“There are not many taboos left,” said Jonathan Fox, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Company. “When you think about it, we’re down to incest and cannibalism. Not that murder is okay, but it’s certainly not a taboo subject in the theater.” Fox told me this by way of reflecting on the mischievous kernel at the core of Stephen Sondheim’s great musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which famously revolves around a scheme to fill pastries with parts of people. Fox will be directing this notoriously challenging (and rewarding) classic to kick off Ensemble Theatre Company’s 2015-16 season in the New Vic theater, and knowing both the play and the company, it will be a wild ride.
So, how does Sondheim, the acclaimed master of the Broadway musical form, handle a taboo subject like cannibalism? With humor, of course. In a fine English literary tradition that extends from Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” to the classic civil-rights protest song “Strange Fruit,” the metaphor of dead people becoming food has a long history as the fighting words of authors who are so disgusted with crimes against humanity that they need to break a taboo to point them out. Sondheim’s musical version of this gruesome urban myth has as its proximate source Christopher Bond’s 1970 play of the same name. It was Bond who took the serial killer Sweeney and gave him motivation, which is that he has been unfairly convicted and deported by a corrupt judge who covets his beautiful wife.
For Sondheim as for Bond before him, Sweeney’s murderous rampage has some of the righteous flavor of class warfare. As Fox explained to me, the lyrics of the show are full of clever references to the fact that in Sweeney’s new world order, “those above will serve those below.” The poor, who are the market for what are acknowledged to be “the worst pies in London,” will soon eat the rich, who are the demon barber’s victims.
Translating what was a Broadway musical into an idiom appropriate to a theater the size of the New Vic requires a powerful concept and an outstanding cast. Fortunately, this production looks set on both scores. The cast includes David Studwell as Sweeney, Heather Ayers as Mrs. Lovett, and Karole Foreman, star of last season’s dramatic hit Intimate Apparel, who will give the role of the Beggar a new twist. Studwell’s performance as Cervantes/Quixote in PCPA’s Man of La Mancha was a highlight of the summer season, and it will be a pleasure to have him back in an equally exciting part and indoors, where his powerful voice will surely impress.
As for the concept, Fox cites the nervous balance between humor and terror achieved on film by Alfred Hitchcock, and confesses that his own squeamishness about blood and gore had previously kept him away from the piece. He assured me that this intimate production would scare people without grossing them out.
Sweeney Todd will be followed by Women in Jeopardy!, I Am My Own Wife, Bad Jews, and Fallen Angels. Season subscriptions are a great idea because, in addition to saving money, as Fox put it, “You may not know what play you are going to love.” —Charles Donelan
Sweeney Todd plays October 8-25 at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). Showtimes vary. Admission is $35 general, $20 for 29 and younger. Call (805) 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com for more information.