Thursday, December 10, 2009
A Director's Inspiration: Sweeney Todd
By Guest Blogger, Michael Gray
Michael is the Producing Artistic Director of City Theater Company, and one of the three founding members. He resides in Philadelphia. Here, Michael offers a look into the inspiration for the current CTC production, SWEENEY TODD.
Our "interpretation", and I use that word very loosely because we follow the script and score as written, was to approach this piece via what one might call a "punk aesthetic" --- meaning a design and performance built on simple constructs that could be utilized by most and hitting the audience with a very aggressive, assaultive and "in your face" performance.
The origins of punk music are rooted in the 3-chord song played by a guitar, bass and drums. Music and lyrics were simple and direct. This countered what some might consider the overblown psychadelic music of the mid to late 70s. In addition, the punk movement had its roots in poor, urban lower-class neighborhoods struggling with the economic downturn, loss of jobs and high inflation of the late 70s. The underlying anger and frustration can be clearly heard in the music.
We felt this "aesthetic"would lend itself nicely to Sweeney Todd. Hence, the simple scenic and lighting design, the use of nontraditional lighting instruments such as flashlights, and use of minimal props and furniture. The staging, though simple and uncomplicated, is very direct and aggressive as it sits on top of and above the audience, given the stage actually wraps around the audience. You can never get away from the show once you are seated.
The costumes areinspired by the punk movement as well and again, very simple and direct. Nothing is hidden and no special effects are used --- no special razor that sprays blood, no special barber chair. We do use lots of "blood"; it is literally painted on the actor as he or she is killed. I felt it provides a very graphic and ritualistic feel to the murders. Also, given the shift from the mid 1800s to late 20th Century, we attempt to explore some of the darker themes of the play more directly.
That said, it is a Sondheim show. The music is at once gorgeous and unsettling, difficult and inspired. A score typically sung by a group of 20-25 actors is sung here by only 10. Most do double or triple duty throughout. Watching 10 actors tackle what some consider the hardest score ever written for the Broadway stage and succeed is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission!
We do have a 9-piece orchestra with an arrangement by the great Broadway arranger JonathanTunick. We did not want to short change the music, given it is probably one of the greatest scores ever written for the stage. Overall, we think this is a Sweeney Todd no one has seen before and as such, we hope it is like seeing it for the first time!