sweeney’s case, he’s a monster that has been created by the constant injustice of his life.
Yet Sondheim cracks the darkness with songs such as “A Little Priest,” immortalized in the original production by Angela Lansbury, in which the cleric emerges as … an ingredient. Let’s just say that pies from Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop suddenly take on a meatier flavor.
UTC’s production is a collaboration between the university’s theatre and music departments, using a 12-piece orchestra and 25 cast members. “It’s fully staged and fully designed,” says Ray, noting that, in fact, to give scenic design students a taste of what it’s like to design a show for the road, the set was built in another theatre before being transferred to its performance space, the Roland Hayes Concert Hall.
A big show such as this needs extra preparation and rehearsal time, so work began at the end of last semester, Ray says. “We needed five weeks to work on the choreography and staging, and of course the music itself is very complex,” he says.
Music students learned that doing a stage musical involves acting, and the acting students have learned that this is not the kind of music you can fake, he says. Although inter-departmental projects require extra oversight and are challenging, the results are well worth it, Ray says. “It hasn’t been easy, but art isn’t easy,” he says. A view with which Stephen Sondheim himself would undoubtedly agree.
“Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
7:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 21 & 22 • 3 p.m. Feb. 17 & 24 • Roland Hayes Concert Hall, UTC Fine Arts Center • Vine & Palmetto Streets • (423) 425-4269 • utc.edu