What makes a show like 'Sweeney Todd' worth staging again and again?

What makes a show like 'Sweeney Todd' worth staging again and again?By Chris Hewitt The Pioneer Press

September 24, 2015

For director Peter Rothstein, there are two main reasons to revisit frequently performed shows.

"Certain pieces feel like they come off the shelf because of what's happening in the world now, because they resonate in a new way. And there are also pieces that are masterworks, that are just brilliant and a part of our cultural heritage. I think 'Sweeney Todd' is one of those. It's one of the great American masterpieces," says Rothstein, whose Theater Latte Da production of that Stephen Sondheim musical -- which has been presented at least four times in the past 16 years in the Twin Cities -- opens Saturday.

Agreed, on both counts, and yet I can relate to folks who may have seen earlier productions of "Sweeney Todd" -- including the original Broadway production with Angela Lansbury, which is available on DVD -- and who wonder if any subsequent production could recapture its power and emotional heft.

What I've learned from seeing several "Sweeneys" is that maybe no production will do that, but the show is so rich that there's plenty more to discover.

Ten years ago, I nervously attended a Broadway production of "Sweeney" that starred Patti LuPone in what I'll always think of as the Lansbury part, Mrs. Lovett (I saw her in it in Chicago in the early '80s).

But I was blown away by the chilling production's stripped-down take on the show and by LuPone's vastly different performance, which was sexy and manipulative in comparison to Lansbury's daffier, music hall-influenced version.

Rothstein has wanted to produce "Sweeney Todd" with Sally Wingert as the pie-making Mrs. Lovett "forever." It's finally happening this year because he was able to assemble the group of artists he wanted and because he figured out how to pull off a smaller-scale version of the epic show. Instead of an orchestra and a cast of 30, Latte Da's production will have a small band and most of its 10 actors, led by Wingert, Mark Benninghofen and Tyler Michaels, will play multiple roles.

It's an approach that paid big dividends earlier this year with the company's inventive, up-close take on the oft-produced "Into the Woods." And, crucially, it's an approach that is not just dictated by economics but also by creative concerns.

"Because I love the psychology of these characters, I wanted to do 'Sweeney Todd' in an intimate way. We've seen it in big houses, so I wanted to figure out how to do it in an intimate space," says Rothstein, who's producing it at Minneapolis' Ritz Theater.

Perhaps best known for the shaky movie version that starred Johnny Depp in the title role, "Sweeney Todd" is the Victorian-era tale of a barber who returns to London after being wrongly imprisoned, only to discover that his wife is dead and his daughter has become the ward of a lascivious judge. Todd plots revenge with the help of his razor blades and neighboring Mrs. Lovett, who finds gruesome use for Todd's many victims.

"As a director, it's all so delicious," Rothstein says. "It's this horror movie. It's a musical. It's a comedy. It's Shakespearean in its tragedy. It's a melodrama. I feel like you have all of these styles and somehow you have to make them work as a whole."

Like Latte Da's production of "Oliver" earlier this year, "Sweeney Todd" takes place among society's most unfortunate: "I was interested in the idea of deserted spaces, places where squatters live. All of the characters are the dregs of society and very few of them have a piece of the world they can call their own."

Although Rothstein places "Sweeney Todd" in the "masterpiece" category of shows that always will be worth revisiting, it also fits with his notion of a show that is especially intriguing because of the way it speaks to us today. Latte Da's "Sweeney Todd," in fact, will begin in the here and now and then flash back to the 19th century, establishing that in many ways the present is not so different from the past.

That sort of updating or re-setting of a show is a popular way to breathe new life into a familiar play, whether it's the Guthrie's Roaring '20s-set "Twelfth Night" or Mu Performing Arts' Asian-influenced "Into the Woods."

Sometimes, a bold new take on a piece can make it feel brand-new. Rothstein mentions vivid memories of a 1994 Broadway production of the little-known play "An Inspector Calls," in which a wild set and stylized performances gave the 50-year-old play urgency and timelessness. Similarly, an intense, off-Broadway production of "Our Town" a couple of seasons ago preserved the setting of Thornton Wilder's classic but so completely stripped one of my favorite plays of its sentiment and nostalgia that I'll never think of it the same way again.

Rothstein cites the Broadway re-imagining of "Cabaret" as a production that also shaped his thoughts about a treasured musical (one that he directed for Latte Da in 2014, in a production that featured Wingert and Michaels).

"Sam Mendes' re-imagining of 'Cabaret' had a huge impact on me as a director," says Rothstein, adding that those ideas have been reflected in his approach to the work he does for Latte Da, which he co-founded, and elsewhere.

"Great works are about more than one thing and they can speak to a wide range of audiences over different time frames," says Rothstein. "If the ideas are big enough and, at the same time, there are psychologically complex characters in the piece, great actors will always be able to bring new insight to the people and to the play."

Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.


What: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

When: Through Oct. 25

Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. N.E., Mpls.

Tickets: $45-$31, 612-339-3003 or theaterlatteda.com