U-M takes on Sondheim’s "Sweeney Todd," a musical challenge and a macabre story


Sweeney Todd

Artwork from the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd.

The musical theater students at the University of Michigan will take a walk on the dark side when they present their production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Power Center, April 18-21.

Sweeney Todd is an unusual show, combining dark humor, odd characters, a bit of the music hall, a bit of the opera and quite a lot of blood. 

Stephen Sondheim, the master of modern musical theater, has often taken on unorthodox musical theatre material from a survey of presidential assassins to a grim take on fairy tales to a bittersweet reworking of an Ingmar Bergman film.

But Sweeney Todd goes a few steps further into a grim story of revenge that balances horror with some deliciously off-kilter humor and some complex and compelling music.  

Sondheim was attracted to a play by Christopher Bond about Benjamin Barker, a man convicted to transportation to Australia by an evil judge for a crime he didn’t commit in rough and tumble 1840s London. When Barker returns 15 years later from Australia, he learns from his mad landlady that his wife has poisoned herself and that his daughter is living with the lecherous judge. He is driven to madness and vows revenge. 

He changes his name to Sweeney Todd and devises a scheme to set himself up as a barber who gives his enemies very close shaves. He slits their throats and disposes of the bodies by helping supply filling for his landlady and meat-pie baker Mrs. Nellie Lovett.

Sondheim created the music and lyrics for Sweeney Todd with a book by Hugh Wheeler. The legendary Hal Prince directed. The show, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury,  did not have a long run but it did win seven Tony Awards including best musical of 1979. It was made into a movie and has had a long history of production since.

“I think it’s a love story and it’s a love story at two levels,” said Vincent J. Cardinal, director of the U-M production and chair of the U-M music theater department. “I think Lovett and Sweeney have a contemporary love story because they are two people who connect. They have similar intellect, they have similar drive and they have similar humor. And then there is the revenge romance as he enacts his revenge and those are the two love stories that run parallel for me and I just hope I get this right so it doesn’t end up in a blood bath.”

But, of course, it will.

Cardinal didn’t choose to direct the play for its gore but for Sondheim’s sophisticated music that he said marks the end of development for senior music theater students.

“Why this Sondheim is because it has so many individual roles that are nice and kind of meaty,” he said, with appropriately raised eyebrows. “So there is a chance for many people to carry the ball in the production.”

Cardinal said that he has been working with choreographer Ron DeJesus on taking a different approach from other productions. DeJesus, who teaches dance at the university, has a modern dance company in Chicago.

“This production is really influenced by a very contemporary take on dance,” Cardinal said. “Hal Prince is famous for not being that excited by dance and we looked for ways that we could use dance to tell the story. We wanted to find a way to use it and asked what was appropriate and what wasn’t appropriate and what music hall and Grand Guignol elements would influence the production. I think people will be surprised by the physicality of the show.”

The odd combination of influences also played a role in Cardinal’s casting for the roles of Sweeney and Lovett.

“It’s a melodrama with music. It has straight up entertainment value and I thought of the comic teams. I was looking for a straight man and a funny woman,” he said. “So I was looking for two actors who could have humor, a great relationship and handle the music.”

Jamie Colburn will play Sweeney and Allie Re will play Mrs. Lovett.

Handling the music can be challenging.

Music director Catherine A. Walker, an associate professor of music, said the lead actors have several Sondheim hurdles to handle.

“First of all the voices frequently clash. They are seconds apart, the two soloists, and they have to really keep locked in,” Walker said. “They get little help from the accompaniment because the accompaniment is frequently doing something that is completely unrelated to them. So they have to function very much as instrumentalists do. They are functioning intensely, solidly, they’re counting, they know exactly where they have to come in and they understand they have to work to land those pitches because they are not getting a lot of help underneath.”

Sweeney Todd is a sung-through musical with a wide variety of musical styles and a lyrically rich text. It is a challenge to wring all of the humor and pathos that drive this tale.

“Sondheim has three benchmarks to his composition,” said Walker. “He holds himself to that standard. One, it’s got to be felt, content dictates form, and everything is in the service of clarity. But knowing this, there are other things that I have to decide as an actor, am I being clear enough. Do I have to dial down a dialect because maybe the American ear is not attuned to say a cockney accent so we might choose to make it clearer.”

Sondheim is also a challenge for the orchestra.

“Sondheim describes this work as a film for the stage,” Walker said. “He did not describe it as an opera. In many ways, he uses the operatic manner as a motif that uses a theme to describe a character or a place. He uses it here to describe a mood or a place, not so much a character.”

The music is more like a film score.

“The orchestra functions like a film score very much so, with a lot nuance and bravado and stretching to serve the clarity of the acting, the clarity of the moment,” Walker said. 

Despite the challenges, or because of them, Walker said the players in the orchestra are “loving it, they are excited by it.”

The actors are also loving it.

“Musically they are super equipped to handle it and they love Sondheim’s music and from the first rehearsal they found their way and just became more precise,” said Cardinal. “I was just surprised how challenging the staging in is the is production and how tired they are at the end of the night.”

On a recent Saturday morning, the hard-working cast formed a circle at the Towsley rehearsal studio at the north campus Walgreen Building. 

They were assembled for a run through of the play, but first they had a treat. They had an opportunity to hear some behind the scenes stories about that original 1979 Broadway and national tour production of the macabre musical from three people who were there.

Judy Dow Rumelhart, a longtime Ann Arbor resident, singer, fund-raiser, and patron of the arts, was a co-producer of the Broadway production. Doug Edwards, a technical producer for U-M productions and lecturer, was on the tech crew for the national tour. Mary Edwards was a substitute to play the role of the Beggar Woman on the national tour, where she met and later married Doug Edwards.

Rumelhart had lived in New York and performed as a cabaret singer. In 1979, she and her husband at the time, Dean Manos, became involved as co-producers on the musical. She told the students about the excitement of living in New York and working with Sondheim and the legendary director Hal Prince. 

“I was a little scared of Hal,” she admitted.

In 1992, she directed her own production of Sweeney Todd with the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

Mary Edwards remembered that she didn’t receive a warm welcome when she joined the touring company.

“The cast, when I was brought in, weren’t always happy that we were added,” she told the students. “I could sing the music and you had to sing the music and you have to sing the part.”

Doug Edwards, who has provided technical help for the U-M production, recalled how Hal Prince had gone up to him and said he was too stiff and that he ought to lighten up.

“Hal Prince was a real taskmaster,” he said.

He also said it was one of the best tours he’d even been on.

The U-M cast, orchestra, and crew will have stories of their own to tell after they present their take on Sweeney Todd.

In addition to Colburn and Re, other cast members are Blake Roman, Emma Ashford, Spencer LaRue, Hugh Entrekin, Griffin Binnicker, Cydney Clark, Aaron Robinson, Griffin Silva, and Olivia Hardy. In addition, there is a large ensemble.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance will present "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" at 7:30 pm on Thursday, April 18; 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, April 19-20; and 2 pm on Sunday, April 21 at Power Center on the main campus of the university. For tickets call 734-764-2538, go online to tickets.smtd.umich.edu or in person 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday and 10 am to 1 pm on Saturday at the Michigan League Building at Fletcher and N. University.