Perspectives: 5 things we learned about 'Sweeney Todd' (like use a dull blade)

Sweeney Todd Perspectives‘Sweeney Todd’ Perspectives conversation on April 8 in the Conservatory Theatre, from left: Choreographer Joel Ferrell, musical director Gregg Coffin, Director Kent Thompson, Actor Kevin McGuire (Judge Turpin) and Actor Samantha Bruce (Johanna). Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Perspectives is a series of free conversations with cast and creatives that take place on the evening of each production’s first preview performance. The DCPA Theatre Company already has garnered enormous advance attention for its upcoming production of Sweeney Todd opening Friday (April 15), in part because of its collaboration with the band DeVotchKa on a new arrangement of Stephen Sondheim‘s classic score about the vengeful barber who teams up with a macabre baker to turn their customers into meat pies. Director Kent Thompson talked about how the DeVotchKa dots got connected. But the wide-ranging conversation unearthed a few other gems as well. Here’s some of what we learned. (This Perspectives panel was hosted by DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore.)

1 Perspectives Sweeney Todd Persepctives QuoteWhat in the world just happened in New Zealand, and how is that not possible to happen here? Students at a private high school in Auckland, New Zealand, were determined to make their production of Sweeney Todd as realistic as possible. So real that two 16-year-old students’ necks were cut with a prop knife during last week’s opening performance. Both were hospitalized, one with serious injuries.

How does something like that happen? “I’ll tell you how,” said Thompson: You’re really stupid. I will say this is a challenging show, because you’ve got to make it credible – but I can’t imagine why you would use a real razor in a high-school production. The razors you will see in our show are real, but they have been significantly dulled. One thing you have to be careful about is the strap that Sweeney uses, because you can actually be sharpening the blade on it. But we check that every night. Also our Fight Director, Geoff Kent, is constantly making sure that we’re not making actual contact with the skin.

“I just think someone in New Zealand had a very unwise thought. It’s like somebody saying, ‘Oh, I’ll bring my pistol in and we can shoot blanks.’ You’ll see a gun in our show, but it’s a gun that can never fire a real bullet. It would actually fall apart if you even tried.”

Thompson has his own question when he heard about the New Zealand accident: “After the first child got cut … ” 

He didn’t even have to finish his thought.

2 Perspectives Samantha Bruce Sweeney ToddThose actors playing Anthony and Johanna have fantastic chemistry. And so they should. Samantha Bruce and Daniel Berryman played the young lovers together in The Fantasticks off-Broadway for a year. “We didn’t know that when we cast them,” Thompson insists, to which Bruce joked: “Which is astounding to me. We didn’t even know were were both auditioning for this show until my final callback. Daniel walked out of the room and it was like, ‘Oh. Hi!’ “

Thompson quipped: “I couldn’t understand how they had such great chemistry from the very first day of rehearsal. I just thought it was brilliant casting – and it is.”

“Just not that brilliant,” he added with a laugh. 

3 Perspectives

DeVotchKa with 'Sweeney Todd' Conductor Erik Daniells. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. DeVotchKa: So whose idea was that, anyway? Emily Tarquin, who is our coordinator for the Colorado New Play Summit and one of the two people who run Off-Center at the Jones, came up with the idea of DeVotchKa,” Thompson said. “She said, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool?’ And so I thought about it for a day – because I didn’t want to give away what a brilliant idea I thought it was right away. I went back and listened to their music again. I had seen Shawn King here several times because he loves to come to the theatre, and Tom Hagerman had done some collaborating with Off-Center. So we approached them and asked if they were interested, and they said yes. The loved the idea. They love Sweeney Todd. They love the Denver Center. But they had no idea what they were getting into. This is Steven Sondheim, and it’s one of the most complex scores in all of musical theatre. But I think they are having a great time.” 

Getting Sondheim’s permission was not as difficult as one might think. “Most musical theatre composers, living or dead, are resistant to anyone doing anything with their original arrangements and orchestrations,” Thompson said. “But Mr. Sondheim is very different. He loves experimentation. You still have to honor the melodic structure, but there is a progressive-grunge version that was just done in Texas, and of course in 2005 there was the 10-character Broadway version with Patti Lupone where she was playing the tuba onstage.”

4 PerspectivesSweeney Todd Perspectives There not only will be blood – there will be lots and lots of blood. So how are those gorgeous Victorian costumes created by Kevin Copenhaver supposed to survive being splattered eight times a week? “You have to have the best blood mixture in the world,” Thompson said. “There are lots of ways of doing blood. There are commercial bloods you can buy for theatrical performance, for example. But we have found over time that if you want the right viscosity and the right look, you have to create your own. Then you can change the thickness of it, and the color if you need to. And as for protecting the costumes, it’s about planning ahead about what will costumes get blood on them. Over the past few days, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to control the splatter so if someone gets their throat slit, the blood doesn’t jump out 20 feet and fall through the floor below.”

5 Perspectives About that iconic barber chair. It’s not giving anything away to say that a significant set piece is Sweeney’s barber’s chair. He is the Demon Barber, after all. The chair used here was built from scratch by the DCPA Props Department to to support the unique needs of  this production. 

Sweeney Todd moves really fast from scene to scene, and it has a lot of technical elements,” Thompson said. “One of them being the barber chair where some unfortunate things happen and people … disappear quickly.

“It’s quite a bit of technology, and it takes a lot of practice. I mean think about this:  Robert Petkoff (the actor who plays Sweeney) is singing this very complicated music while putting this barber sheet on, while moving this chair around, while unlocking the mechanisms that keep the actors safe, and – in coordination with the stage manager – opening the chute and delivering his victims at the same time. Then re-setting the chair. And then he does it again … and again … and again. All while still singing. It’s really like watching a complex dance between this incredible piece of technology and this actor. It was our challenge to figure how to do that safely and yet theatrically. It really is special when you watch his victims … depart the stage. It takes a lot of people you never see.  We have a backstage crew of nine to run the show, which is a lot of people. We have people on automation. We have people checking trap doors. We have people watching as these large units move on and off the stage. And we have a lot of special effects and costume changes going on. It’s almost as complicated as Sondheim’s music. Not quite … but that makes it even more thrilling.”    

Extras (because Sweeney Todd is all about being insatiable):

6 PerspectivesMusic Director Gregg Coffin says the orchestra each night is made up of nine members – Conductor Erk Daniells, DeVotchka members Shawn King, Jeanie Schroder and Tom Hagerman, and five backing musicians. They play nearly 40 instruments. We asked Coffin to name one we probably never have heard of. He mentioned the bandoneon. “It’s a concertina squeeze box that looks like an accordion,” Coffin said. “If you have seen Pinocchio, its what Geppetto plays.” 

7 PerspectivesAnd finally: Thoughts on doing the 37-year-old musical today, with so much violence both real and rhetorical happening in the world. The panel was asked how the tone of the piece differs now than when it debuted in 1979. 

Kent Thompson: “In the initial production, which I saw, there were people who were just horrified by the slitting of the throats and the people going down the chute. Over time, that’s become more of an “applause” moment, which is an indication of how our world has changed. I think it is scarier in some ways now. Some people are corrupt but powerful in this world, and some people have had their lives shattered by the corruption of the system. That’s Sweeney.”

Actor Kevin McGuire: “Revenge is always the motivation when we do something horrible to someone else: This person has done something horrible to you, or to someone you love. So we take our revenge. But this global revenge that we seem to have going on today is what makes it more scary to me.”

Choreographer Joel Farrell: “For the last three years in this country, we have been having this ongoing conversation about “why is there so much violence?” It seems to happen in poverty-stricken, demoralized, disenfranchised neighborhoods more than it happens elsewhere. And I don’t think that’s arbitrary.”  

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Sweeney Todd: Ticket information

  • 270x270-sweeney-toddMusic and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by High Wheeler (adapted by Christopher Bond); musical adaptation by DeVotchKa
  • Through 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

    Previous Sweeney Todd profiles (to date):

    Meet Danny Rothman
    Meet Jean McCormick

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