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A simpler 'Sweeney'


Published June 4, 2006


It comes as no surprise that the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd received six Tony Award nominations. After all, it is one of Stephen Sondheim's best musicals.

Where the surprise comes is in the direction and design of John Doyle, whose innovative approach does what would seem almost inconceivable. Doyle's stripped-down staging transforms Sondheim's sophisticated, sweeping score by eliminating the orchestra and having the actors not just sing and speak dialogue and move but also play the instruments.

In many ways, less is more in Doyle's treatment of Sweeney Todd.

"There's nothing new in this,'' Doyle said. "The Greeks were doing it. Shakespeare was doing it. Brecht was doing it. I think what's happened is we've become more rarefied in how we make theater happen. This is just trying to get back to something a little more primal in some senses and, hopefully, honest.''

Sweeney Todd, which premiered in 1979, has always been a radical piece of musical theater. It burst the envelope when it came to subject matter, with its Dickensian tale of the "demon barber of Fleet Street'' who seeks vengeance on a judge who sent him to prison and took advantage of his wife and daughter. Sweeney gives his customers the closest shave and haircut in London and then slits their throats.

To make matters more grisly, a piemaker named Mrs. Lovett, who takes a shine to Sweeney, turns the corpses into mincemeat for her hearty fare. Business booms at her shop, below the barber's parlor.

Serial killings, cannibalism, madness, demented sex, a lust for revenge - it's all in good creepy fun. Sweeney Todd is the musical theater equivalent of a "penny dreadful,'' a Victorian thriller that scares the pants off its audience. The ravishing score is sometimes performed by opera companies. One of the finest recordings is a concert version by the New York Philharmonic.

What makes the Broadway revival such a remarkable thing is not just that the music is played by the 10-member cast - there have been countless small-scale productions by theaters that could afford only a musician or two - but that Doyle's intimate, even claustrophobic style brings out a newfound intensity in the work.

Sondheim himself has praised the production and was instrumental in getting it to Broadway last fall after seeing the show in London.

The play opens in an asylum as Tobias, a young man driven crazy by the bloody saga he witnessed, is released from a straitjacket and handed a violin. He and the rest of the cast are onstage for the entire performance. With minimal set and props - a coffin, a ladder, a half-dozen chairs, shelves of bric-a-brac - the action ranges from Sweeney's parlor to the pie shop to the city streets to the judge's chambers. But it also leaves the surreal impression of having taken place completely in Tobias' head.

The cast is made up of performers who are actors first, but they are impressively accomplished as musicians. Not only do they have to memorize their lines, but they also have to memorize the music.

Michael Cerveris, as the murderous barber, plays guitar. Patti LuPone, as the slatternly Mrs. Lovett, plays tuba. Manoel Felciano is the violin-playing Tobias. Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina, as young lovers Anthony and Johanna, play cellos. Mark Jacoby, as Judge Turpin, plays trumpet. Four actors

play piano at various times. The instrumentation also includes accordion, flute, clarinet, bass and percussion.

Doyle, a Scotsman from Inverness, began having actors double as musicians while working in regional theaters in Great Britain that didn't have money for an orchestra. His first actor-musician effort was Candide, and he has gone on to refine the approach in everything from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to Mack and Mabel.

"There's more to it than just being about actors who play instruments,'' he said. "There is a storytelling technique that is about asking the audience to use its imagination in all sorts of ways. I think it allows you to look at a piece in a totally different way than the authors when they wrote it.''

On Broadway, any cost-saving angle is basically moot, because the actors and musicians unions worked out a deal that cast members are paid more than if they were only acting.

Doyle's key artistic collaborator is Sarah Travis, a composer and arranger whose daunting task on Sweeney Todd was to pare a score for 27 musicians in the original orchestration by Jonathan Tunick down to 10. And she couldn't start work until the show was cast.

"So much of it revolves around what each performer can do,'' Travis said. "Even in rehearsal, I keep scoring right up to the last minute. It's a constant jigsaw between when an actor is playing or singing.''

Occasionally the cast exhibits less than polished playing, but the overall impact of the performance is greater than the sum of its parts.

"I love that the music is very much part of the action, that the actors start inhabiting their instruments,'' Travis said. "You forget that the instruments are there after a while, and the audience seems willing to go there.''

Felciano played violin in youth orchestras growing up in San Francisco and in chamber music groups as an undergraduate at Yale, but he hadn't picked up his instrument for a while until he auditioned for the part of Tobias.

"I have to say this is the best violin playing of my life,'' Felciano said. "I think that's because the focus is not on the instrument; the focus is on the storytelling, and the playing of the instrument is just one of the tools used to tell the story. That really frees you up and makes you a better player.''

Now that Sweeney Todd is a success, though attendance at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre has slipped lately, another Doyle-directed Sondheim musical, Company, is set to open on Broadway in November. It's a different kind of show, about a bachelor named Bobby and his married friends in New York in 1970. Reviews of a tryout production in Cincinnati were strong.

"This approach of Doyle's puts more emphasis on the lyrics,'' said Rick Pender, managing editor of the Sondheim Review, who has seen both shows. "You are paying more attention to the words because the accompaniment is more chamber music-like. Because Sondheim is such a wonderful lyric writer, in addition to his musical invention, it gives you a chance to go back and appreciate that.''

If nothing else, Doyle's new way of staging musical theater could encourage actors to hunt down their instruments from high school and college.

"I guarantee you,'' Felciano said, "that there are actors all over New York and probably all over America right now who are dusting off their trumpet or cello and starting to practice again because they know it can get them a job.''

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or

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The 60th annual Tony Awards will be broadcast live from New York on June 11, starting at 8 p.m.on WTSP-Ch.10. For more on the awards, see the June 11 Floridian section.

[Last modified June 1, 2006, 12:52:19]

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