Music Goes Onstage in 'Sweeney Todd' The new Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which opened two weeks ago to rave reviews, sounds a little different: This production features just 10 actors, and those actors are playing the music.
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Music Goes Onstage in 'Sweeney Todd'

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Music Goes Onstage in 'Sweeney Todd'

Music Goes Onstage in 'Sweeney Todd'

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"Sweeney Todd" is Stephen Sondheim's dark masterpiece about a murderous barber and a woman who bakes his victims into meat pies. Now when it opened on Broadway in 1979, it featured not only a cast of 27 people but an orchestra of the same size and it sounded like this.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Unidentified Performer #1: (Singing) Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.

SIMON: The new Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd," which opened two weeks ago to rave reviews, sounds a little different.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Unidentified Performer #1 and Chorus: (Singing in unison) (Unintelligible).

SIMON: This "Sweeney Todd" features just 10 actors, and those actors are the orchestra. Jeff Lunden has our report.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

It is not a stunt. The 10 actors in "Sweeney Todd" really can play their instruments. And this is difficult music, says Alexander Geminyani, who plays the beadle as well as the piano and trumpet.

Mr. ALEXANDER GEMINYANI (Performer, "Sweeney Todd"): Everybody in the show would say that they're playing the best they've ever played. It's a real treat to be able to accomplish that every night, you know? Because it is--it's "Sweeney Todd." It's not, you know, "Hello, Dolly!" It's a different ball game.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Ms. PATTI LUPONE: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) Wait, what's your rush? What's your hurry? You gave me such a fright. I thought you was a ghost half a minute. Can't you sit? Sit you down. Sit. All I meant is that I haven't seen a customer for weeks. Did you come here for a pie, sir?

LUNDEN: This version of "Sweeney Todd" is spare and stripped down. There's very little in the way of a set, just a backdrop of a large Victorian curio cabinet and some chairs and a black coffin on a pair of sawhorses, which can become a ship or a barbershop or a judge's chambers, says director John Doyle.

Mr. JOHN DOYLE (Director, "Sweeney Todd"): My aim, if I have one at all, as the director, is to ask the audience to use its imagination. It's to engage the audience to be a vital part of the storytelling and to have to imagine.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) These are probably the worst kind...

LUNDEN: Patti LuPone plays Mrs. Lovett and the tuba. She and her fellow actors are performing triple duty in this highly stylized production: singing, acting and playing multiple musical instruments. While Broadway has never seen anything quite like this, it's a style that director John Doyle has been exploring at various small theaters in England over the last decade. While he started it as a way to save money, Doyle says he's found it's a key to creating a theatrical ensemble.

Mr. DOYLE: They don't only make music; they are storytellers in the fullest sense of the world. They have to create the atmospheres. They have to move the set and all of those things. And, you know, at the end of the day, if the lighting rig went down, you know, something went wrong and the sound system stopped working, you could still tell the story because you guys are what make it what it is.

LUNDEN: And the story of "Sweeney Todd" is grim, indeed. Each time the demon barber, played by Michael Cerveris, slits the throat of one of his customers, a whistle blows, the stage goes red and Pattie LuPone pours one bucket of blood into another. For LuPone, it's all part of being in an ensemble.

Ms. LUPONE: We had a long rehearsal period and a long preview period to really understand the responsibility of moving the furniture, playing the instruments and acting and singing the parts, and being the chorus. And when I get on stage at night I find that it flies because there is so much to do, even when I'm not playing Mrs. Lovett.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Mr. MICHAEL CERVERIS: (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) You have, my friend.

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) I'm your friend, too, Mr. Todd.

Mr. CERVERIS: (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) Come, let me hold you.

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mrs. Lovett) (singing) If you only knew, Mr. Todd.

Mr. CERVERIS: (As Sweeney Todd) (Singing) Now with a sigh, you grow...

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) Knew, Mr. Todd. You grow warm in my hands.

Mr. CERVERIS: (As Sweeney Todd) (singing) ...warm in my hands, my friend.

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Alexander Geminyani's father, Paul, conducted the original "Sweeney Todd." This version has no conductor. It's all left up to the actors.

Mr. GEMINYANI: I mean, there--the conductor moments would come to call, and where it's like, well, if we had a conductor this burden would be off our shoulders. But if the burden were off our shoulders, it wouldn't be as exciting. You're so much more concerned about everybody else and what they're doing, like giving somebody a cue or moving a chair. The last thing you're worried about is yourself. So the most challenging thing and the most satisfyingly exhausting thing is that listening.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Unidentified Performer #2: (Singing) No one's going to hurt you. No one's going to dare. Others can desert you; not to worry, whistle, I'll be there.

LUNDEN: Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim says he enjoys listening to this production, too. While he thinks Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations are beautiful, he admires the new arrangements by Sarah Travis, who had a much smaller palette to work with.

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Composer and Lyricist, "Sweeney Todd"): I think her work is brilliant, just brilliant. It--having to deal with, you know, at the most, 10 instruments. Mostly, you know, it's eight instruments that are playing because the two principals, Mrs. Lovett and Todd, though they play instruments, they're on stage a lot of the time. So what she's done with, you know--to get variety and color and real atmosphere--that's the great thing about the orchestration.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mrs. Lovett) (Singing) By the sea with the fishies splashing. By the sea, wouldn't that'd be smashing?

LUNDEN: Travis makes extensive use of the accordion to add different colors, says Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays it.

Ms. DONNA LYNNE CHAMPLIN (Performer, "Sweeney Todd"): In the show, a lot of the stuff that I play is...

(Soundbite of accordion)

Ms. CHAMPLIN: You know, it's more--or it's like a bass line here or there...

(Soundbite of accordion)

Ms. CHAMPLIN: ...or it's, you know...

(Soundbite of accordion)

Ms. CHAMPLIN: I fill in for the clarinets and the violins with the right hand. I fill in for the cellos and the basses on the left hand. I'm sort of like an all-purpose filler.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Chorus: (Singing) Lift your razor high, Sweeney.

LUNDEN: Benjamin Magnuson is a recent graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, making his Broadway debut in "Sweeney Todd." He plays the sailor Anthony, as well as the cello. Magnuson says it's significant that Lauren Molina, who plays his love interest, Johanna, also plays the cello.

Mr. BENJAMIN MAGNUSON (Performer, "Sweeney Todd"): I'm struck by how many people have commented about how beautiful it looks on the stage to have the two cellos bowing together and how we never even talked about bowing together, but I think through the relationship of rehearsing it just--symbiotically we would create these bowing structures that were the same. And it's kind of fascinating, but apparently it's very beautiful, and it feels right.

(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")

Mr. MAGNUSON: (As Anthony) (Singing) I feel you, Joanna. I feel you. I was half convinced I'd waken, satisfied enough to leave you. Happily, I was mistaken, Joanna.

LUNDEN: Nobody's more surprised by "Sweeney Todd's" success than director John Doyle, who started this process two years ago with a production in a small theater in Newbury, England, and now finds himself on Broadway.

Mr. DOYLE: I think there's a kind of style of theater; it takes people by surprise. And particularly being on Broadway, I mean, I think had it been done in the Village or something, it might have been, you know, sort of more understandable as to why it was there. But it's kind of remarkable that it's sitting in a Broadway theater, I have to say.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIMON: And Patti LuPone reveals which instrument is surprisingly challenging to play on stage in audio extras from this story, on our Web site,



SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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