When Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street first appeared on Broadway in 1979, it was almost easy to regard the dark tale as something frivolous. Like so many stories, this was something dark told lightly.
Thus is its eternal paradox.
Though it was originally based on what some might call “pulp fiction” penned in the late 19th century, the somber storyline and jaunty musical has earned some gravitas over the years, moving from garish tale, to serious play, to musical.
As the musical’s author himself, Stephen Sondheim, once observed, “It had a weight to it… because the 1970 play’s author Christopher Bond wrote certain characters in blank verse. He also infused into it plot elements, from Jacobean tragedy and The Count of Monte Cristo. He was able to take all these disparate elements that had been in existence rather dully for a hundred and some-odd years and make them into a first-rate play.”
A Noise Within theater, prized for its quality productions of some of the best-known and highly regarded works in American and Shakespearean theater, will bring its own version of the musical to life currently in previews and running through March 17.
Geoff Elliot, one of two producing artistic directors at the theater—the other being his wife, Julia Rodriguez-Elliot—discussed the play with Pasadena Now, ruminating over its selection and importance.
Said Elliot, who will play the title role in the play, “ ‘Sweeney Todd’ has to be one of the greatest musicals to have ever been written.Stephen Sondheim is a genius.”
Elliot offered that his wife Julia, who is directing, is “focusing on the nature of inequality that exists both within the play and within our society,.”
But, he notes, the play is also a comedy.
“It’s incredibly funny and dynamic,” he explained. There are numbers that are simply hilarious because they’re so beautifully and cleverly written and so reflective of the human experience..”
The story is essentially about a good-hearted, hard-working young man in London, working as a well-regarded barber, who is suddenly falsely charged with mysterious crimes, and eventually convicted and banished to Australia for nearly 20 years by a “villainous” judge with an eye on Sweeney’s beautiful young wife.
Eventually escaping Botany Bay, Australia, he returns to London to find that his daughter, now grown up, has essentially been kidnapped by the sentencing judge.
Todd’s already fragile mind snaps. And we are off into the story.
Elliot notes that A Noise Within’s choice of Sweeney Todd is the product of a serious decision-making process.
“We’re very careful about the musicals that we choose,” he said. “The plays have to have a deep and resonant substance to them because our mission is to present great classic theater in all of its forms. Any musical that we choose has to be under that umbrella.
“It can’t just be any musical,” he stressed. “It needs to help us have a better understanding of what it means to be a human being.”
Cognizant of the fact that A Noise Within presents plays that might have been seen numerous times by audiences, Elliot pointed out, “We do everything we can to take a play that may have been done a thousand times and find new and relevant ways of giving it to our audiences.”