Conjuring Sweeney Todd

By Puccio, Paul M. | The Sondheim Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Conjuring Sweeney Todd


Puccio, Paul M., The Sondheim Review


A gellery exhibit provides context and texture for a concer staging

When 4th Wall Theatre (a not-for-profit professional company in northern New Jersey) chose to include a concert reading of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd in its season (Oct. 29-31, 2009), all of us on the board of directors wanted to find ways to make the most of the experience for audiences. The company's mission is to produce less frequently performed musicals and plays; 4th Wall "is committed to ... making cutting edge works accessible and to fostering a positive theatre experience for artists and audience."

A concert production of any musical play presents challenges to that mission. Not all of the scenes are fully staged; there is minimal costuming; the set is typically more functional than representational; actor/singers do not have as much rehearsal time, and most are holding scores as they perform. A concert staging of Sweeney Todd poses particular challenges. As director Kate Swan observed, "On a grand scale, as in Hal Princee's original staging, the show forces you to enter the world of 19th-century industrial London, to travel from place to place, to watch Sweeney rise from the dead, to watch bodies sliding through trapdoors. It is a spectacle that supports its material." That spectacle would be missing from a concert staging.

We recognized that these limitations actually provided an opportunity to invite audiences to experience the play in ways that they might not so readily do while watching a fully staged production or screening Tim Burton's film: to listen carefully to the score that so effectively drives this tale and develops its characters and to focus their attention on the human stories that are at the heart of the play. Audiences would need to conjure the play in their imaginations.

Nevertheless, we did not want to lose the rich sense of context that a fully staged production provides - the texture of the historical period that costumes, sets and props create. Nor did we want to sacrifice the disturbing social and cultural implications of the story. As Sweeney reminds us, albeit in one of the score's most comical songs, he is concerned with "the history of the world."

Moreover, because 4th Wall is the resident theatre company at a small college, we wanted to offer the academic community a chance to engage with some of the dramatic, historical and social issues that Sweeney Todd opens up for audiences, including the particular social conditions of Victorian London, the psychological damage wrought by economic disparities, the ethical implications of seeking revenge and the structure and style of melodrama.

Serving as dramaturg, I wanted to invite audiences (especially the students attending the production) to reflect on some of those issues, without relying on a cumbersome study guide or extensive program note. I hoped to draw them into the world that the play both alludes to and creates. To this end, I collaborated with Barbara Isacson, director of the Bloomfield College library's media center, to develop an exhibit of Victorian objects, images and books. Our exhibit, "The Two Faces of Victorian England," explored some of the ways in which the era was full of contradictions, paradoxes and both social and psychological conflict. The exhibit brochure explained, "The Victorian Age made a fetish of respectability while celebrating the supremacy of the individual spirit. Rigid codes of dress and behavior coexisted with post-Romantic philosophies of independent thinking and a belief that personal effort can better the world; a strict class system dominated social relations while various social and religious movements aimed to upgrade public morals and recognize nobility in good deeds; and while propriety and dignity were social standards to which the middle classes aspired, desperate economic conditions smothered the lives of the poor."

Included in the exhibit were several items of Victorian clothing and accessories (from the Newark Museum's educational loan department): a girl's dress, a woman's bodice, a man's frock coat, women's shoes and gloves, a man's top hat and a woman's poke bonnet from the 1840s.

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