The Demon Barber Shocks and Astounds
By: Grace Gerrish ’15
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd! The Demon Barber of Fleet Street!” By the time the dramatic first ballad of the show finished, audience members were already hooked by this year’s spring production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Carolyn Anderson. This production, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, weaves a sensational story set in Victorian London, where barber Sweeney Todd (Woodrow Proctor ’16) returns home after having been wrongfully imprisoned by the evil Judge Turpin (Nathaniel Cowper ’14) and his henchman Beadle Bamford (Kevin Berry ’15). After learning of his wife’s supposed suicide after an attack by Turpin, the now-murderous Todd takes up with Mrs. Lovett (Julian Hansen ’13) at her pie shop and allows her to use the bodies of his victims as her own personal meat larder. Meanwhile, the lovesick sailor Anthony (Daniel Jason Shure ’14) plans a daring rescue of Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Alison Schaufler ’14), who has fallen into the lecherous hands of the Judge as his ward.
Musical theater buffs can attest to the complexity and difficulty of Sondheim’s works, but Sweeney Todd was an especially ambitious project for the department. The JKB mainstage had not seen a musical since 1995, when the Skidmore Theater Department produced Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. However, this daunting task was made possible by conductor and musical director Emma Weiss ’14 who had the full support of an enthusiastic theater company. Weiss saw Sweeney Todd as “the ultimate challenge” and, as a Music major, wished to collaborate with the Theater Department to take up the production as her senior project. Orchestra musicians were contacted as early as last summer to ensure a strong pit for the difficult musical scores. Weiss had finalized the roster by the end of the fall semester, which included faculty musician Cindy Evans and two other professional musicians. This semester, Weiss found herself doubly tasked with preparing both the orchestra and the cast. Faculty members of both the Theater and the Music departments decided to reward her hard work with a nomination for the Periclean Scholar Award, a prestigious award which a maximum of four seniors receive for exceptionally ambitious and successful senior projects. The acclaim for Weiss’s work clearly extended well beyond these two departments, as the Honors Forum decided to honor her with this award.
Kathy Mendenhall, Skidmore’s Theater Coordinator, as a trained operatic singer, taught several master classes for Production Seminar and offered private vocal coaching for cast members. Proctor mentioned practicing with her every week, running through the entire score to learn how to better “open the vowels and get the amount of breath needed for the more difficult lines.” Chorus member John Noble Barrack ’15 also frequently took advantage of these lessons, stating how he “learned more from her in a week than in months of voice lessons elsewhere.” These valuable lessons, as well as the great deal of hard work and dedication put forth from the cast, attributed to the dynamic opening and reprises of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” as well as the “practically a-tonal” number “God, That’s Good,” in which the actors “had to pick notes out of the air with hardly any cue,” according to Weiss.
The design team stepped up to create a hauntingly beautiful and mechanically impressive set. Audiences were set abuzz by Todd’s barber chair and delivery chute. The chair featured a lever which slid the victim off and conveyed them quickly and safely to the “bake house” on the lower level of the set. Furthermore, in order to create many separate locations, the stationary set was rife with stairs, balconies, and trap doors. Associate Designers Joel Behrman ’13, Marcus Golbas ’13, Kelsey Lawler ’13, and Elisabeth Svenningsten ’13 can attest to the hard work and labor-intensive hours put into creating this masterpiece of a set. Regarding the design process, Goldbas states, “It was really the epitome of collaboration. I remember Kelsey brought in a design concept for Sweeney’s window, and we all sat down and started adding on to it. It become clear almost halfway through the process that we were all on the same page.” Scenic painter Julia Bilbao ’13 remarks: “We dedicated so many hours to this set, working until the sun came up. I was grateful to overhear audience members commenting on the set, picking up on little metaphors we were playing with and the levels and depth of the environment we all created together.”
The costumes were designed by Patty Pawliczak and assistant designed by Hansen and Racquel Figueroa ’13. There were twenty chorus members who all had to be costumed in period clothing that was unique to each character’s social class while remaining visually harmonious as a collective. Additionally, Lena Wellhoefer ’14 led the team in charge of such startling makeup transformations as that of Alexia Zarras ’14, who performed as the omnipresent Beggar Woman. Another essential visual aspect of the show was the fake blood, an effect achieved through spurting blood packets. The blood packets, designed by Fight Director Douglas Seldin and Nikki Cicurel ’13, never failed to entertain the cast and audience. Proctor commented on one performance in which, during the Judge’s death sequence, the fake blood packet sprayed and reached as high as the ceiling.
Sound was also a challenge, and involved a great deal of coordination between Weiss, Music Professor Dr. Anthony Holland, Technical Director Dave Yergan, and Sound Operator Alec Petros ’14. Amplifiers and pickups were used to balance out the string and wind instruments, and a sound dampening cloth draped around the pit kept the volume manageable for the actors. The actors themselves were mic’d , which was a difficult task in and of itself. There were a total of twelve mics used during the show: one for each principal actor and three additional chorus members with significant speaking and singing roles. The organization and adjustment of the mics had to be very precise in order to make their use as unobtrusive as possible. Careful planning by both Yergan and Petros made this possible.
Continuing with the theme of student-faculty collaboration, Department Chair Lary Opitz joined the design team as lighting designer, aided by Berhman as Assistant Lighting Designer. Though it had been some years since Opitz had designed lights for a show, the end result displayed both his and Behrman’s talent in the realm of design. The lighting for the production stood out on both a technical and aesthetic level.
As a result of these amazing collaborative efforts, the production exceeded expectations in all regards. Tickets were completely sold-out by the end of the first weekend. At the shows themselves, the second weekend saw long lines of people at the box office hoping to make it off the waitlist, effectively filling the large theater each night. Box office manager Henry Hetz ’15, who also appeared in Sweeney Todd as Tobias, believes that “the show’s success is directly attributed to this theater company’s motivation and desire to put on a production that all of us can rally behind.” The show received excellent reviews from both the Saratogian and Saratoga Wire, drawing in large crowds form the surrounding area.
It is unlikely that the department will forget such a smashing success. “It has always seemed strange that we don’t do musicals,” said Weiss, “because the talent is definitely there!” Regardless of whether or not the department chooses to do another musical in the near future, those who saw (and were involved with) Sweeney Todd will look back on the production fondly as yet another reinforcement of the many levels of talent in the department.
This article was originally published in print in the Spring 2013 Skidmore Theater Newsletter.