How DeVotchKa and a man named Coffin made murderous music mischief

Gregg Coffin Sweeney Todd. John Moore

Gregg Coffin promises the unprecedented alchemy of esteemed Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim mixed with Grammy-nominated gypsy-punk band DeVotchKa ensures Sweeney Todd will be a theatrical experience unlike anything DCPA Theatre Company audiences have seen before.

Sondheim, author of Into the Woods, Company and Sunday in the Park with George, also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Many feel his murderous masterpiece is Sweeney Todd, which first shocked Broadway audiences under the direction of Hal Prince in 1979. Since then, Sondheim has been uncommonly encouraging of young artists wanting to experiment with the score. When the Denver Center last year sought permission for a new collaboration with DeVotchKa, Sondheim said, “Bloody well.”

Denver’s own DeVotchKa, named after a line in A Clockwork Orange, was deemed the local band most deserving of mainstream attention by The Denver Post all the way back in 2002. Since then, DeVotchka has reached international acclaim, landing in Billboard’s Top 10 and opening for Muse before more than 80,000 in France.

But how does anyone, much less an alternative rock band, even approach rearranging a complex Broadway score? Coffin, who has 30 years of experience as a theatrical Musical Director, had the joyful task of sheparding the band through the year-long process, which has resulted in a 943-page musical opus that three DeVotchKa members (Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King and Tom Hagerman) will perform live each night, along with Conductor Erik Daniells and six backing musicians.

Coffin has essentially served as steward over DeVotchKa’s creative odyssey to revisit a score he calls the King Lear of the musical theatre. One that has been infused for this staging with an electric guitar, a drum set, toy piano and many other instruments original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick never imagined. For the record, there are 39 different instruments used in the Theatre Company’s  new interpretation.
It’s too soon to say how it will all come out, but you would be hard-pressed to find a better match for a musical that leaves so much blood on the floor than a Music Director named Coffin and a band that penned beloved songs called Dearly Departed, Life is Short and How it Ends. Coffin, who has overseen many Theatre Company musicals including Animal Crackers, A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, talked with the DCPA NewsCenter about how it all went down:

John Moore: What was your first exposure to Sweeney Todd?

Gregg Coffin: I grew up in Maine, so my initial greeting came from hearing the cast album. Real musical theatre people get the cast album and then they run those grooves right into the wax.

DeVotchka Sweeney Todd. John Moore

John Moore: What did you think when you first heard that the Denver Center was not only doing Sweeney Todd, but with DeVotchKa?

Gregg Coffin: I was incredibly excited because I know the wide musical berth Mr. Sondheim allows companies like ours in doing his productions. There was a production in Washington D.C. that used grunge guitars. Sondheim sent them a telegram that said: “Make it murderous.” He has a very open heart about these collaborations.

John Moore: Has Mr. Sondheim asked to approve this new score?

Gregg Coffin: We to have to present [the licenser] Music Theatre International with what we propose to do in the form of a printed score. But didn’t know ourselves what this would really sound like until our first full orchestra rehearsal March 28.

John Moore: What did you know of DeVotchKa then?

Gregg Coffin: I knew they had done the music for the movie Little Miss Sunshine. That’s it. Then I met them, and we just dove in. 

John Moore: DeVotchKa is known for collaborating with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, but they have never undertaken anything like this before. What is the one thing the DeVotchKa players most needed to know in transitioning to this musical world?

Gregg Coffin: That the theatricality they connect with authentically in their own work is also present in what Tunick and Sondheim did originally in Sweeney Todd. It’s theatrical, and they are theatrical. Trust that authenticity.

John Moore: What is the first thing you taught them about writing for the musical theatre?

Gregg Coffin: The first thing we did was watch a recording from 1980 of the first national touring production under Hal Prince’s direction. It starred Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. We watched it in a conference room. I had the staff print off the piano vocal of the entire show and put it into binders for them. I think a lot of it was just them taking in what Sondheim and Tunick had done. I would tell them stuff like, “That person right there is going to be waiting for a ‘B’ to play, so someone in your nine-person pit is going to have to play it.”

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John Moore: Did you get any blank stares?

Gregg Coffin: No. They are all alarmingly good musicians, and all of them had been in high school theatre. So they speak the language. And they are having so much fun.

John Moore: But people do need to understand that this is not DeVotchKa “rewriting” the score. The notes are the same. It’s more a question of choosing which instruments are playing them, correct?

Gregg Coffin. Sweeney Todd. John Moore. Gregg Coffin: Correct. This is Sweeney Todd, after all, and it’s going to sound very much like what Sweeney Todd sounds like. It’s not as if they just say, “We’re going to do that part with 20 banjos!” Instead, something that was written for a string section might be played here on an accordion. Or an oboe part might be played on a toy piano. Like the song “Johanna”: When you hear the Tunick score, it’s French horns and cellos, and it’s beautiful. Here, we’ve got it on a nylon string guitar, and it’s going to be beautiful, too. In the original orchestration, there has never been a guitar. There has never been a drum set. We will have a drum set, and that will be a real person sitting at a kit playing it: [DeVotchKa drummer] Shawn King.

John Moore: What do you think the experience will be like for DeVotchKa fans?

Gregg Coffin: I think people who come from the DeVotchKa camp will recognize and experience this band that they know and love as they interpret this classical piece of musical theatre. And DeVotchKa fans are already used to that part of it, because they play every year with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and I think they are going to be used to that kind of idea.

John Moore: But this is DeVotchKa, so people are going to expect something of a rock element.

Gregg Coffin: There will be moments when it rocks out, absolutely. And there will be moments that promote a completely different feel.

John Moore: What should traditional musical theatre audiences expect?

Gregg Coffin: I think this production of Sweeney Todd will be as eye-opening and rib-cage-opening for them as it was for them to see the 2005 Broadway revival where all of the actors played their own instruments. When it’s just Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney singing, you hear things with a nine-piece pit that you can’t hear when it’s a big, 23-person orchestra and a whole chorus singing behind you. Here I think you will be allowed to see both a simplicity and an authenticity in the work.

John Moore: You hand the music over to your conductor, Erik Daniells, on opening night. What is that performance going to be like for you?

Gregg Coffin: It’s going to be hard for me to have my eyes on the score because I am going to be watching the DeVotchKa players the whole time. It’s a great gift that I get to see a group of really talented musicians dare to open themselves up to another art form and flex their muscles.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

No Small Parts: Gregg Coffin talks with DCPA CEO Scott Shiller:

Sweeney Todd: Ticket information

  • 270x270-sweeney-toddMusic and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by High Wheeler (adapted by Christopher Bond); musical adaptation by DeVotchKa
  • April 8-May 15 (opens April 15)
  • StageTheatre
  • Grammy-nominated Denver band DeVotchKa takes on the legendary demon barber of Fleet Street, serving up a reinvention of Sondheim’s musical thriller. Hell-bent on revenge, Sweeney Todd takes up with his enterprising neighbor in a devilish plot to slice their way through London’s upper crust. Justice will be served — along with audacious humor and bloody good thrills.
  • Accessible performance 1:30 p.m. May 1
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

  • Previous NewsCenter coverage of Sweeney Todd:
    Theatre Company giddily going down rabbit hole in 2015-16
    DeVotchKa frontman promises a Sweeney Todd that’s ‘loud and proud’
    DCPA announces DeVotchka-infused Sweeney Todd casting
    ​Where the band meets the blade: Rehearsals open
    Co-stars on bringing DeVotchKa’s fresh blood to Sondheim
    Video sneak peek with DeVotchKa
    Meet the cast: Danny Rothman

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