Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at Center of Tomorrow La Scala! Dispute

News   Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at Center of Tomorrow La Scala! Dispute Tomorrow La Scala!, a new film from writer Francesa Joseph that received much acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, has been withdrawn from the Endinburgh Film Festival due to a controversy about its use of Stephen Sondheim songs. The Observer (U.K.) reported the news Aug. 18.

Tomorrow La Scala!, a new film from writer Francesa Joseph that received much acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, has been withdrawn from the Endinburgh Film Festival due to a controversy about its use of Stephen Sondheim songs. The Observer (U.K.) reported the news Aug. 18.

The film, starring Samantha Spiro, Shaun Dingwall, Kulvinder Ghir, Karl Johnson and Jessica Stevenson, concerns a small operetta company who stage a production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd inside a maximum security prison. The film uses several songs from Sondheim's Tony Award winning Sweeney Todd score, and although the composer had granted permission for an upcoming BBC2 airing and the Cannes screening, the original agreement did not grant any further theatrical screenings.

Sondheim's lawyer, John Breglio, told Playbill On-Line Aug. 19 that the film's producers were granted permission to "do this film for television distribution in the United Kingdom through the BBC. It's always been that, and it continues to be that." Breglio further explained, "The original deal was for television distribution [only]. They asked for one exception [for Cannes] and one exception only . . . and they promised us that they wouldn't expect any other further screenings because they recognized that it wasn't for theatrical distribution, which was always the understanding. And, when they came and asked for Edinburgh, we simply said, 'Look, we've always been consistent here. We gave you that one exception, but it would be misleading to have this now appear at the Edinburgh Festival, which is both for television and theatrical [releases], since it's not available [theatrically].'"

Ruth Caleb, a co-producer of Tomorrow La Scala told the Observer, "I am very sad indeed about this decision . . . Francesa wrote to Sondheim herself to ask for permission to show the film at Cannes. I know it is a musical that is very close to his heart, but we were hoping things would be okay. We are only just telling all the people involved with the firm what has happened." Breglio added, "Nothing has changed as far as Stephen Sondheim is concerned. He hasn't changed course on this. He's always been very consistent. I think it's really kind of surprising that so much is made of this because he hasn't ever changed his position. They wanted to expand distribution rights when that was never what was intended or [initially] requested."

Breglio said that Sondheim — who is being saluted this summer at the Kennedy Center with major mountings of six of his classic musicals, including Sweeney Todd — has seen the film, but "I don't presume to speak on behalf of Stephen Sondheim when it comes to his own view of material."   The Observer also reports that the BBC believes Sondheim may have denied additional use of his songs because he may be planning his own film of Sweeney. When asked about this possibility, Breglio said, "There's always interest in doing Sweeney Todd as a theatrical film, always has been consistently, where Stephen is being approached by one person or another. At this point, there is nothing new to report about that."

Considered one of Sondheim’s masterpieces, Sweeney Todd premiered at Broadway’s Uris Theatre on Feb. 6, 1979, with a cast led by Len Cariou (Sweeney) and Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Lovett), who both nabbed Tony Awards for their roles. Harold Prince directed the production, which was awarded the 1979 Tony for Best Musical. A 1989 revival at Circle in the Square Theatre featured Beauty and the Beast’s Beth Fowler as Mrs. Lovett and former Evita star Bob Gunton as the man who returns to London to avenge the death of his wife.

Another recent production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler work, which is based on a version of “Sweeney Todd” by Christopher Bond, was a concert presentation directed by Lonny Price and led by Tony winners George Hearn — who eventually played the title role on Broadway — and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett. The critically acclaimed concerts confirmed the strength of Sondheim’s score, which boasts such tunes as “The Worst Pies in London,” “Johanna,” “Pretty Women,” “A Little Priest,” “By the Sea” and “Not While I’m Around.” This summer's Kennedy Center mounting cast Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski as, respectively, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett.

—By Andrew Gans