Sondheim on campus
Stephen Sondheim talks about his craft with students at SMU
A highlight of the trip is a visit to an arts high school
Student reactions to his talks
Joanne Gordon says Passion is in the rarefied domain of pure art
The Hirschfeld Passion
A tribute from Cris Groenendaal
A psychologist studies Passion
Passion’s marketing strategy
News and Notes
Sondheim promises a big musical that will be fun; the Woods movie; a new biography, etc.
The East-West Players in L.A. presents Sweeney Todd
Photos of productions around the country
The Signature offers another Sondheim
The winner of our first contest! Now, another one for you to enter
Sheridan Morley and Stephen Banfield report on the Leicester Follies; West Side Story in Germany
Assassins as a discourse on democracy in America
Two new CDs celebrate the revised Merrily; Passion in jazz; Dawn Upshaw
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
East West Players: They trod a path that few have trod
By Terri Roberts
(Pirelli, holding the razors to the light.)
“…but I remember these—and you.”
—Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Who could forget? Stephen Sondheim’s deliciously intense and darkly shaded study of rage and revenge, Sweeney Todd, is some of the best bloody theatre ever to hit the legitimate stage. And judging by audience response in Los Angeles—where a professional production of Sweeney Todd hasn’t been seen in over a decade and never in a theatre this small—people not only haven’t forgotten, but there wasn’t much that could keep them away. They came from across town and across the country; they juggled schedules and consigned themselves to waiting lists; they called, they pleaded, they did whatever they had to do, but it was worth it. It was Sondheim and it was Sweeney and they came.
What raised eyebrows about this production raised a lot of interest as well. East West Players (EWP), a highly respected Asian-American theatre company now in its 29th season, was producing the show. EWP works out of a very small, very stuffy 99-seat theatre space in a less-than-inviting section of Santa Monica Boulevard in Silverlake, just a few miles away from the hot-shot glamour of Hollywood.
An Asian cast doing a British-accented Sondheim show in an unventilated, black box theatre no bigger than Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop? Hush, love, hush. Pacific Overtures? Certainly (1977). Company? Easy enough (1989). Into the Woods? Well, it is a fairy tale (1992). But Sweeney Todd? Suffice it to say that it was a close shave, but this resourceful company pulled it off—so much so that popular demand forced a three week extension of the show that director Tim Dang refers to as “in-your-face-Sweeney.”
Dang, 36, is the personification of East West Players—confident about where to go and the direction needed to get there, and excited about the journey along the way. He has been an actor, director and producer of this maverick theatre company for the past 14 years, and now he’s comfortably ensconced as artistic director.
Dang is the third person in 29 years to hold that position. In July 1993, he succeeded Nobu McCarthy, who had spent four years doing the job following the resignation of Mako, one of the most recognizable of all Asian-American performers working today, and the theatre’s guiding force for the first 24 years.
As tends to happen with new leadership in any organization, there have been changes. Dang brought with him a vision of developing EWP into a fully diversified arts center in a larger, more expansive location (hopefully in the Little Tokyo area of downtown LA by 1996, perhaps opening with a 20th anniversary revival of Pacific Overtures). He has initiated a Musical Theatre Development Program, focusing on the cultivation of lyricists, composers and book writers, and has encouraged a stronger focus on musical and experimental theatre.
One thing that hasn’t changed—and won’t—is the company’s commitment to diversity. “Our primary mission is to create and develop works and talents of Asian-Pacific’s,” Dang said, “but it’s not solely an Asian-Pacific company. We do deal with multicultural and inter-racial issues.”
Those issues have been explored within other Sondheim shows as well. “Our Company was totally multicultural,” he notes. “And particularly in a society such as Los Angeles, where people have all kinds of friends of all different races, a show like Company lends itself very well to that. Into the Woods, however, was all Asian because we wanted to equate that show with the fact that in every culture there are similar fairy tales. And the whole fairy tale nature of the woods, the magic and so on, let us employ Japanese Kabuki techniques, so we did do it with an all-Asian cast. It just depends.”
Not only are the casts ethnically mixed; so are EWP audiences. At last count two years ago, the membership subscription base was about 38% Japanese, 35% Caucasian, 8% Chinese and the remaining 19% a smattering of many other smaller populations.
“In terms of cultural history, those communities that have been in this country longer and that have westernized themselves more have become more attuned to western art forms, which is why there is that mixed audience who comes to see East West Players,” Dang explained. “There are other cultures still dealing with traditional art forms, which we don’t necessarily do here. We have utilized traditional techniques, though—like we did with Into the Woods—and so we do present that hybrid of eastern and western art forms.”
Cultural touches highlighted Sweeney Todd as well. As Pirelli pranced through the crowd during “The Contest,” Tobias followed dutifully behind with an oversized Japanese parasol. And as Sweeney began to write his letter, directed to the Most Honorable Judge Turpin, a gong could be heard softly reverberating in the background, underscoring that traditional Asian title of respect.
Still, aside from one rather necessary concession, the show remained virtually unchanged. As is commonly done, the tooth-pulling segment of “The Contest” and the Judge’s lascivious self-flagulation scene were cut due to time constraints (the show runs just a hair or two under three hours as it is), but the British accents remained. How do audiences react to such incongruity? Dang smiled broadly as he answered.
“Yes, the audience is discombobulated for awhile, but what we’ve learned is that after about 10 minutes they accept everyone as they are, they see the show is good, they get connected to what’s happening on stage, and then they suddenly become color blind. In this show, you accept that the Asian actor is Sweeney now.
“It would pose a different kind of problem if we did a show like Assassins,” he continued, “because there you’re dealing with historical figures. But I think doing Sondheim is a lot like doing Shakespeare. They’re both so versatile and they can both be done a lot of different ways.”
Well, Shakespeare never wrote a musical—but then again, that didn’t stop Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein from turning Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story. It does, however, beg the question, what is it that’s so appealing about Sondheim and his music?
“In any type of musical that I look at,” Dang said, “there has to be emotion, the ability to move people, and Sondheim’s music has that quality. (And his lyrics are just incredible!) But for me, it’s the way he captures emotion in his music. I would tell the actors to just go with the music because the emotion is already built in. You don’t have to try to be angry or to try to be sad because the music just takes you there.”
The one significant change that was made came after much thought and a couple weeks of negotiations: Johanna’s hair went from blonde to black. As Dang told it, the change was necessary. “When we did Into the Woods,” he said, “we thought was very important for Rapunzel to have long golden hair because that’s the story. And because it was within a fairy tale, we thought an Asian having hair like that would work—and it did. But Sweeney Todd is not a fantastical fairy tale kind of play, and I was concerned that, in this case, having an Asian Johanna with yellow hair would distract from the integrity of the play. Would the audience think, ‘Oh, that girl looks ridiculous?’
So we went into negotiations with Music Theatre International (MTI), who holds the rights, and who said we could talk with Stephen Sondheim’s representatives about our concerns. Since we have a long history of doing Sondheim plays they were very open to negotiating some of the changes. We put all our options in writing: everything from changing the wording and deleting some of the music to asking if Sondheim would rewrite that particular segment (tawny, saffron, flaxen, blonde, etc.).
“We were quite happy with the answer we got (approval to change the wording—and Johanna’s hair color—from “yellow” to “raven,” and to delete approximately 20 measures of the wigmaker’s scene). They easily could have said ‘No, you do the play as is’ and we would have had to work with it. Everything turned out fine.”
In every show there is a challenge; in some cases, the show itself is the challenge—and therein lies the reward. “Doing Sweeney Todd was a discovery process for me,” Dang said enthusiastically. “I didn’t walk into this project knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I knew the actors, the set designers…all of them would carry me off to a different place. It was just a lot of trust on everyone’s part that this was all going to come together.
“That’s what made this work so exciting—it was truly a collaboration. But that discovery process is really what made the show fulfilling.”
Terri Roberts is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.