behind the blockbuster version of Sondheim’s Broadway hit

If you’re looking for the Broadway equivalent of Mount Rushmore, you could do worse than go to West 46th Street near Times Square. There you’ll find that Sweeney Todd, perhaps the greatest stage musical of the 20th century, showed up across the street from Hamilton, arguably the greatest of the 21st (so far).

Related: Review of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – dazzling Broadway revival

A quasi-opera about the fictional demon barber of Fleet Street and a rap-soaked story of the first US treasury secretary seem like strange bedfellows. But they find connective tissue in Thomas Kail, who directed both plays at the Lunt-Fontanne and Richard Rodgers theaters respectively – and who argues there would be no Hamilton without Sweeney.

“When we thought of Hamilton in those early days, 2011-12, we were making a show about a person who was misunderstood and perceived as one thing and was actually something else,” the 45-year-old recalls via Zoom. “Sweeney is and has been perceived as a monster; Hamilton in his time was understood and misunderstood, perceived and misunderstood.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation of Alexander Hamilton is a force of nature who writes as if time is up. Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd finds expression with razors (“Finally, my arm is whole again!”) which he will use to shave the faces – and slit the throats – of gentlemen.

“Hamilton used his tongue to try to shift his position and Sweeney, who felt he couldn’t do it, had to rely on his skills, which weren’t the language but really it was this creative act that made it destructive,” adds Kail.

As the comparison suggests, there can rarely have been a Sweeney Todd production in which audiences root for the eponymous anti-hero with such abandon (during a preview, his bloody consignment of innocent customers was met with effusive applause). .

The first clue is in the casting: Sweeney is played by Josh Groban, a classic-pop singer with the genial, impossible-to-not-love quality of a Jack Lemmon or Tom Hanks. From the moment Groban first appears, his face scarred by years of torment, it is clear that his vengeful motives stem from deep anguish. He is a Frankenstein’s monster, corrupted by a corrupted world.

This notion is reinforced by the parade of grotesques that populate Victorian London, a timely observation at a time when the malignant premise of the British empire is under historical scrutiny. Among them is the lecherous Judge Turpin who sent Sweeney, then Benjamin Barker, to an Australian penal colony for a crime he didn’t commit, plundered his wife and trapped their daughter, all with the help of the oily Beadle Bamford.

Kail comments, “We were interested in acknowledging and accepting the fact that Benjamin Barker was a person who became Sweeney Todd and so we wanted to see him become. When Josh takes the stage and talks about his wife and this desire and this child, you feel that pain. It’s in him.

“Josh has many gifts and one of them is his ability to make us believe in the depth of his feelings, because he’s really feeling those things. That’s what we were building from: if Josh is Sweeney, then how he informs everything else and then every other piece of fusion and architecture and light emanates from that. I was so impressed with it the first time I saw it on the material.

Kail, the son of a lawyer and archivist who grew up near Washington, reflects that much of his work has been about people losing their ability to do what they feel they were born to do. One example is dancer Gwen Verdon in her television drama Fosse/Verdon (with Michelle Williams, now wife of Kail). It was a disorientation that has become familiar during the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down Broadway for nearly 18 months, the longest shutdown in its history.

“In a lot of the stuff I’ve done there’s this idea of ​​dealing with what happens if who you are gets taken and I realized, oh, that’s Sweeney too. He comes back, he’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s someone in a job that she loves and two of those things are taken and one stays, so he uses that as a way to seek justice.

The humanity in Groban’s performance, and in Kail’s interpretation, belies the notion that Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics for Sweeney Todd, is all head and no heart, all spirit and no feeling. It is an accusation that is also leveled at the playwright Tom Stoppard, just as unfairly. Kail, for example, never believed it.

“If you look at Sondheim’s work, there is the deepest pain in Company and Follies. There is longing in Merrily [We Roll Along]. I mean, she wrote a show called Passion, let alone Sunday in the Park [with George]. There is so much deep feeling and I was interested in this idea of ​​taking the melodramatic propulsive form and still exploring the human moments. Those were ideas that we talked about a lot in the room. It’s everywhere and we wanted to bring it to the fore.”

Sondheim passed away at the age of 91 in November 2021, just as the production of Sweeney – which Groban first pitched to Kail in 2019 – was in the making.

Thomas Kaill

Thomas Kaill Photography: Adela Loconte/REX/Shutterstock

Kail recalls: “I think there were 10 of us in a room on November 28 and Sondheim died on the 26th, so it took on a whole other meaning. It was like being in a chapel. We walked into this room and there was nothing but music. They were just lecterns and these actors and it allowed me to start visualizing the world.

“After that we all felt encouraged and encouraged and we wanted to do it in a way that made Steve proud because we knew he wouldn’t be able to see it. Steve was supposed to come to our reading that Friday and so we were bringing him along as well.

Sondheim had watched and admired Sweeney’s less is more productions. There was a 1989 version with a small cast and synthesizer soundtrack dubbed “Teeny Todd,” a 2005 John Doyle production with 10 actor-musicians, and a 2017 version set in a cake shop that lasted longer than any other Sweeney before or since.

But Kail went the other way with a big budget, a 25-actor cast, and the show’s first 26-actor orchestration since its premiere in 1979-80. The result is a dark and dazzling Greek tragedy under the arches of Victorian London, with Annaleigh Ashford in exquisitely rebellious form as Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who puts Sweeney’s victims through the meat grinder.

No one doubts that this is a major theatrical event: one could cut through the atmosphere with a razor blade. In a preview, Guardian critic Alexis Soloski noted: “The audience greeted the opening notes with the wild enthusiasm of the crowd at a boy band concert. Were these fans of Groban? O Stan of Sondheim? Or the Kail supporters who had followed him across the street from Hamilton? This is a show that confirms the worst suspicions of human nature and lets most of the dramatis personae die. But the crowd? Era amplified.”

While he saw that the little Sweeneys could be beautiful, it’s hard to imagine that Sondheim would have remained unmoved by this beautifully sung Gesamtkunstwerk..

Kail reflects, “There’s something Steve said in an interview about the job: I just want it done and done and done. I thought of all the Sweeneys that have existed in all forms: bakeries, John Doyles and overseas and everywhere. I thought there was something about the power of the score and trying to unleash the power of the score.

“There’s an initial impulse that something could have scope and scale, but we could also explore the humanity within it, and that we didn’t have to make Sweeney Todd’s output small to investigate even small moments. I was interested in that contrast. Could you do both?

“But I also wanted to hear those 26 pieces. I wanted to sit in the back of the house and have the hair on my neck stand up just like everyone else and listen to those orchestrations. The sitzprobe of this show is one of my happiest theater memories: being in that building and everyone crying as soon as the brass came in. You hear those fiddles for Sweeney’s entrance and you can’t believe it.

In such moments one has the feeling of Sondheim at the height of his powers after a decade of unparalleled fecundity: Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd (1979 ) – all directed by Broadway titan Hal Prince. Kail has so far directed two Miranda musicals: In the Heights (2005) and Hamilton (2015). Miranda has channeled some of her prodigious energy into several Disney projects to electrifying effect; even so, musical theater fans might think her next big collaboration with Kail is overdue.

The director says, “I don’t want to speak for Lin, but I’ll say this: It was important for me to keep doing things so that it didn’t become: What’s the thing you’re going to do next? A year after Hamilton happened and opened on Broadway, I had done three or four very different things. I’d done little shows for a hundred people in an audience, I’d done a live musical [Grease Live! for television] and I just thought, OK, now there’s no what’s next? I did the next things.

“It takes so long to make a new musical and Lin and I have done a lot of things together. The two musicals we made together took five or six years each. We definitely did not say: and now we need to come up with another one. When you look at Prince and Sondheim in the 1970s, you realize, well, that was a moment that can’t be repeated. When you recognize what happened between 1970 and 1979, it will never happen again.

But Kail, who was close to Prince until his death in 2019, adds: “This idea of ​​wanting to be part of a theater community is so present to Lin and I and so we always want to feel connected to it in that way. There are writers writing while you and I talk – I can’t wait to see what they’re doing.”

He was reminded of this during a recent visit to the Drama Book Shop that he, Miranda and other Hamilton alumni helped save a few years ago (Kail and Miranda had worked on In the Heights there). “Two people huddled on that table, three people over there — I was like, oh, they’re doing the next thing. That’s what’s on the horizon, so I’m as excited to see it as anyone.

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