AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're about to meet a former White House pastry chef who's now getting his hands dirty in a different venue.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF SWEENEY TODD")
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
That factory whistle opens the darkest musical Stephen Sondheim ever wrote. "Sweeney Todd" tells the story of a demonic barber whose clients become the filling for meat pies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SWEENEY TODD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Mrs. Lovett) No, you see, the trouble with poet is how do you know it's deceased? Try the priest.
SHAPIRO: The story is grisly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SWEENEY TODD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Sweeney Todd) Mm (ph), heavenly.
SHAPIRO: And genuinely scary. Many productions leave the stage soaked in blood. It's enough to make you lose your appetite. Even so, at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City, Mary Alice Kellog is eagerly digging into a hot meat pie, part of this pre-show experience.
MARY ALICE KELLOG: I have seen every production of "Sweeney Todd" that's been in New York since the very first one.
SHAPIRO: And knowing what "Sweeney Todd" is about, you were still willing to eat a meat pie before the show?
KELLOG: Well, yes. Oh, especially (laughter). And by the way, the pies are really delicious. They're flaky. They're light. No fingernails in them or anything.
SHAPIRO: This little 130-seat theater has been transformed. It is now a recreation of Harrington's, one of the oldest working pie shops in London.
RACHEL EDWARDS: The tiles, the kind of rather yellow, slightly dirty walls. You know, it's all as it would be if you walked into Harrington's.
SHAPIRO: Rachel Edwards is the producer of the Tooting players. A few years ago, her shoestring theater company first mounted this production of "Sweeney Todd" in Harrington's after the pie shop closed for the night. It seated 30 people a performance.
EDWARDS: It was thrilling because it was so tiny. It did really serve as a kind of pressure cooker. And Sweeney is singing two inches away from your face and it's pretty intense.
SHAPIRO: The production got such raves that the composer, Stephen Sondheim, dropped by. So did the mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh, who offered a slightly larger theater that seats about 70 in London's West End. Now the production has come to New York, where it's in previews. The team affectionately refers to it as teeny Sweeney.
For the pre-show meal, Edwards decided to hire a local baker who President Obama once dubbed The Crustmaster, a thin, bald man with a quick smile and bright blue eyes behind his glasses, Bill Yosses.
BILL YOSSES: So you have one leek and one vegetarian.
SHAPIRO: He's playing a part with a paper hat and an apron that says Harrington's Pie Shop. His role ends well before the curtain rises on this musical. I wanted to see how the sausage gets made - or in this case, the pies - so earlier in the day I went to an empty-looking warehouse district in Queens and rang the buzzer.
YOSSES: Hello there.
SHAPIRO: How are you?
YOSSES: Oh, nice to see you.
SHAPIRO: The last time I saw Bill Yosses at work, he had just finished building an elaborate gingerbread White House for Christmas. Now he runs an online order pie business called Perfect Pie. It's taking a backseat to the daily production of meat pies for "Sweeney Todd." His bakery sits across the street from a gothic cemetery on a hill that looms over us, adding to the morbid humor.
YOSSES: So this is Long Island City. And our favorite part is across the street. For "Sweeney Todd," we have an unlimited supply of produce.
YOSSES: So this one is the chicken truffle potpie. So we cook the vegetables in a little white truffle butter and then we also sprinkle it with what's called truffle zest.
SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.
YOSSES: This is the vegetarian version. This has spaghetti squash, purple carrots, et cetera.
SHAPIRO: These both sound delicious and beautiful, but neither of them sound like anyone could ever mistake them for human.
YOSSES: Well, they say that - you know when they talk about exotic meats they say everything tastes like chicken? So I thought, I'll make chicken.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Really? Was that your thought process?
YOSSES: I mean, who knows? I hope nobody knows (laughter).
SHAPIRO: Chef Yosses has put me to work. To finish off each pie, I'm sprinkling a little bit of truffle zest, sea salt, egg wash and then punching a hole in the top with a fork.
YOSSES: They are fantastic. Who made those beautiful pies?
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Were you a fan of Broadway shows before this opportunity came about? Did you know "Sweeney Todd"?
YOSSES: I did. I'm a big fan. The first time my parents came to visit me after I moved here from Ohio, we went to see the 1979 production with Angela Lansbury and...
SHAPIRO: The original production.
YOSSES: The original production, yeah. And they had never seen a live musical before. And they said, now we understand why you want to live in New York. And they never really accepted it before that. So it's really kind of a huge moment for me.
SHAPIRO: The pies go into the oven. The aroma soon becomes overwhelming, so we duck into a quiet side room to avoid temptation.
How does working in the theater compare to working in the White House?
YOSSES: Very similar, isn't it? As you know, (laughter) the White House has a very theatrical feel, even though it's not supposed to. It's supposed to be real. I mean, you know, the day is pretty scripted. The speeches, obviously, are scripted. The visuals are scripted in the sense that the administration wants to present this best face forward. Who doesn't? In that way, it's very theatrical.
SHAPIRO: It's public knowledge that pies are one of Obama's weaknesses. Does that have anything to do with how you decided to put your talents to use after you left?
YOSSES: Before I worked at the White House with the Obamas, I hadn't made very many pies. My background is in French pastry and pies were not on the menu. But in the Obama years, I became a pie machine. And so this is really just inertia. I just couldn't stop.
So that's the sound of pies ready to come out of the oven.
SHAPIRO: As we finish our conversation, Bill's assistant, Roberto Welch, pulls the golden pies out of the oven and packs them into sealed crates for the trip into town.
ROBERTO WELCH: We open them when we get to the theater, steam comes out and everyone's head just turns. It's pie city when these open.
SHAPIRO: At the Barrow Street Theatre, people have lined up more than an hour before the show to eat. These pies never appear on stage. They are only for the pre-show meal.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the pie shop is now open.
SHAPIRO: I've been watching these pies being made all day, and I am about to dig in. It is beautiful and flaky and delicious.
When the plates are empty, the dishes are cleared, actors take their places, the factory whistle sounds and the blood starts flowing. "Sweeney Todd" at the Barrow Street Theatre officially opens on Wednesday.
(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THE INFERNAL DANCE")
CORNISH: And if that truffle chicken potpie sounds too good to pass on, no worries. Chef Bill Yosses shared the recipe with us at npr.org.
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