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'Sweeney Todd' was always meant to be an opera

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2012 - The wickedly dark comic musical, operetta or opera - call it what you please - “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” opens May 26 at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

In its 37 seasons, this is only OTSL's second production of a work by Stephen Sondheim, whom many consider the finest American dramatic musical composer of the second half of the 20th century. The cast is working to put “Sweeney Todd” in its best light with mostly classically trained singers on stage and the St. Louis Symphony orchestra in the pit. 

Sondheim wrote one role for Angela Lansbury, that is, for a gifted comedian who can sing a bit. Opera Theatre  went to Broadway for that and cast Karen Ziemba in that role as the pie maker.

“Our (production of Sondheim’s) 'A Little Night Music' two years ago by all accounts never sounded better anywhere,” said Stephen Lord, OTSL music director who is conducting “Sweeney” and who has been preparing the singers for three weeks.

“'Night Music’ was such a success. The St. Louis public really seemed to like it. One of the responsibilities of a cultural institution is to listen to your public, to what they want,” he said.

More companies are pulling in fine opera singers to present much of Sondheim’s work. Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Royal Opera House Convent Garden both have presented “Sweeney” in recent years, Lord said.

Before some opera lovers get snooty and go high hat about St. Louis’ internationally ranked opera company doing a musical, they might consider that the worlds of top quality music in theater or opera houses or jazz clubs are blending. American musicals often offer stronger story lines.

For example, Lyric Opera of Chicago is producing the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein “Showboat,” which in 1927 dared to explore the then-outlawed marriage of a white man and a black woman. “Showboat” demands a classically trained voice to give “Ol’ Man River” its deserved glory. Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” with lyrics by Sondheim, and Bernstein’s “Candide” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” long have benefited in opera house from operatic voices and full orchestras.

Broadway shows often have fewer than a dozen musicians playing in their orchestra pits, Lord said, adding that America’s best musicals deserve more.

An experienced barber

Sondheim turned up last summer at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet during a four-week “Sweeney” run that had approximately 50 musicians in the pit.

Sondheim told the Paris cast that its production was “his dream ‘Sweeney’,” baritone Rod Gilfry said. He sang the title role in that Paris production and will sing it here, also.

After nearly three weeks rehearsing the role with a piano accompanist the cast’s first rehearsal with orchestra was on stage at Powell Hall this week and Gilfry was impressed by the orchestra’s “fantastic sound.”

“It’s a genius piece, really a masterpiece,” the LA baritone said, in an interview after his morning run in Forest Park. “I am finding new things in the lyrics that are so important, so clear and take the story so much deeper.”

“Sondheim’s music is really amazing, like working with Bach,” Gilfry said. “His music is so rich that you can give it all kinds of different treatments and productions, and it stands up to them. Like you can do Bach on the banjo or switched on in electronic music like they did in the ‘70s and it works.”

Gilfry said the music is “of such high quality with such demands on the voices most of its roles are best sung by classically trained singers.”

Gilfry has top credentials as an opera singer here and in Europe. He sang Stanley Kowalski, the character Tennessee Williams named for a St. Louis International Shoe Co. worker, for the 1998 world premiere of André Previn's “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the San Francisco Opera.

In addition to singing with many major repertory operas, Gilfry devoted all of the 2009-10 season to singing Rodgers and Hammerstein. He was Emile de Becque in “South Pacific” in Lincoln Center’s U.S. tour and sang Captain Von Trapp in “Sound of Music” at Châtelet in Paris.

“'Sweeney' is on the border of musical theater and opera,” Gilfry said. "The roles of Beadle and Dr. Perelli have to be classically trained tenors. Perelli has a high D and high C. Most musical theater singers don’t have the chops for that.”

In the OSTL production, tenor Scott Ramsay makes his OTSL debut as Beadle and OTSL Gerdine Young Artist tenor Anthony Webb plans to hit the high D as Dr. Perelli.

“Sweeney’ is best done by opera companies,” Gilfry said. “I love this role. ...  I’ll just go anywhere to do this role.”

What’s it all about?

“Sweeney Todd” is set in 19th-century London on Fleet Street, close by the River Thames. Along the street, rough dangerous characters, including malevolent swells, stop for a shave at the barber’s. As the musical begins Sweeney has returned to London after years in prison, a sentence he says was unjust.

Sondheim describes Sweeney in a lyric: "His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentleman who never thereafter were heard of again. They went to their Maker impeccably shaved by Sweeney … the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett who had been running short of meat filling gets Sweeney to provide her a fresh supply.

The barber Sweeney has a beloved daughter, Johanna. The judge who sentenced Sweeney adopted and all but caged Johanna in luxury.

OTSL, like many opera companies and St. Louis' Shakespeare Festival, may freshen works by changing the authors’ original settings and time. For example, Georges Bizet’s 1875 “Carmen,” OTSL’s first production of the 2012 season, has been forwarded to the 1940s, just after the Spanish Civil War in Seville. The staged production is transformed into a black and white cinema verite-style production, which brings to mind Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women.”

“Sweeney” does not use a time machine.

“We are keeping ‘Sweeney' in Victorian England,” Lord said. “I don’t know how it would work any other way. You have to have the open sewers of Victorian London, the dangerous neighborhoods.”

Sondheim’s extraordinary lyrics demand precise enunciation, often at rapid speed. Adding to the challenge is that several singers are supposed to have rhyming Cockney accents of London’s East End residents. Opera diction coach Erie Mills is hard at work, and the company flew in dialect coach Stephen Gabis to work on Cockney, as well as upper- and lower-class Victorian English accents.

“There is so much more than getting the Cockney accent right, there’s a big difference in upper-class and lower-class British accents,” Lord said. “Many in the audience may not even notice, but we want to get it right.”

Lord’s has an ear for accents given that, as a young musician in the early 1970s, he got rid of his native Boston accent, which he described as a “bad Irish accent.”

Early this winter, Lord and OTSL artistic director James Robinson went over the scores of all four 2012 OTSL productions. Each highlighted key lines that will be projected as super titles during each performance. The idea is to provide enough lines to get the story across, not to give every line and distract the audience’s eyes from the stage, though Lord said he often marked everything on the page as essential. The company provides super titles with all productions even though all are sung in English.

“You can’t extract a suite from 'Sweeney' any more than you can from a Monteverdi opera. You can read the libretto to 'The Marriage of Figaro' and it’s like poetry alone, but you can’t do that with 'Sweeney Todd,'" Lord said. "Neither words nor music can stand on their own.”

Laughs come from many lines. Sweeney sings to Mrs. Lovett, “The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” Symphony chorus director Amy Kaiser can’t help from laughing at what she called Sondheim’s genius at rhymes. She’s tickled by a duet between the Sweeney and Lovett as they sing about her raw material:

“We’ve got a tinker” the barber sings. “Something pinker” the pie maker sings. And on the exchanges continue “Tailor,” “Something paler.” “Porter,” “Something hotter.” “Butler,” “Something subtler.”

“Genius rhyming imagine butler and subtler,” Kaiser said roaring with laughter as she recited the lines to her OTSL “Illuminations of Opera” class for opera buffs last month.

Kaiser suggested to her “Illuminations” students that they read lyrics before the show at a library or buy a libretto in advance at the OTSL boutiques in the Loretto-Hilton Center’s east lobby.

Roots of the musical

The revengeful meat pie idea is half a millennium old, but “Sweeney” expert Christopher Bond (an Englishman not the Missouri politician) said there is no evidence of any in England.

A 1830 melodrama by Englishman George Dibdin-Pitt featured a barber shaving meat for pies among his clientele. The play was presented in boisterous London houses for the lower classes known as “blood tubs,” not at West End theaters. In 1966 the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent in the English Midlands had big box office success doing a send-up of a Victorian melodrama. The management decided to give the public what they liked, and for its 1968 season announced they’d present Dibdin-Pitt’s “Sweeney Todd."

The busy company didn’t read the script until just two weeks before its first rehearsal. The script was pretty awful. Bond, one of the Stoke-on-Trent troupe’s actors, called it “hardly a plot, crude, simplistic and repetitive.” Bond, who was just 23, had written a novel the previous year. He volunteered to rework it in just a week. He kept Dibdin-Pitt’s title, razors, pies and a trick chair but looked for more ideas including the love of the barber for his daughter and a gutter snipe mom’s love for the same girl. Bond later wrote that he found plot ideas in Dumas' “The Count of Monte Cristo” and Tourneur’s “The Revenger’s Tragedy.”

Who's who

Conductor - Stephen Lord
Stage director - Ron Daniels
Set designer - Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer - Emily Rebholz

Sweeney Todd - Rod Gilfry
Mrs. Lovett - Karen Ziemba
Anthony Hope - Nathaniel Hackmann
Johanna - Deanna Breiwick
Tobias Ragg - Kyle Erdos Knapp
Judge Turpin - Timothy Nolen
Beggar Woman - Susanne Mentzer
Beadle - Scott Ramsay
Pirelli - Anthony Webb
Jonas Fogg - Marco Stefani
Bird Keeper - Jason Eck

Trivia buffs delight: Bond gave the bonny sailor boy the name of the author of “The Prisoner of Zenda.” For Mrs. Lovett, Bond said, he channeled the philosophy and sexual laments of a real live Brenda, the greengrocer who worked across the street from his boyhood home. Bond created the Cockney role of Tobias Ragg for himself.

Another English actor and part-time director in that Stoke-On-Trent company was Ron Daniels. As the Stoke-on-Trent troupe hurried to get the new “Sweeney” melodrama ready, Daniels offered some ideas including having the judge do a self-flagellation scene. He’s directing this OTSL production.

“That is often dropped but we are putting it in,” Lord said.

Daniels has directed the “Sweeney Todd” melodrama without music and directed operas, but this is his debut as director of the Sondheim “Sweeney Todd.” He said he is working hard to create Victorian London’s corrupt, unjust and dangerous world.

“Working with Ron is like working with Colin Graham again” Lord said. “It’s wonderful.” The late Graham, the company’s longtime artistic director, was very thorough, good on details and so is Daniels, Lord said.

Daniels and Lord first worked together when Daniels was at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and Lord was director of the Boston Lyric Opera.

“I brought him to the Boston Lyric Opera to direct Mozart’s 'Il Re Pastore,' which is an impossible opera as we saw here in 2009,” Lord recalled. They’ve also worked together on opera productions in Denver.

The farce was a huge success in England’s Midlands and in the mid-1970s was reprised in London. During that run, Sondheim saw the melodrama and wanted to recast the farce into an opera, not a musical. He always credits it as “from an adaptation by Christopher Bond.”

Sondheim wrote its music and his own lyrics, as he always does. He meant it to be a strict opera with only sung words but, en route to Broadway, it was deemed important to tell part of the story with dialogue. Sondheim teamed up again with playwright Hugh Wheeler (who also wrote the book for “A Little Night Music”) to write the “Sweeney’s” book. The musical version had its world premiere on Broadway in 1979.

The Close Shave

After his demon barber stops singing, Gilfry will head for a barber himself. He let his hair grew shaggy and long for the role. Now his daughter says it’s even longer than his son Marc, a lead singer with the psychedelic blues-rock group American Royalty. The senior Gilfry carefully will select a kindly barber so he’ll live to walk his daughter down the aisle on her July 7 wedding day.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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