Drama dept. brings a Demon Barber to Dartmouth

by Jess McCarter | 5/7/97 5:00am

Musical theater returns to Dartmouth with the opening of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" at the Hopkins Center. "Sweeney Todd," which was written by Stephen Sondheim, is based on a Christopher Bond adaptation of a classic morality tale that has been floating around France and England for centuries.

Directed by James Lucas, the Dartmouth production features a stellar cast of students and alumni. Lucas, a visiting professor, has taught at other universities, including Indiana University, and specializes in opera.

So what is an opera specialist doing directing a musical? As Lucas explains it, "Sweeney Todd" actually fits the mold of an grand opera, not a musical comedy. Despite its elements of tragedy, Sondheim wanted "Sweeney Todd" to be considered a comic operetta.

Sweeney Todd is a man fueled by overwhelming vengeance, someone exacting his revenge for the harsh circumstances that have been dealt to him. By killing those who have been so cruel, Todd releases the anger that has been driving him.

A monster hero is not particularly common. However, Sondheim makes Todd's actions at least acceptable, if not justifiable. The unreality of the other characters in the operetta, particularly the lovers Anthony and Johanna, makes Todd's killings unreal as well.

By divorcing murder from humanity, Todd's actions are made acceptable by Sondheim. Not necessarily moral or right, simply acceptable. The acceptance of his actions by others, particularly the female lead, Mrs. Lovett, makes them acceptable to the audience as well.

The epiphany piece draws all these matters to a head. Todd's epiphany helps to explain why he has done what he has done, and is a particularly long number. Details about how a judge and his evil assistant conspired to send Sweeney to jail and steal his wife are woven into an explanation of Todd's unusual behavior.

It was the Dartmouth Department of Drama that originated the idea for the show, which is a collaboration between the Music and Drama departments. This sort of collaboration makes it possible to produce expensive musicals, such as "Sweeney Todd."

James Lucas, who was most recently working with the Arizona Opera company on Verdi's La Traviata, became involved because of his interest in directing the piece. "This is really my cup of tea. Not a choreography show -- a director show, a very real drama."

Working with students instead of professionals has also been a satisfying experience. "I have always worked with students and adore it," said Lucas. "I get to be nice. When I teach at conservatories, I'm mean and nasty."

Once involved, Lucas went all out, buying several versions of the score and story, going all the way back to a version from the last century. But he sees the genius within Sondheim's version. "Sondheim is one of the most intelligent of modern day composers and I don't just mean those composing musicals."

Sondheim's work is both dense and complex. Matthew B. Gordon '98 cautions viewers to pay close attention to the operetta. "It has so many beautiful and complex plot devices and musical clues that if you don't listen carefully, you could miss them."

The operetta is not for the faint of heart. "It's both shockingly violent in its content and music and yet really beautiful and funny," Gordon said.

In all there are eight on-stage murders, with the implication that Sweeney could have performed many more. "That's a lot of ketchup," quipped Lucas.

Of course the blood will be more sophisticated than that. It will be an elaborate stage variety, designed to not only look authentic but to wash out of the costumes fairly easily.

In fact, a good deal of work has gone into sets, staging and lighting. The lighting designing duties where carried out by Dan Kotlowitz, with Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili as the stage and costume designer.

The production appears to have come together quite well and those involved offer several reasons why Dartmouth students should see "Sweeney Todd." Gordon points out the uniqueness of the operetta. "The great thing about this musical is that it's so different from any musical you've ever seen before -- it's more like a dark opera than what you'd call a fluffy musical."

Lucas focuses on the ability and skill of the students and the author. "This is a masterwork. To see a great work performed well by your colleagues is something to take advantage of."

"Sweeney Todd" opens Thursday, May 8 in the Moore Theater at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts.