‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’ is coming to Redwood City this weekend. His hosts are the Redwood Symphony and its music director, Eric Kujawsky. He makes his appearance in two semi-staged concert performances at Cañada College — Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon — of Stephen Sondheim’s musical theater drama.
It’s a bit unexpected to find a work associated with the greasepaint of Broadway at a formal orchestral concert, but Kujawsky insists it belongs there. In the history of American classical music, Kujawsky said, “Sondheim could well be our greatest composer. His music is much more sophisticated than that of any other Broadway or popular composer. His shows are far more psychologically probing and complex than any other composer’s, including most opera composers.” Only “the snobbery that many serious musicians feel toward musical theater” holds his reputation back.
And “Sweeney Todd” is Sondheim’s grandest, most sophisticated and most operatic work. It’s a retelling of a 19th-century English “penny dreadful” story about a mad, murderous barber who slits his customers’ throats. Their bodies wind up supplying the meat pie shop around the corner. In Sondheim’s version, Sweeney has a sympathetic back story, as a man who’d been wrongfully imprisoned, lost his family and now seeks revenge; but, foiled, he takes his fury out on his innocent customers instead.
It sounds terribly gory, and it is. Aside from “Assassins,” which treats John Wilkes Booth and his successors, it’s Sondheim’s most disturbing musical. The Redwood Symphony advises parental discretion for children under 12, due to the adult subject matter. Kujawsky elaborates: “I think that the show would be appropriate for children at least 10 and up, though more adventurous parents might bring their 8-year-old to it.”
“Sweeney Todd” is far more than blood, however. Even among Sondheim’s excellent shows, Kujawsky explains, “it stands out because of its shattering emotional impact. This is a real thriller, with several shocking surprises.” And it’s also funny, and far less dire than you might think. Kujawsky explains: “While the plot is certainly gruesome, Sondheim takes precautions to distance the audience from the subject matter by injecting some very black humor, and by the use of a ‘Greek Chorus’ which breaks down the fourth wall to address the audience.”
At this point, some readers might grumble that they saw the Tim Burton movie, with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and didn’t like it. Don’t let that stop you. I’ve seen “Sweeney Todd” staged live before, and I’ve also seen the televised concert performance with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury. The stage show is very different, gleefully delightful where the movie is dour.
“The movie eschewed the musical’s black comedy,” Kujawsky said. “Helena Bonham Carter wasn’t funny at all, and that reduced the show to a series of grisly, too-explicit scenes of violence. I am a huge Tim Burton fan, but in this case I feel he completely misunderstood what makes ‘Sweeney Todd’ work. Our production gets it right.”
The Redwood Symphony has performed operatic musical theater in concert before, including Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Those both also deal with grisly topics — wars and executions — in a comic manner. If you saw those, expect a similar production here. The orchestra will be on stage with the singers, so movement will be limited, but Kujawsky promises a fully costumed and acted-out show, “with props (including the trick barber chair) and plenty of action and blood!”
Walter Mayes plays the title role, with Cami Thompson as his co-conspirator, pie-baker Mrs. Lovett.
“Both have performed these roles before,” Kujawsky said, “as have some of our chorus members. On balance, I think this is one of the strongest casts for this show that I’ve seen. Cami, in particular, will have the audience rolling in the aisles; she’s a perfect Mrs. Lovett, and Mrs. Lovett is the key to whether the show works, because she brings most of the comedic element.”
“Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” performs at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 1, and 2 p.m., Sunday, June 2, at the Cañada College Main Theatre, Redwood City. Pre-concert talks one hour beforehand. Tickets ($20, $10 for students) are available through the website at www.redwoodsymphony.org, and for $25 at the door.