The Anthology Shows
Putting them together
Side by Side by Sondheim
Marry Me a Little
Putting It Together
Discography of revues
John Logan: Translating Sweeney to the screen
Lonny Price: Concerts and TV
John Doyle: Paring down Sweeney
Biography of a Song
“Finishing the Hat”
A personal account of a production of Into the Woods
Into the Woods: Stratford Festival
Gypsy: Shaw Festival
Sweeney: Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre
Night Music: Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera
Into the Woods: San Diego’s Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities
Assassins: Warehaus in Brisbane, Australia
An animated Sondheim fan
Sondheim Sings, Vol. I, 1962-72
Pacific Overtures (2005 cast recording)
Candide on DVD
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Paring down the demon barber:
An innovative Sweeney comes to Broadway
By Mark Shenton
It’s a big leap from a tiny 216-seater theatre located in a converted mill beside a country river in the English countryside of Berkshire to Broadway, but the Watermill — situated near Newbury, roughly an hour outside of London by train — is about to see one of its productions do so.
The West End success, at least in commercial terms, of its dramatically pared-down production of Sweeney Todd — featuring a cast of just nine actor-musicians who perform their own musical accompaniments — is now being propelled toward Broadway. Though it had its critical detractors (including, it must be said, myself in TSR’s Fall 2004 issue) part of the attraction of taking it to New York now must be the comparatively low price tag attached to it. But there’s undoubtedly also the novelty appeal of looking at something familiar in a completely different way.
“As a lover of Sondheim’s work,” says director John Doyle, “you can’t do the play for the person who has seen it before. You can only do it within the resources you have and for audiences who you hope will find it in unexpected ways. Early on, I overheard an aficionado talking about the show who understandably had a close sense of ownership over the work — it was something like the fourteenth Sweeney Todd he had seen, and he had definite ideas about how it should be done. But it’s hugely rewarding and gratifying to me that the man who wrote it didn’t say those things. That’s not to say that Mr Sondheim would not have comments about any production he saw; it’s just that he didn’t come to it from a point of view that it should only be done in a certain way and that way only. That’s very refreshing.”
But a technique born of budgetary necessity in a financially strapped tiny regional theatre that couldn’t afford a large cast or orchestra, is now an artistic choice, stresses Doyle, as it has moved beyond that theatre to reach a wider world, in the West End (where it opened at the Trafalgar Studios, then transferred to extend its run at the New Ambassadors, both of them comparatively intimate spaces). And now Broadway.
“It’s a positive way at looking at smallness and intimacy,” he says. “What we’re all searching for, ultimately, is the honesty of the storytelling — that this is simply a way of trying to find as honest a way of telling the story as possible.”
It was in fact a production of a show that had Sondheim’s name on part of it that Doyle first employed this technique for over a decade ago. “The first production I did this with was when I did Candide in Liverpool in 1992, at the Everyman Theatre where I used to be artistic director,” he says. (The freelance director has also run three other U.K. regional theatres, including the Swan in Worcester, the Everyman in Cheltenham and the Theatre Royal in York.). “It happened because we couldn’t afford an orchestra; but the style we used was very different then. The performers would sit down and play then stand up and act; it wasn’t as integrated as it is now.”
Then, he continues, he went on to work in York, “where I did Pal Joey. That’s a fairly obvious one to use this method on, as it’s set in a club anyway. Then I did Moll Flanders, which was much more organic — there was an area where the band sat, but people would get up and play their instruments as part of the action. I’ve gone on from there to develop it further — a lot of it has been developed out of the challenges and necessities of working at the Watermill, trying to find new ways of looking at musicals in that space.”
But what about transferring that method out of that space now, to much larger ones? “The economic necessities that informed it may have gone now as we take it to the West End or Broadway, but I believe in this way of working and re-inventing and re-looking at musicals in this way. The ensemble nature of the productions is paramount, and the intensity of everyone being together to tell the story is very special.”
Of course, as they move from 200 seats to 1200 seats, there is one key difference: “Expectations change, so it’s a question of managing those changes. But the essence of what we did at the Watermill has always stayed the same as it has grown to fit larger spaces. The honesty and simplicity and bare -bones of it — the almost make-shift element, as someone said to me, lovingly — have remained exactly the same.”
It is, he says, “an almost Brechtian approach to making musical theatre happen.” His mission, he quips cheekily, “is to have the audacity to take the Broadway out of the Broadway musical. I want to get back to the core of the story, and that can sometimes be hard. The story can be hard, dark, bitter and angry — but often in musical theatre those kinds of issues are avoided because of the sense that people should be pleased when they go to see a musical. But the best way to please people is to be true to the story and reflect life as best we can. To do that, we need to find a way of getting to the heart of what it is saying.”
So the emphasis is on story, not scale. “On Broadway, you’re in an environment where size matters. But the London and New York productions of this will basically be the same: We may now have lots of very, very classy New York performers who want to perform those roles, and that’s wonderful to me. But my approach is exactly the same.” (In London, the show was performed by a cast who were largely unknown).
A key part of that approach, too “is the need to make the audience do some of the work — we ask them to use some of their imagination. There’s no barber’s chair, for instance; you can imagine it. It’s that Peter Brook thing of asking the audience to imagine — and it goes hand-in-hand with the economy we do things with. If you can’t afford something, you have to imagine it.”
Doyle has now applied the technique to approximately 20 shows, from Gilbert and Sullivan (a production of The Gondoliers in 2001 transferred to the West End) to Fiddler on the Roof and Irma La Douce. He has just done a new version of Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel at Newbury in May.
“Mack and Mabel is the other side of Broadway to Sondheim, but it has great heart and that’s wonderful. But while Sweeney Todd is a great classic drama of enormous proportions dramatically, Mack and Mabel isn’t that!”
He has also previously done Into the Woods using actor-musicians. Asked how the show responded to it, he answers, “Brilliantly! The show is already fanciful and in the world of the imagination and the storyteller, so that allows for the fact very comfortably that a performer might walk across the stage playing a double bass!”
It’s a show he says he would like to look at again; but first there’s Broadway and Sweeney Todd, then Company next year for a major U.S. regional theatre, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
“This has become a form in its own right,” he concludes. “People teach it at drama schools in the U.K. now. Of course, I’m not the only person who does it, and I didn’t start it. But each director has their own approach.”
MARK SHENTON is theatre critic for The Sunday Express and contributing editor to whatsonstage.com, as well as the London correspondent for TSR.