- Finian Hackett
Broadway's Bloodiest Success - The Many Productions of Sweeney Todd
Earlier this year, I was supposed to take part in a local production of Sweeney Todd. I was so looking forward to performing in my first ever Sondheim show, so fingers crossed the new date in 2021 will go ahead. When I started rehearsals I didn't actually know that much about the show's history, but over the last year I have become a big Sweeney fan. So lets take a look at the many productions of this murderous tale...
God, That's Good!
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened cold on Broadway in 1979 after having no previews elsewhere (the set was too complicated to transport around the country!). Sondheim had been writing the show throughout the 70s and it was an extremely experimental piece at the time. Harold Prince, the show's eventual director, was not too convinced at first; neither was Angela Lansbury, one of the show's stars, but after much deliberation they were both on board, along with Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd. The opening night cast also featured Victor Garber as Anthony, Sarah Rice as Johanna, Edmund Lyndeck as Judge Turpin and Ken Jennings as Tobias. The production was extremely well received and was nominated for 9 Tonys, winning a whopping 8 (including Best Musical, Book and Score). The show's two Tony winning stars, Cariou and Lansbury, left the show in early 1980 and were replaced with George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon. Angela Lansbury and George Hearn headed the US Tour after the Broadway production closed in June 1980, after 557 performances. Below is 'The Worst Pies in London' performed by Lansbury from the 1982 recording of the tour.
No Place Like London
The original London production of Sweeney Todd opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1980 and starred British actors Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock. The show was nowhere near as successful and received a lukewarm reception. Although only running for 157 performances, the show did receive three Olivier nominations and won two, Best Actor in a Musical and Best New Musical.
The first revivals
The first two major Broadway and West End revivals were in 1989 and 1993 respectively. The Broadway revival opened just 9 years after the original had closed. It had originally opened off-Broadway and then transferred to the Circle In The Square Theatre. Known as 'Teeny Todd' this production was a lot more intimate than the original and there is weirdly very little information available about it. No cast recording, no videos, hardly any production photos. It's all a bit weird! The short lived production managed to gain four Tony noms but failed to win any. Four years later, London staged its first revival at the National Theatre. First opening at the smaller Cottesloe Theatre, it starred Alun Armstrong and Julia McKenzie with Adrian Lester as Anthony and original West End 'Sweeney' Denis Quilley as Judge Turpin. This production went on to win 4 Oliviers for Best Director, Best Actress in a Musical for McKenzie, Best Actor in a Musical for Armstrong and Best Musical Revival. It then transferred to the larger Lyttleton Theatre where Quilley took over the title role once more.
An actor-muso breakthrough!
In 2004, John Doyle directed an actor-musician production of Sweeney Todd at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. The cast of just 10 played all the music and the show was a hit, transferring to the Trafalgar Studios and then the Ambassadors Theatre too. The following year, a version of this production transferred to New York and was lead by Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. LuPone was on tuba and percussion and Cerveris was on guitar! It was an extremely cheap show and cost just $3.5 million which isn't a lot for Broadway! It was nominated for six Tonys and picked up two for direction and orchestrations. Above is the cast performing at the 2006 Tony Awards.
The 2010s saw a multitude of productions pop up in London and in New York. The first was the 2011 Chichester Festival Theatre production starring British stage legends Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. The limited run transferred to London the following year. The most notable thing about this production was the changing of when the show is set. Traditionally set in 1846 Victorian England, this version was set in the 1930s. Doing this created a whole new aspect to the show and helped it gain 6 Olivier nominations, winning three: Best Revival (the only show to win this award more than once), Best Actor for Ball and Best Actress for Staunton. Most recently, New York and London have been treated to an extremely intimate production in an actual pie shop! It opened in Harringtons Pie Shop in Tooting, London in 2015 and was a huge success. The show, with just an 'orchestra' of 3, then opened in 2017 at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, which had been made to imitate the London pie shop. Both productions served real hot pies to the audience to eat before and during the show! Below are Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello, from the off-Broadway production, singing 'A Little Priest'.
Sweeney Todd: The Concert Favourite!
There have been soooo many productions of Sweeney all over the world but it has had some huge concert productions starring some massive names...
Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski - Los Angeles, 1999
Len Cariou and Judy Kaye - London, 2000
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski - Washington D.C., 2002
George Hearn and Patti LuPone - New York and San Francisco, 2000/2001
Bryn Terfel and Maria Friedman - London, 2007
Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson - New York and London, 2014/2015
Some of the other actors in these wonderful productions include Audra McDonald, Neil Patrick Harris, Phillip Quast, Victoria Clark, Christian Borle, Erin Mackey, John-Owen Jones and Rosalie Craig (to name just a few!)
You could say that Sweeney is actually the most produced of all Sondheim shows and it seems to have a new production almost every few years. So does this mean a new gruesome take on this show is around the corner? I think so!
Let me know what your favourite production of Sweeney is in the comments below!