As Sondheim’s most gruesome musical, Sweeney Todd has had a long and sometimes difficult journey into West End success. From humble beginnings in both London and New York, the show has spawned multiple professional revivals around the world, opera concerts, a blockbuster Tim Burton movie as well as living a fruitful life on the amateur and high school stage. The problem of form affected the show early on, with fans not knowing exactly where the show fell. Was it a musical? Hal Prince was directing. Was it an opera? Elements of the score would suggest so. Nowadays the show seems to be wedged somewhere between the two, with professional opera companies the world over presenting concert performances, along with new revivals by directors such as John Doyle and Jonathan Kent reinventing the show for new audiences.
Much of the show’s success, and indeed the success of its London revival comes from the strength of the lead characters. Any actor worth his salt has either Sweeney or Mrs Lovett in their ‘bucket list’ of ‘must-doos’, and thanks to the flexibility of the characters successful performances have been as widely removed as Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, to Jason Donovan and most recently Michael Ball. Actors can approach these roles in an individual way, not worrying about whose shoes they are stepping into but rather how they can make those shoes unique. That being said, there are many hidden traps along the way for actors to fall into, as the score is so delicately written that even songs that on first listen sound dainty and facetious upon study prove to be brutally demanding and difficult to deliver. In an interview with the Guardian Imelda Staunton likened Sondheim to Shakespeare, saying that Mrs Lovett was one of the hardest parts she has ever had to play. Every word was specifically chosen, with each pause, rest and beat carefully created to stir some form of reaction from the audience. As rewarding as these parts are to play, the demands they place on the actors who rise to the challenge are unlike others in the modern musical theatre repertoire.
Sondheim himself jokes that his work only becomes ‘fashionable’ (and by fashionable he means commercial) once they are revived, and Sweeney is no exception. Critics have had a difficult relationship with Sondheim over the years, with many growing to appreciate his work a second or third time around. As genius as it seems to be, the average theatre goer can feel excluded from shows such as ‘Assassins’ or ‘A Little Night Music’ as the humour and characterisation are less obvious than other musicals with the wit and charm coming directly from the lyrics themselves. Sweeney Todd’s first incarnation in London was seen as a commercial flop, as it struggled to fill the vast Theatre Royal Drury Lane in an original production which starred homegrown talent Sheila Hancock. After opening in July 1980 the production closed after only 157 performances, despite mixed-to-favourable reviews. The show did however end up winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical, with Dennis Quilley (who collected the award saying that he was sure it would come back in some form for a longer run.
The first London revival occurred in 1993 courtesy of the Royal National Theatre on London’s South Bank, directed by Declan Donnallan. Having shown a previous success rate with musicals, the show was presented in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre – the smallest of the building’s three houses. Starring Julia Mckenzie as Mrs Lovett and Alun Armstrong in the title role, the show was praised for its staging and its regression back to that of a chamber piece. Both leads ultimately won Olivier Awards for their performances, along with the award for Best Musical Revival. The show was a first for the RNT in a string of successful musical revivals which included Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’.
Ten years later the razor was raised again, this time under the creative helm of John Doyle, who presented the show in a unique way. Combining the cast and orchestra with a talented ensemble of actor-musicians Doyle’s production opened at the Watermill Theatre in Newburry in the Summer of 2004. The 10 piece ensemble performed the entire score from memory, sparking a new wave of actor-musician revivals of musicals. Starring Paul Hegarty as Todd and Karen Mann as Mrs. Lovett the production transferred to Trafalgar Studios and the Ambassadors Theatre in London. These productions marked the first time in ten years since a Sondheim show have been commercially produced in the West End, and transferred to Broadway in 2005 where it opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre starring Michael Cervaris and Patti LuPone.
Cut to 2011 where Jonathan Kent’s production opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. Having hosted the 2011 Oliver Awards together, the duo announced they were excited to work on the project. After rave reviews and endorsement by Sondheim himself, the production transferred to the Adelphi Theatre in London opening officially on March 20th 2012. The show ran for 6 months and closed on September 22nd 2012.
A new, semi staged, production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street will run at the London Coliseum in association with the English National Opera and Grade Linnit Company from March 2015. The show will star Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel.