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Taking On a Still Razor-Sharp ‘Sweeney Todd’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“A ttend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.”

These chilling words begin Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s seminal 1979 Tony Award-winning musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” And for Halloween, PBS is presenting a staged concert version of the musical starring Tony Award winners George Hearn (“La Cage aux Folles,” “Sunset Blvd.”) and Patti LuPone (“Evita,” “Anything Goes”), as well as Neil Patrick Harris and Davis Gaines. Directed by Lonny Price (“A Class Act”), “Sweeney Todd in Concert: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was taped live during two performances with the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in July.

For many musical theater aficionados, “Sweeney Todd” is the artistic triumph of composer Sondheim’s career. The 71-year-old Sondheim has also composed the musically demanding, lyrically sophisticated scores for such eclectic and uncompromising musicals as “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods.”

“Stephen Sondheim is to die for,” says Broadway theater producer Chase Mishkin (“Dance of Death”), executive producer of the PBS concert. “I am of the opinion of a lot of people in Broadway theater that musicals are indebted forever to guys like Stephen Sondheim. I think he is as good as it gets.

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“‘Sweeney’ is just incomparable--the music, the lyrics.”

Hearn replaced original “Sweeney” star Len Cariou on Broadway in 1981 as a once-celebrated London barber out to seek revenge. He appeared in Los Angeles 20 years ago at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the national touring company.

The setup for the story begins with the lecherous Judge Turpin (Timothy Nolen), who seduced Todd’s beautiful wife and, in order to get Todd out of the way, sent the barber to prison in Australia on trumped-up charges. After Todd’s wife supposedly committed suicide, Todd’s infant daughter, Johanna, became his ward. Now that she is a beautiful young woman (Lisa Vroman), Turpin has set his sights on marrying her.

Returning to London bent on having Turpin pay for his deeds, an angry, vengeful Todd is befriended by Mrs. Lovett (LuPone), an unsuccessful pie shop owner who has her eye on the barber. Together, they come up with a very creative way of obtaining meat for her pies. Gaines plays a sailor who has fallen in love with Johanna, and Harris is Tobias Ragg, a young man who works at the pie shop.

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The score includes such haunting tunes as “Johanna,” “No Place Like London” and “Not While I’m Around.”

“It’s truly a wonder,” Hearn says of the role. “I keep hearing things I didn’t hear before. The score is so thoroughly composed, there is something going on all the time.”

Although it is a revenge thriller with plenty of black humor mixed in for good measure, Hearn has always envisioned “Sweeney Todd” as a love story “primarily because I wanted to explain why the spring is so tight in the guy. My guess was it was because of love.”

He compares Sondheim’s lyrics to the works of Shakespeare. “I did a lot of Shakespeare over the years,” Hearn says. “I love language. When I met Stephen for the first time, it was wonderful. The man takes the language as seriously as the music.”

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Last year, Price directed LuPone and Hearn in a staged concert of “Sweeney” with the New York Philharmonic. Renowned baritone Bryn Terfel was set to play opposite her last year until a back problem caused him to withdraw at the last moment.

“We were saved by the bell by George,” says LuPone. “Because George had done it before, he sort of led us through it.... It was very last-minute, and he was a godsend.”

Although some actresses have played up the comedic aspects of Mrs. Lovett, LuPone brings out the character’s darker side while also having fun with the part. “Mrs. Lovett is loopy, kind of loony,” she says. “It’s a sexual part. She’s ambitious and she wants Mr. Todd to be her man. He’s not interested in her, but she would like to be respectable. She says that in ‘By the Sea.’ They have a respectable business and they would retire to the seaside ever after.”

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It was Sondheim who gave her insight into her character. “He said that Mrs. Lovett’s villainy is her pragmatism. She isn’t doing anything,” says LuPone. “She is trying to accomplish what she needs to get on with her life, and if that means baking human bits into meat pies, then so be it.”

Director Price says “Sweeney Todd” wouldn’t have worked if it had been staged as a typical concert with actors standing onstage in front of microphones.

“I thought we couldn’t do that because there was simultaneous action. You have to be in the pie shop, the house and the barbershop at the same time. So I came up with the idea of surrounding the orchestra with a series of platforms so that it would give the show a great deal of energy. They would have to be very large platforms because you had 65 musicians and everyone running around the stage performing it. I also used a Kabuki style with everyone in black. I call it ‘Pacific Overtures Meets Sweeney Todd.”’

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“Sweeney Todd in Concert: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KCET and 9 p.m. on KVCR. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).


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