The Department of Theatre & Dance at Gustavus Adolphus College brings Stephen Sondheim’s legendary musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the Anderson Theatre stage as the first production of 2017. Directed by Henry MacCarthy, and under the musical direction of Sam Grace ’11, performances will be presented at 8:00 p.m., February 17-18 and 2:00 p.m. on February 19 in an intimate, limited-seats setting on the Anderson stage. Tickets will be available in advance beginning February 7 online at gustavustickets.com, at the Campus Activities Desk in the Jackson Student Union, or by calling 507-933-7590. Only 59 seats are available per performance; advance purchase is advised!
The tale of Sweeney Todd originated from a Victorian penny dreadful, titled A String of Pearls: A Romance. This episodic form of literature enraptured the people of the period, both because of its bloody and gory contents as well as its easy access for people of all walks of life. Sweeney Todd was a marvel: his story was adapted into different mediums including Victorian theatre and film productions in the early 1900s. Christopher Bond wrote a play based on the mythic character in 1973 which sparked the interest of lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. The revolution was just beginning: Sweeney Todd would never die, unlike the fate of his fellow penny dreadful heroes. He is immortalized by pop culture as one of the most engaging works of American musical theatre.
Stephen Sondheim has been a key player in nearly a half century of musical theatre. His musical style has always been noted as complex for its frequent dissonance and high-chromaticism, while also consistently being tonal. Sondheim’s jarring music is paired well with the looming and angry story of Sweeney Todd. After reading Bond’s play, Sondheim enlisted Hugh Wheeler to format a new book while he composed music. He thought adding a musical layer to the story would greatly increase and deepen the drama surrounding its characters — over eighty percent of the show is set to music. The original Broadway production won several Tony Awards, including Best Book and Original Score for Wheeler and Sondheim respectively. The production also won Best Cast Show Album at the 1979 Grammys.
The plot revolves around the title character of Sweeney Todd whose actions are all in regards to his wrongful imprisonment and obsessive need for securing revenge on the man who ruined his life. Todd reconnects with an old neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, and together they reopen his barber shop to put his plot into motion. When vengeance eludes him, Todd threatens the entire human race by murdering citizens of Fleet Street while Mrs. Lovett bakes them into pies to sell to the unsuspecting public. MacCarthy’s take on this production at Gustavus will bring Sweeney’s classic, age-old story into a new setting that lets the audience explore the minds of every character onstage.
First-year student Hannah Mahr from Northfield, Minnesota, was looking forward to this project even before they set foot on campus. Hannah explained why Sondheim’s musical was still relevant today: “The show says a lot about the limits of human desire and how far people are willing to go to get what they want. I think that idea can be shown in any time in history. It was relevant with the penny dreadfuls and it’s still relevant today: how far people are willing to go to get the revenge they want and the relationship they want to have with someone. I think a lot of the characters in the play show that.” Dramaturge Claire Chwalek added “Sweeney Todd has been a constant popular culture icon throughout his 171-year existence; he is unforgettable. And I believe it is because of his character, his demeanor, his presence in relation to other people. He has always been someone you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley, alone.”
Chase Adelsman, a senior theatre major from Saint Paul, spoke about how Sweeney Todd relates to the world today: “Sweeney Todd is an example of our fascination with the grotesque and our tendency towards mob justice. And by that, I mean, Sweeney is clearly in the wrong. He is murdering lots and lots of people, giving them to a person to make them into food, and feeding them to their friends, family, and neighbors. And at the same time, the audience looks at Sweeney with pity; they look at him with sympathy. They root for Sweeney Todd to win: to brutally murder at least two people. Which I think is very reminiscent of how media, social and otherwise, can put a person on a pedestal, either good or evil. Then there’s such a strong emotional connection based on the way he is presented that they will sometimes dismiss previously held moral convictions. Can we expand that to all situations?”
Don’t miss out on such songs as “The Worst Pies in London,” “Not While I’m Around,” “Kiss Me,” and Sondheim’s first composition for Sweeney Todd, “A Little Priest.” Come to Anderson Theatre on February 17-18 at 8:00 p.m. and February 19 at 2:00 p.m. Adelsman says: “I was curious to see what Gustavus was going to do with [Sweeney Todd] because Gustavus typically does not do such mainstream productions without adding its own twist or its own self-imposed challenge.” It is an experience you will never forget. And if you’re lucky, you will get so caught up in the chilling, overwhelming music that Fogg’s Asylum may never let you leave.
Tickets for Sweeney Todd will be available online beginning February 7 at gustavustickets.com, or in person at the Campus Activities Desk in the Jackson Student Union or by calling 507-933-7590. Seating is limited; advance purchase is advised!