Sweeney Todd

Patti LuPone
and George Hearn as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd - SF Chronicle picture Sweeney Todd is probably Stephen Sondheim's best known musical. The tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street won 8 Tonys in its original Broadway production, including Best Score, Best Book, Best Actor for Len Cariou and Best Actress for Angela Lansbury.

So when it was announced that the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus would be performing a semi-staged version of Sweeney Todd as part of its Summer in the City series, I leapt at the chance and was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the chorus members.

I don't even know where to begin in attempting to describe this experience. It was a Broadway quality production except that it was only semi-staged, instead of fully staged. This meant that there weren't any sophisticated props, such as the complicated barber's chair setup of the original production. The staging consisted of characters moving around three interconnected levels of platforms, among which the orchestra was dispersed. It was a simple, almost stark, staging, which let the production focus attention on the music, the lyrics, and the story. And the musical's strong enough for that.

But, wow. Top broadway stars:

Lisa Vroman as Johanna - SF
Chronicle picture Stephen Sondheim himself was there. He showed up for the dress rehearsal, and answered all of our questions. No worries about authorial intent - we could ask the source, "Hey, how did you want this bit played?" He'd take people aside during the dress rehearsal, exchange a few words with them, and then we'd continue. He stayed for each of the performances, and got a well-deserved deafening standing ovation when introduced after all three.

The whole thing got taped for later television broadcast, and maybe release as a videotape. The rumor I heard is that Sondheim liked this version of the staging (most of the same cast and crew had done it last year with the New York Philharmonic), and wanted a tape of it, so he made it happen. I doubt we'll see the tape for at least a year, but that'll be really cool if/when it happens.

So it was just an amazing experience all around. The stars were great - even after being there every night all week and seeing three performances in a row, I was ready to come back for more - I could have watched them each and every night for weeks and not gotten tired because they brought the story alive. We got to do our little bits (chorus is only involved in 5 numbers or so, but everybody said that we looked and sounded good). And, just, well, wow. This was yet another once-in-a-lifetime type experience that I've gotten out of the chorus this year. It's just so cool.

Links to various reviews:

The San Francisco Chronicle did a whole series on the production, with pieces on Stephen Sondheim, Patti LuPone, Lisa Vroman, and even a followup, commenting on the "nuclear" final night.

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Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / nehrlich@alum.mit.edu