Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Directed by Jeffrey Alan Smith

Firehouse Brewing Theatre, March 30 - May 5, 2018

Sweeney Todd is one of only two musicals that Stephen Sondheim has initiated himself (the other was Passion).  He has said that he intended it to be a small chamber musical with few sets.  But, in 1979, Hal Prince went in another direction with it on Broadway— big and epic… Though [big and epic] does work, Sondheim meant the show to be done small, and that may be the way it is the most effective, the most chilling, the most personal.  At the end of the show, the cast points to the audience and and accuses them of being like Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, just as easily motivated by revenge and greed.  This is not a show intended to leave an audience happy and safe in the knowledge that good always triumphs over evil.  Sweeney Todd is meant to disturb.  It is both social commentary and a horror story, a musical Twilight Zone set in nineteenth century England.”

Scott Miller
From Assassins to West Side Story: A Director’s Guide to Musical Theatre

To better understand the tale of Sweeney Todd, you should know about the production history of this iconic musical.  In 1979, Harold Prince directed a massive production on Broadway that featured elaborate sets, a crane that delivers Sweeney’s barber chair in the second act, an elaborate mechanical barber chair that would lean back and let its victims slide down a chute to their ultimate demise and included many visual references to the industrialization of Great Britain.  Following the closing of the original Broadway production, many national tours and London revivals started popping up.  A remarkable thing began to happen, however.  With each revival, the show began to get smaller and smaller.  More intimate.  More intense.  More personal.  I won’t take the time to list all of them here, but a few of them come to mind to better illustrate my point.  In 1993, the show received its first London revival at the Royal National Theatre.  The revival received high praise from Stephen Sondheim, celebrating the “small ‘chamber’ approach to the show, which was his original vision for the piece.”  In 2004, Sweeney Todd received its first West End revival in over ten years and, later in 2005, director John Doyle re-mounted his production on Broadway, which starred Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, respectively, and featured all 10 actors playing their own instruments as they performed.  The following year, John Doyle took home a Tony award for Best Director.  The 2012 West End revival set the Victorian musical in the 1930’s, and was met with rave reviews.  The 2015 West End revival, which eventually made its way to Off-Broadway in 2017, transformed the theatre into a completely operational pie shop.  Actors in that minimally staged production were accompanied by just a piano and clarinet.  That has also received rave reviews across the board.  Still, out of all of those, I have only attended one production in-person.

My love affair with Sweeney Todd began when I was a freshman in college.  I had been exposed to the 1979 Broadway production’s soundtrack and had watched videos in Theatre History and Set Design classes.  I was never really interested in it.  I always thought that it had an interesting premise and an incredibly detailed story, but the music and lyrics were lost on me— probably because all we focused on was Eugene Lee’s set design.

In 2005, while on a class trip in New York City, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to join him for a matinee performance of Sweeney Todd.  I was reluctant because I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy it since I wasn’t that interested in the musical to begin with.  Regardless, I joined him (partially thanks to an affordable rush ticket).  When the show began, I was stunned by the set design.  Inside of this beautiful proscenium theatre, there was a narrow wooden platform that extended to the back and looked as if it continued forever.  There were a few chairs lining the sides of the stage, a piano and a coffin dead center.  I didn’t know what my friend had just gotten me into, but I was intrigued.  What I witnessed for the next two and a half hours was pure magic onstage.  I have never been so caught up in a musical, or a play for that matter, than when I saw the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd.  The way they told the story so simply and artfully— I had no idea that you could do that in theatre (keep in mind, I’m a freshman in college at this point!)  I didn’t know who Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone were, but I felt obligated to meet them after such an incredible performance.  We waited outside the stage door, got their autographs, and afterwards we couldn’t stop talking about what we just saw.  While our other friends were seeing Wicked, we saw something— dare I say, life changing?  Maybe that’s too pretentious of me to say, but it kind of was.  It was life changing in the fact that it totally flipped everything I thought I knew about theatre on it’s head and inspired me artistically.  I didn’t know directors could mold musicals and plays into their own conceptual masterpieces.  I didn’t know you could change arrangements, cut scenes, cast blindly, etc.  I was inexperienced.  I didn’t know any of that was allowed.  I was completely inspired after this experience, and soon after I started taking directing classes because I wanted to be able to get to a level where I could develop concepts for shows— especially when there is a pre-conceived notion about how one directs or performs a show.

Soon after returning from New York City and learning how to direct by directing plays such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, True West and The Shape of Things— I became obsessed with Sweeney Todd.  I started watching any sort of concert version I could find.  Any revival I could find.  The Tim Burton film.  I had to consume as much Sweeney Todd as possible.

When I was first presented with the idea of directing Sweeney Todd at the Firehouse Brewing Theatre, there was no doubt in my mind that this intimate performance space would be an ideal setting for the emotional powerhouse that is Sweeney Todd.  A lot of the reason why I was confident that a scaled down, intimate version of Sweeney Todd would work, especially at the Firehouse Brewing Theatre, goes back to the 2005 Broadway revival.  So, when given the opportunity, I jumped on it and got to work.  That’s not to say this production was easy, by any means, because it was far from easy.

I am extremely proud of this production.  I am honored to have been chosen to direct this production, and also given the freedom to make it personally significant.

I would like to sincerely thank the cast, the crew and design team for making this production a reality, and for trusting me with my vision.  I could not have done this alone.

Thank you for coming tonight.  Enjoy the show!

Jeffrey Alan Smith