Edgy, anarchic musical ‘Sweeney Todd’ finally lands on the local stage
KickstArt’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical ‘Sweeney Todd’ will finally take to the Theatre On The Bay stage from Friday, February 19, after riveting Joburg audiences during the festive season at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre.
PETER TROMP chatted with Director STEVEN STEAD, as well as stars JONATHAN ROXMOUTH and CHARON WILLIAMS-ROS and got the nitty-gritty on this exciting showcase.
Many people loved your production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ earlier this year, myself included. You seem to have a penchant for slightly off kilter productions. What draws you to this kind of fare?
As a director (which is just another word for storyteller) I am attracted to stories that are provocative and edgy, with a dark aura and bit of an anarchic spirit. So the sort of musicals that appeal to me are the ones I have chosen to produce and direct, like ‘Cabaret’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Shrek’ and now ‘Sweeney Todd’. But while I am passionate about this sort of fare, I can also turn my hand to more middle of the road shows like ‘Annie’ and ‘Wizard of Oz’. Because I will always try and find that complex texture in the midst of the confection that makes for interesting, unpredictable storytelling. Aren’t those the best kind of stories?
For people unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre, what can they look forward to with ‘Sweeney Todd’?
An excellently sung, compellingly acted, beautifully designed and very faithful, non-gimmicky production of what I consider to be one of the greatest musical ever written.
How has it been being reunited with Jonathan Roxmouth and Charon Williams-Ros, after having directed them most recently in ‘Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense’ and ‘Cabaret’, respectively?
Bertie Wooster couldn’t be further away from ‘Sweeney Todd’. Jonathan and I share a deep passion for this musical, and have wanted to collaborate on it for some years, so it is a bit of a dream come true for both of us. And we are relishing working together on this. And Charon is a brilliant colleague with whom I always relish creating work. But I most recently directed her in ‘Sweeney Todd’ in Durban, when we premiered this production last year. She’s just got better with percolation. They both deliver power-house performances and are sensational, but also so great to work with; very collaborative and intelligent. And they take my notes. I must be doing something right.
Tum Burton’s film version came out in 2007. Have you used it as a frame of reference at all?
Yes: what NOT to do! I hated the film. While very stylish, it was unrelentingly dark and violent, with no humour, and I thought it missed the sly wit of the musical completely. It should be a roller coaster ride that is laugh out loud funny and then suddenly gripping, and suddenly heart breaking, always compelling. Burton’s film had me yawning and looking at my watch. And he cut so much great material.
Tell us about your character and how you went about inhabiting such a strange individual.
Sweeney Todd is a wronged man driven to mete out his own justice. We have all been there at some point I think. The pursuit of justice – especially at our own hands – is an addictive one. We all have that in us to a degree so finding that isn’t hard.
What are the main challenges with a Sondheim production?
Diction and clarity. He uses such specific linguistic choices. You cannot have a lapse moment and paraphrase. ‘Sweeney Todd’ is a house of cards and you dare not lose focus for one second.
How long does it usually take you to shake off a character after a production is done and dusted?
This was a particularly difficult one. Normally I take a day or so, but we ran in Joburg and then extended, so it was quite a prolonged period in the same space. I had to though, with ‘I’m Playing Your Song: The Marvin Hamlisch Story’ literally following the week after, and Marvin Hamlisch smiles a lot more (than Sweeney Todd).
Where does Mrs Lovett rank for you in the Dream Roles stakes?
It’s in the top three, along with Gypsy Rose Lee (‘Gypsy’) and Norma Desmond (‘Sunset Boulevard’).
Tell us about the character and your preparations.
Mrs Lovett is a wily, conniving, self-serving, and yet lovable villain who will stop at nothing to get what (or who) she wants. I worked on finding her voice first, which changes depending on the class of person she’s talking to. The rest fell into place after that with a lot of guidance from our brilliant director Steven Stead.
You won a Fleur du Cap award in Cape Town some years ago for your performance as Fräulein Schneider in ‘Cabaret’. How important is industry recognition to you?
Winning the Fleur du Cap was definitely a highlight. Of course it’s lovely to be recognised for your efforts. But in my head, the voices of others are not stronger than my own.
* ‘Sweeney Todd’ is currently scheduled to run until April 9.
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