Sweeney Todd :: pies onstage, and off
Mrs. Lovett proclaims the secret to her meat pies has "all to do with herbs." A darker secret is, of course, that the main ingredient is choice pieces of flesh from the men the demon barber of Fleet Street has wracked his revenge on. As the chorus to the grisly musical Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street informs us, "He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again."
A wag sent composer Stephen Sondheim a telegram opening night - "Bake a leg!"
Given the show’s premise, you might recoil at the notion that you can buy pies at Metro Stage Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler’s landmark musical.
But get over it: the pies that will be on sale during the run of the show at the Cambridge YWCA in Central Square thankfully will not use Mrs. Lovett’s recipe. Instead Metro finds synergy with Community Servings of Boston to supply the goods through their "Pie in the Sky" program.
Entering its 17th year, "Pie in the Sky" is considered the world’s greatest bake sale having raised $380,000 last year to support its meals and nutrition program for the critically ill. It involves over 150 of Boston’s premiere chefs, bakers, and caterers who supply the $25 Thanksgiving pie to the buyers. Pick up locations abound for the Nov. 25 pie ready date.
"What a great idea, what a wonderful idea," enthused Todd’s director Paul D. Farwell.
Each pie purchase - apple, pecan, pumpkin, sweet potato, or diabetic apple - provides a week’s worth of free, home-delivered meals for a man, woman, or child who is battling a critical illness such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, or MS, says Christopher Teague, Co-founder of Metro Stage Company.
With Sweeney Todd on stage, you’re also in for a musical treat. "Metro’s shows are always musically strong," comments Farwell, who has loved the show since he saw the original 1979 production, directed by Harold Prince with Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou and Victor Garber. Farwell, who had barely touched shore coming from England where he studied theater, was given a pair of tickets.
"I bought a ticket to see it a second time. And then snuck in to see it a third," he admits laughing. "It was so new, so different." The seminal work bridges the gap between musical theater and opera; it’s a meld of opera, operetta, musical drama, and musical comedy.
Later, Farwell who is perhaps best known locally as an actor (and was portraying the tyrannical Captain in Mister Roberts at New Rep when rehearsals for Sweeney Todd first began) has played the role of the nefarious Judge Turpin also in the acclaimed New Rep production from a few years ago. Turpin’s sentencing of Sweeney Todd sets the awful revenge in motion, "Turpin is a nasty character," Farwell describes. He adds that he has refrained from imposing his interpretation of the rapist on the Metro production actor in the part.
This production "solidifies my love affair with this musical," says Farwell.
With limited budget Metro, performing at a 135-seat house with a beautifully restored, but pocket-sized stage, can’t begin to carry out the original scenic design for Sweeney Todd. Designed by Eugene Lee, that set resembled a sprawling Victorian iron foundry and gave the show presence in the enormous Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre where it originally played. Interestingly Lee’s equally impressive designs for Wicked now occupy that theater.
Unperturbed, Farwell notes that composer Sondheim had originally described Sweeney Todd as a chamber opera. "I am presenting a story not a spectacle," says Farwell. "The focus is on the story and the characters, not the "wow!" factor.
It is a trend that served the show well since that acclaimed, though financially unsuccessful initial Broadway run. Over the years smaller-scaled versions have played Broadway and London, most recently John Doyle’s visionary production that set the show in an insane asylum and featured the company supplying the musical accompaniment.
Farwell also praises small theaters such as Metro in giving enthusiasts the opportunity to see quality work at an affordable price. He has also found that "audiences like to see and develop relationships with actors they come to know." The Metro cast features Ben DiScipio as Sweeney Todd, Shana Dirik as Mrs. Lovett, and Phil Thompson as Judge Turpin. The music direction is by Maria Duaime and Kendra Alati.
Can Sweeney Todd work without the sensational trappings? Farwell believes so. "I believe the show has even more power when the audience is so close to the action."
Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opens Friday October 17 for two weekends at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre in Central Square, 820 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA. For more information visit the theater’s website.