There are few names in the legit lexicon more sacred than Stephen Sondheim. Except, perhaps, for “Sweeney Todd.”
The composer inspires zealous reactions among musical-theater aficionados, but “Sweeney” gets them particularly passionate; it’s likely the composer-lyricist’s most revered tuner in a hallowed body of work that includes “A Little Night Music,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods.” So you’d think a Broadway revival of “Sweeney” would have an instant, loyal fan base.
Radically reimagined by Brit director-designer John Doyle as a pared-down chamber piece in which 10 performers act, sing and play the notoriously complex score, a current revival of “Sweeney” is already eliciting the kind of fervent, divisive reactions more common to the sharp-toothed sniping of the opera world.
Web chatrooms have buzzed with love/hate extremes since the $3.5 million production, starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, began previews Oct. 3 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. And we haven’t even gotten to the critics yet, who’ll weigh in once the show opens Nov. 3.
“I read the Internet, too. There are people who are completely outraged,” says Richard Frankel, one of the producers of “Sweeney,” with a resigned chuckle.
Many of the show’s biggest fans come to the new production with preconceptions based on earlier incarnations. “I had a friend see our show and say, ‘It’s so hard to get the original out of my head,’ ” says Alexander Gemignani, who appears in the current revival.
“Sweeney” is considered a masterwork of American musical theater. The darkly comic tale of a serial-killing barber and the woman who bakes his victims into pies, “Sweeney” got what many consider the perfect production when it bowed on Broadway in 1979, with Hal Prince directing Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in a cast of 26.
That large-scale staging is preserved on an original cast recording and on DVD (with George Hearn replacing Cariou) and has become the stuff of legend. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you probably know exactly what Lansbury’s funhouse wig looked like.
A 1989 Broadway revival, directed by Susan H. Schulman, reduced the size of “Sweeney” by about a dozen actors, and was nominated for multiple Tonys — but also was mockingly labeled “Teeney Todd” in a Forbidden Broadway spoof.
In the last several years, the tuner has started to become a regular presence on the opera circuit. In March 2004, New York City Opera remounted Prince’s staging in a production starring Elaine Paige.
Doyle’s “Sweeney” comes to Gotham buoyed by the glowing reviews it earned in the U.K., where it originated at the Watermill and went on to the West End.
But “Sweeney” is more sacrosanct Stateside than it is in London. “When I overhear people standing under the marquee during the interval, I’m always struck by how well they know the show,” Doyle says. And with thesps doubling as orchestra, Sondheim purists worry the demanding score will suffer without professional musicians to do it justice.
“All of that brings pressure,” Doyle admits. He contends, though, that every ensemble member is an accomplished musician. And this stripped-down approach is more than a gimmick for him: He’s done it for more than a decade, with shows such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Candide.”
“It’s not about look-how-clever-we-are,” Doyle says. “It’s a way of looking at an actor as a complete performer — actor, singer, musician, storyteller.”
With just 10 musicians, all of whom have to contend with simultaneous acting and staging duties, orchestrator Sarah Travis had to problem-solve her way through Sondheim’s score. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” she says.
Which may help explain how this “Sweeney” got Broadway diva LuPone playing the tuba — an incongruous image always mentioned in the show’s pre-opening buzz.
“The tuba is such a bawdy instrument, it works very well for the character,” Travis says.
Such musical felicities are exactly what are gained in this staging, according to Doyle. “Sondheim’s work is so character-based, there’s a way of seeing and hearing the instruments in relation to the character.”
“I’ve never felt like I was acting through my instrument before,” says Gemignani, who plays piano and trumpet in the show.
The actor has a long-standing relationship with “Sweeney.” His father, Paul, is Sondheim’s best-known music director and conductor, and Alexander was born during the original Broadway production.
Paul, for the record, loves the “Sweeney” revival; Sondheim too has given it his stamp of approval.
Still, Doyle concedes, “people who come wanting a massive scoring might be disappointed.”
So how do you prepare theatergoers for the show’s austere aesthetic?
“It’s very difficult to explain, so we really haven’t tried,” Frankel says. “The marketing strategy has been to put it out there and let people discover it.”
That approach has yielded a respectable $3 million advance, and the hope that auds will come with an open mind.
“They have to take an imaginative leap,” Doyle says. “We can storytell differently. We can say, ‘Yes, we don’t have a pie shop onstage. Please help us to create it.’ “