Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Jones Theatre
Article by Elena Welsh and Ash Delias
Clouds of smoke danced through the shadows of the stage, ominously obscuring parts of the multifaceted two-story set on stage. The theater buzzed with excitement. I, for one, was looking forward to our school’s perspective on one of my favorite musicals, Sweeney Todd. The lights abruptly turned off, taking the noise of the audience with them. With a crescendo of frantic string instruments, the play began.
Sweeney Todd is a notoriously difficult musical to perform, but I believe our theater department did a lovely job. The set was much grander than I was expecting, and the designers and performers navigated the double-decker homicides in a fascinating and morbidly hilarious way. The vocals were impressive, costumes well designed, and the acting was brilliant. My partner and I thoroughly enjoyed our experience watching this performance.
The performance was hosted on the weekends of April 1st and 8th, and every show was packed with audience members. The cast members and crew conveyed their passion for the performance with each act, and the appreciative onlookers could feel it.
The story of Sweeney Todd began as a penny dreadful, serialized over the course of eighteen weeks. Years of literary adaptation and inspired rewriting led to the version of the tale we have today. The 1973 version was a play written by Christopher Bond, and was the first to include a more sympathetic Todd, adding his backstory as Benjamin Barker and the ensuing melodrama. The musical adaptation was written by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler in 1979. It won many awards, was adapted into a film (starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter), and eventually made its way to the Southwestern University stage. Fun fact: There was also a 2012 rock musical adaptation called TODD by the Russian band Kороль и Шут (Korol i Shut – King and Jester).
My co-writer, Ash, interviewed some of the performers. Her questions and their answers are below:
Faith Madsen, a sophomore theater and education major, starred in the role of Beggar Woman, Sweeney’- wife-turned-crazed-homeless-woman. When prompted with the question, “what do you want the audience to enjoy most in the show,” she replied, “I want them to be enveloped in Sweeney Todd and really be taken for a ride.” Well Faith, wish granted! It was hard not to scream during the various gruesome deaths; the cast did such an exemplary job engaging the audience that I felt more like a frightened onlooker in 18th century streets of London than a member of the audience at an American university. Faith’s character was certainly one of the most entertaining characters in the show, so I asked her what her favorite part of playing the beggar woman was, to which she responded, “my favorite part is that it allows me to tap into a part of acting that most characters aren’t able to play with. I can experiment with anything on stage, and it makes for a very fun time playing my character.” As my co-writer, Elena, mentioned, Sweeney Todd is one of the most difficult musicals to produce and Southwestern put it together in 2 months. Faith, you not only tapped-in, but embodied the Beggar Woman in a way that both entertained and moved the audience to tears. In fact, you did so well that I was surprised to see you in comms without a British accent and hysterical look in your eyes!
No musical can realize its full potential without the supporting roles. Claire Haughey, a member of the ensemble, shared with me that her favorite song to sing was “God That’s Good. I prompted Claire with the question, “if someone just randomly wandered into the show, which part would you want them to wander in and see?” Claire expressed that she would want someone to wander in during the ‘Epiphany” scene. She explained, “this is where Sweeney understands his plan and what he has to do; he goes into a manic state and knows what he’s going to do and plans to kill all the people. Cayden does a great job!” Kyle Bussone-Peterson played Thomas Turner, another member of the ensemble and also enjoyed the epiphany aspect of Sweeney Todd. He shared that his favorite character was the Beggar Woman due to the complexity of her role, stating, “you fully get to discover who she is as the narrative unravels, and you get to tie it back to the beginning. It’s like an aha moment.” Kyle’s favorite scene was “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and when asked what one message he thinks people should take away from Sweeney Todd, he wisely declared, “Steven Sondheim’s grudge–holding onto the past prevents you from living in the future.” Claire and Kyle, along with all the other supporting cast members did a wonderful job transforming the Jonas Theater into London circa 1785, and a manic one at that.
Last and most certainly not least, I interviewed the one and only Sweeney Todd, played by the charming and musically-inclined junior, Cayden Couchman. Similar to Kyle and Claire, Cayden’s favorite song was Epiphany. “It was the most vocally exciting one and it’s the pinnacle of the musical. It’s Sweeney’s ‘this is what I want’ song.” Like Faith’s role, Sweeney is a character that can appear to be far-fetched from a role that parallels more closely with real-life. Cayden shared, “this is a role I had to work most to become something different while acting.” When asked what the most challenging part of the role was, he replied, “trying to capture Sweeney’s grief without overplaying the character, in other words, making it realistic.” While Cayden couldn’t relate to the aspect of Sweeney’s persona that was driven to murder anyone who could have possibly been a threat or enemy, I believe we can all relate to his desire for revenge that often stems from holding grudges, as Kyle was expressing. Cayden shared that the main theme he wants everyone to take from the musical is the consequences of hatred and revenge. He wants everyone to pay attention to what holding grudges can do to one mentally and the implications of letting them eat at you.
Sweeney Todd has been one of my most favorite shows that the Southwestern theater department has put on. Though more lengthy, running at about 3 hours including the intermission, I was invested in every second of it. “Joanna” and “The Worst Pies in London” have been streaming on my spotify ever since. The actors put on a mesmerizing performance and truly became the characters they were playing. I was genuinely taken aback by Katherine Lunum’s ability to play her role so well. Every non-verbal cue and facial expression she made was well in-tune with her character. Sebastian Fernandez, who played Pirelli, also astounded me with the mastery of his character, and I was encapsulated by Will Malick, Antony’s, smooth voice! Abigail Bensman starred as Joanna and her vibrato added beautiful texture to an ingenue character. Southwestern’s fine-arts department truthfully mastered a difficult musical. Shout out to the production team for the amazing lighting, sound, and stage design! The world of Sweeney Todd could not have come to life without you!