From May 11-20th Pit & Balcony Theatre will be presenting Sweeney Todd (The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) to close out its 2012 season, which is arguably one of the greatest and certainly most unusual and challenging works of musical theatre ever created for the contemporary stage.
Rooted in a Victorian London legend, the tale first appeared in 1846 in London's The Peoples' Periodical, and the original story was titled 'The String of Pearls: A Romance. Over the next century, the play was rewritten for film and ballet before Christopher Bond and Stephen Sondheim took up the considerable challenge of adapting this grisly tale for the stage, this time as a musical.
The tale of Sweeney Todd opens on the London docks, where two men have just returned to England after years abroad. One is Todd, who has returned home to exact his revenge on the Judge who had him unjustly transported and took his family from him. With the help of one Mrs. Lovett, he sets up a barbershop on Fleet Street and lies in wait for his prey. The original Broadway production of this new version of the play opened in 1973, starring Angela Landsbury and George Hearn and was a huge success, winning eight Tony Awards. Most recently, it was made into a movie by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp as the nefarious Todd.
With the talent of Sondheim driving the libretto, music is the driving and mystical power behind this engrossing story of passion, revenge, and blood lust. So it is entirely fitting that Pit & Balcony has brought in Director Michael Walling to stage this ambitious production.
Sweeney Todd will mark the 24th Directing project that Walling has involved himself with at Pit & Balcony. He served as Artist Director for the 1998-199 and 1999-2000 season and this is his first opportunity to direct this landmark production, which also will feature a 10-piece orchestra compiled of local professional musicians, with Sara Taylor serving as Musical Conductor.
Michael Walling is a New York City based Stage Director & educator that for nearly two decades has returned to the Great Lakes Bay area to bring his own original signature to traditional American theatre at Pit & Balcony. This summer he will be directing 'Legally Blonde' and in the summer he will be directing Floyd Collins' 'The Musical' at Whitman College in Washington.
Recently I sat down with Walling between rehearsals to discuss the challenges and vision that Walling is bringing into this ambitious production to shape and sculpt it for local audiences.
Review: One of the things that makes Sweeney Todd such a fascinating musical is the fact that when it first debuted on Broadway it was so controversial because of its subject material, coupled with unusual fodder to build a Broadway musical around. Of course, today there have been many productions of it, including Tim Burton's excellent film version; but I am curious from your directorial perspective, what do you feel distinguishes this work in the lexicon of American Theatre; and what do you feel are its strongest attributes?
Walling: In the early 1980s Sweeney Todd was considered to be one of the most profound Musical Theatre works of its time. It pushed peoples' imagination on what's possible with storytelling on the stage. The music was so plot driven one had to stay alert and follow the lyrics to get the back-story of the characters. At times the off-color humor in the script merged with bloody images on stage, allowing the audience to watch or choose not to. That kind of shock value was new to the theatre community in the 80's. Today with the invention of the 'jukebox musicals', which is using pop music to sculpt a show, original musicals are almost unheard of. Sweeney's music and story telling is so complex that few modern musicals can even match the one of a kind creative originality that it brings to the stage.
Review: What do you feel are the biggest challenges involved with staging this production and what elements in this play do you feel are pivotal for the audience to follow?
Walling: Today we have a new generation of listening skills. We want information fast and need to move on to the next visual image quickly. As a Stage Director, I'm sensitive to the needs of the audience and feel it's my job to know when I'm presenting too much information or visual chaos on the stage and we need to move forward.
My version of Sweeney Todd is designed to help you relax and listen. With limited visual distractions, the few scenic elements are beautiful yet serve a multitude of functions. The combination of all this allows you to grasp the words and hang onto the story with clarity. Jack Mahler, a New York City scenery designer, helped me to create the new dynamic universe Sweeney lives in for this 2012 Pit & Balcony production.
Review: Can you tell me about the cast - who is in the play and was it difficult to cast? Also what do you feel are some of their strong points?
Walling: The cast is an accomplished group of local performers and all are veterans of the stage with a tremendous working knowledge of music. The auditions were one of the best-attended casting calls in the history of Pit & Balcony filled at packed sessions with very talented artists. This is a testimony to the significance of Sweeney Todd's material and how the local artists just wanted to have an opportunity to be part of something so exciting.
Sweeney Todd will be presented at Pit & Balcony Theatre, 805 N. Hamilton St. in Old Town Saginaw on May 11, 12, 18, 19 at 8 PM and May 13, 20 at 3 PM. All tickets are $22.00 per person and you may purchase tickets by going to the Pit & Balcony website at www.pitandbalconytheatre.com. Tickets may also be purchased by phoning 989-754-6587.