'Sweeney Todd' stars on bringing fresh blood to Sondheim

Robert Petkoff and Linda Mugleston gave attendees of a recent awards luncheon a sneak peek at their ‘Sweeney Todd pairing.’ Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

It didn’t take long for Broadway star Robert Petkoff to learn the DCPA Theatre Company would be performing his favorite musical, Sweeney Todd, with Colorado gypsy punk band DeVotchKa adding its own sanguine flavoring to Stephen Sondheim’s classic orchestrations.

“DeVotchKa is my sister’s favorite band,” said Petkoff. “When she found out, she wrote me right away and said, ‘Oh my God, I have to get out to Denver and see this.’ ”

Now Petkoff’s sister has two reasons come to Denver. Her brother, an award-winning veteran of six Broadway productions, is playing the title role of the barbarous barber.

“But put DeVotchKa at the top of the list,” he said with a laugh. “I am reason No. 2.”

The Petkoff siblings are not the only ones excited to see what happens when Sweeney Todd bleeds DeVotchKa’s Latin and Slavic-infused aural amalgam into Sondheim’s perhaps most powerful (and unquestionably most homicidal) score.

“DeVotchKa will attract a completely different kind of audience,” Petkoff said. “And boy, anytime you can bring a whole new swath of people into the theatre who don’t normally come is a great, great thing.”

Sweeney Todd Robert Petkoff Linda Mugleston Petkoff and DeVotchKa frontman Nick Urata have their own affinities for Sweeney Todd dating back to their very different childhoods. Petkoff remembers hearing the vinyl cast recording in 1979 when he was in high school and the record was hot off the presses. “I was blown away, both by how complex the story is,  and by how incredible the music is,” Petkoff said. “I just instantly fell in love. I knew I wanted to play that role one day.”

(Pictured right are co-stars Linda Mugleston and Robert Petkoff hydrating, hydrating and hydrating some more to perform ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Denver’s mile-high altitude. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

DeVotchKa has been blurring distinctions between art forms for more than 15 years, notably with its wildly popular annual concerts at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Music fans have been spellbound by the band’s theatricality dating all the way back to its earliest appearances at small Boulder music clubs when Urata and, Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King and Tom Hagerman would enter from the back of a darkened house guided only by the string of lights that line Schroder’s sousaphone.

“I can’t think of a more perfect platform for us than Sweeney Todd,” Urata said when the project was first announced, “being that we like coming from a dark and twisted place, and this is the ultimate dark and twisted musical opera.”

Schroder, King and Hagerman have taken the lead with the reorchestration project from the start along with Music Director Gregg Coffin. All three are expected to play in the orchestra pit for all performances of Sweeney Todd when the production opens April 15, alongside conductor Erik Daniells and five local musicians.

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Petkoff’s co-star is Linda Mugleston in the delicious role of Mrs. Lovett, maker of those curiously delicious meat pies. Petkoff and Mugleston have theatrical bloodlines that crisscross Denver and run deep down into Broadway’s sidewalk cracks. Petkoff appeared in the DCPA’s Tantalus, a 10-play epic Trojan War cycle in 2000 — nothing less than the largest theatre project in the 2,500-year history of the theatre. He returned in 2012 for the world premiere of Sense & Sensibility, The Musical and in the Broadway tour of Spamalot in 2007. Mugleston’s Theatre Company credits include The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Quilters and A Christmas Carol.
When the Theatre Company forays into musicals, Mugleston said, they always have something in common with the company’s nationally-acclaimed world premiere plays: Even when telling  a familiar story, there is something new about them.

“The Denver Center is always innovative, no matter what they are doing,” Mugleston said. “The creativity is always very high-end, and it never feels like run-of-the-mill, normal fare. It’s always exciting.”

Sweeney Todd Devotchka. The Sweeney Todd stars appeared together briefly in the 2011 Broadway revival of Anything Goes, during which they swear no throats were slashed. Surprisingly, neither has ever before appeared in a production of Sweeney Todd.

Sondheim, now 86, has been uncommonly encouraging of young artists wanting to experiment with Sweeney Todd, which first shocked Broadway audiences under the direction of Hal Prince in 1979. It has since been presented in forms ranging from opera to an intimate chamber piece. The musical was revived on Broadway in 2004 with only 10 actors all playing their own instruments. In 2014, Sondheim gave his permission for the Landless Theatre Company to concoct a “prog-metal” version in Washington D.C. That’s a form that blends classical music and jazz while using metal to highlight some of the darker elements of the story. Permission to let DeVotchKa envelop Sondheim’s score with DeVotchKa’s signature horns, accordion, violin and percussion was handed down by the master himself.

(Pictured above right: Shawn King, Jeanie Shroder and Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa are scheduled to play in the orchestra for all performances of ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.) 

Urata’s stated goal for the piece is “to make it loud and proud.” And if that sounds too experimental for theatre purists, Urata said, consider that West Side Story was once considered experimental theatre.

“If I know anything about Sondheim, it’s that he is very open-minded,” said Urata. “I think that’s why we all love him.” That’s because “first and foremost, Sondheim is an artist,” Mugleston added.

Anytime you tell a story, Petkoff added, “who is telling the story changes that story. So people who come to see this show may have an idea what should be in their heads based on what they have seen before. But we have this great opportunity in Denver to tell our own version of the story, and adding DeVotchKa will make it a really unique version of that story. This is how theatre breathes and grows and evolves.”

When you change the orchestrations, you are not changing the actual notes, Petkoff said, “you are changing how an audience hears them — the rhythm. The style. I get why a playwright might say, ‘Listen, you need to say every word that I wrote.’ But with a musician, you understand that while he wrote every one of those notes, there are so many different ways to play them. And yet, you are still playing the song.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Imagine, he said, what Broadway audiences who grew up on Camelot and My Fair Lady thought when they first sat watching Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. “They were outraged,” he said. “’That’s not a musical!’ they said. But there was an influx of younger people who came and became lifelong lovers of theatre. The same thing is happening with Hamilton on Broadway today. There are people who have never been to a Broadway musical and they are standing and screaming in fits of ecstasy watching Hamilton. It’s wonderful for theatre because we need to change and we need new blood, and this is how you do it.”  

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.

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Photo gallery: Sweeney Todd in Denver:

Sweeney Todd in Denver

Our photo gallery to date from the making of ‘Sweeney Todd.’  o see more, click the forward arrow on the photo above. To download any photo for free, click on it and follow instructions. Photos by John Moore for 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
  • 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, bloody good thrills, and DeVotchKa’s brand of lush gypsy punk.
  • 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

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