PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sweeney Todd: Streamlining Sondheim

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sweeney Todd: Streamlining Sondheim
 
Hal Prince's mighty landmark production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in 1979 ended not with a bang but with a violent door-slam that has reverberated in the collective consciousness of musical-theatre buffs ever since. And on Nov. 3—when Ol' Sweeney, in his third Broadway coming, set up his butchering barber shop at the Eugene O'Neill—it did much to rid the theatre of its recent Good Vibrations.
Stephen Sondheim; Patti LuPone; Manoel Felciano & Nancy Anderson; Michael Cerveris; Benjamin Magnuson; Lauren Molina; Mark Jacoby; Alexander Gemignani.
Stephen Sondheim; Patti LuPone; Manoel Felciano & Nancy Anderson; Michael Cerveris; Benjamin Magnuson; Lauren Molina; Mark Jacoby; Alexander Gemignani. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

This London-born reincarnation—"directed and designed by John Doyle," reads the Playbill title page—begins and ends with such a door-slam, taking place in the shattered psyche of Tobias, the slow-witted waif who slammed the door on Mrs. Lovett's dubious good-eats factory in the first place. In this retelling, the innocent Tobias has become understandably unhinged by the calamitous events and been committed to a madhouse to over-attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, going over it again and again in perpetual replay.

Taking a classic story from a different perspective is not unlike looking in the wrong end of the telescope (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for handy example), and that's the vision Doyle boldly bulldozed onto Broadway. "I never thought of it as courageous," he confessed after the fact, at the elaborate after-party held at The Copacabana where waiters would rush up to the somewhat shaken first-nighters with trays of . . . meat pies!

"I was just thinking I was doing what I do, you know what I mean? I was trying to tell the story in an honest way, and it's wonderful to see it in this kind of glitzy circumstances."

Doyle was a bit dazed by his Broadway debut, but otherwise unfazed by the hard work he put into making it happen. "That's how I always work. You've just gotta believe in what you do. The actors were fantastic. They really joined me, and we had a wonderful time."

This ten-member cast functioned like the population of Rhode Island, singing and acting and playing a whole spectrum of musical instruments—Patti LuPone, the unexpected percussionist tripling on tuba and triangle, to give you an idea—and, if you had done a slow pan of the opening-night audience, you would spot a lot of radiant elderly faces who are at last seeing a payback for all those years of music lessons they'd paid for in the past. So successful was this cast-as-orchestra go-around for Doyle that he intends to go back for seconds on Sondheim, having won Stephen's approving nod for a production of Company at the Cincinnati Playhouse. (Doyle has applied the technique on many shows in his native UK.) Casting director Bernard Telsey and music coordinator John Miller will again put their heads together to come up with another multitasking miracle. "This was really hard," Telsey readily allowed, "but what was great was it started with people coming in and just playing their instruments and doing what they do best and seeing how they fit. John Miller's amazing. He knows what he wants, and he's willing to work with what people have. He's pretty inspiring. I'm looking forward to a repeat."

David Loud, who has the unusual billing of "Resident Music Supervisor," was also a key player in creating the Sweeniest sounds, but "This is the hardest thing I've ever been involved with. Omigod! Sarah Travis did the music supervision and orchestrations. The director would say to her, `Well, you can't have him here because he has to move the ladder at this point,' so she had to sorta orchestrate around that. Those were challenges, but there's something so honest and raw about seeing them perform the music and act it."

In addition to the parts they play, the Playbill lists the instruments they play. The Tobias of the evening, Manoel Felciano, swings from violin to clarinet to keyboard, and professed not to be confused by it all. "It's actually not difficult because of the way this piece has been directed," he said. "When you're playing an instrument, you are actively part of it—it is an acting decision, an acting moment. There are lines that I play on the violin that could be lines of dialogue. If I play the beggar woman's theme, it's almost like my character is commenting on the scene. In `Not While I'm Around,' with Patti, there is a moment when the music is really saying, `He's going to harm you.' It's sort of eerie."

This is not Felciano's first encounter with The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. "I've played it before—it was the second musical I ever experienced in my life, and it was in college. Ironically, I played the violin in the pit for it. Now, I'm on stage, still playing the violin."

He enjoys the fact that this show all takes place inside his character's disarrayed head. "It's an enormous benefit to me as an actor—and a privilege—because I get to watch all the action. And when you have people like Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris doing the work for you, it's a pleasurable thing to witness. It's an education, to be honest about it."

Cerveris, who had a relatively small body count in his last Sondheim (Assassins) but still enough to collect a Tony for his John Wilkes Booth, startled some first-nighters with the gravitas and darkness that he brought to Sweeney. "You know what it is?" he reflected later. "You gotta have it to stand up to Patti. If you're going to play with Patti LuPone, you gotta bring the big guns." Their chemistry is palpable. "I think this is the fourth show and the fifth production we've done together. We so love working with each other."

In one of their scenes on opening night, half of Cerveris' tie was lying over his shoulder, and LuPone sweetly reached over and made the proper adjustment—a light and loving gesture that speaks volumes for how well they play together. "She looks after me," he admitted.

Although he more than makes up for it in the heavy-duty acting department, he was almost apologetic about his lightweight instrumental antics (basically, only the guitar). "I didn't have as much musical responsibility as everybody else, but it's all a part of the seamless whole in John's way of working. Everything is a part of everything else, so playing a bunch of instruments is not a chore. It's, like, `What can I get to do next?'"

This is, by actual count, LuPone's fourth Mrs. Lovett. She previously played it at Avery Fisher Hall, Ravina and with the San Francisco Symphony. Another time, another Lovett, she said. "That was my Victorian. This is my modern day. I count it my second interpretation. I had a different director so everything's different. The whole thing is different."

Indeed, it's a Patti LuPone you have not seen before, padded just short of the Lou Jacobs point and poured into tattered fishnet stockings and blowzy black sequins. She also sports a Louise Brooks black wig, which wigmaker extraordinaire Paul Huntley said was Doyle's idea. "He felt Mrs. Lovett was slightly over-the-top and dressed her too young."

Four Broadway bows are marked in this edition Sweeney Todd, including the actors who play the two young lovers, Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina. Both make beautiful music together—and on the same instrument, too: the cello. "It couldn't have been more accurately directed, with Anthony and Johanna both playng the cello," said Molina. "I just adore that. The sound of the cello makes you weep. It's one of those instruments that get inside of you and just sings. I love how it creates the character. As far as playing Johanna, the cello sounds so much like the human voice, and it's such a poetic, beautiful instrument. But I never imagined it would be this integral in my life right now."

Truth to tell, she has taken a slide from practice in recent years. "I studied from when I was eight until my senior year in high school, and then it was dabbling with the cello off and on since then. But I picked it up for this, and now I'm enthusiastic about the cello."

Magnuson was hired a week after he graduated from Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music so he didn't even get a chance to put the cello in the case. "I love the fact that Anthony's expression is an extension of his cello. Everything he does or says is what he feels." He said he didn't have a problem juggling the acting and instrumentalizing. His reasoning was quite logical: "When you forget about one, the other kinda takes over."

Yes, agreed Mark Jacoby, "it is hard to play a musical instrument, and it is hard to do my role." He plays the evil judge—sans a beard. "The director didn't want an extreme villain type. He wanted the guy to be very straightforward and—I don't want to say `ordinary.' He wanted an ordinary man who has an extraordinary problem." In the makeshift orchestra scheme of things, Jacobs is the horn section. "I played actively as a high school person and in college, and I wanted to be a professional trumpeter, but then I got more interested in the acting, and that kinda drifted away from me so, when this job came up, I got back to it as quickly as I could." Practice got him up to professional speed.

Paul Gemignani, who conducted the original Sweeney Todd and just about every Sondheim show on Broadway before and since, was perfectly content to let the born-again tyro orchestra fight it out for themselves on stage. He was attending the opening night as the proud parent of The Beadle, Alexander Gemignani, last seen on Broadway as John Hinckley among the Assassins but here as grist for Sweeney's mill.

Since he spent more time at the keyboard than anybody else, there was a certain torch-passing sense that a Gemignani was in control. The music they made, he said, "came out of necessity when we were staging things. There is so much other stuff to worry about. The last thing you're concerned about is acting. You're so concerned about everybody else, like giving somebody a cue or moving a chair. It's like you are your own last concern. That's why it's an ensemble piece. Everyone would say the same thing: It's like `I don't want to mess this up. It'll throw him off if I do something wrong here.'"

An unforeseen asset about Gemignani in the show is that he looks the period. In fact, with the handlebar mustache, he resembles Laird Cregar, an actor he'd never heard of. Cregar's last film, Hangover Square, is said to be high on Sondheim's list of favorites. A much-used character actor in '40s films, Cregar wanted to give the demented pianist he played in that film a romantic veneer so he shed a hundred pounds, but the diet cost him his life at age 28.  

Among the first-nighters welcoming Sweeney Todd back to town were three Tony-winning Texans—Phylicia Rashad, Tommy Tune and Terrence McNally. Tune, who'll start rehearsing his 22-tuned Doctor Doolittle for touring Nov. 28, was comparing notes before the show with Nancy Anderson, who just bounced back to town from a Doolittle tour that did little. McNally arrived from rehearsals with Douglas Sills, Lillias White and David Marshall Grant in Some Men, a play he will premiere shortly in Pennsylvania.

Other Tony winners: Phyllis Newman, Heidi Ettinger, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Kathleen Marshall, Daryl Roth and a pair of Master Class winners who've worked the wilds of Ravina with Cerveris and/or LuPone, Zoe Caldwell and Audra MacDonald. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz and Drama Desk Award-winning costumer Isaac Mizrahi, both currently going back for seconds (Cruz via Beauty of the Father at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II on Jan. 10 and Mizrahi via Barefoot in the Park at the Cort on Feb. 16).

Longtime LuPone fanatic John Benjamin Hickey zipped in from that other coast between Million Dollar Baby films, after finishing Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima flick (Flags of Our Fathers) and before starting Hilary Swank's L.A. riots saga (Freedom Riders). Danny Gurwin, on the arm of one of his Little Women (Megan McGinnis), took in Sweeney Todd before taking off for California to prepare for a pilot about gay thirtysomethings. It's called "Christopher Street," but—surprise, surprise—it takes place in New Orleans. "Filming is to start in the French Quarter in February," he said, "so, hopefully, everything will be squared away by that time." 

Then there was Sondheim, ever the phantom at his own premieres. The most unoccupied table of the evening had the sign "Sondheim & Guests." The Great Man had taken shelter at an adjacent table where he went into an intense huddle with his frequent collaborator John Weidman. Gradually, the cast and assorted stars clustered around him and he was expansive, giving every indication that he was profoundly pleased with the evening. And that was as close as anybody go to a press statement. At one point, John Barlow, (not for nothing is he a public relations kingpin) pried Sondheim loose from his table and paraded him through a papparazzi gauntlet where flashbulbs exploded. No actual words transpired. Nothing, nada, as Cindy Adams might say.

Everything Stephen Sondheim had to say was up there on the stage of the Eugene O'Neill

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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