Does London need another “Sweeney Todd”?
That’s the question raised by the imminent West End return of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In 2005, the West End waved goodbye to a production of “Todd” at the 380-seat Trafalgar Studios, where it ran for just 18 weeks.
That, however, was John Doyle’s smart but Weight Watchers-style compression of the piece with a cast of unknown actor-musicians. Next March will see the show’s arrival in the West End’s 1,469-seat Adelphi Theater in a full-fat version from Chichester Festival Theater, starring the wholly sensational double act of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, who have just finished a rapturously received SRO run.
Smartly but subtly updated to the 1930s by designer Anthony Ward and helmed by Jonathan Kent, this version of Sondheim’s masterpiece lives up to its “musical thriller” subtitle. Yet past West End productions of Sondheim’s works — including Richard Jones’ revelatory original London production of “Into the Woods” starring an Olivier-winning Staunton — have rarely earned anything approaching serious profit.
Contrast that with Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago,” which this week re-opened at the Garrick Theater, its third London home. It’s far from being the first tuner to play multiple London locations, but “Chicago” is notable for its longevity within the tuner revival category.
According to legit legend, musical revivals have only a short lifespan: the most producers should expect is a two-year run before box office droops. But “Chicago” opened (at the Adelphi, coincidentally) in November 1997 — a startling 14 years ago — in Walter Bobbie’s cunningly re-castable production.
The run has dealt enduring profit to its producers.
But those behind “Sweeney Todd” — lead producers Playful Prods., Bob Bartner, Old Vic Productions and Matthew Mitchell — are banking on a wholly different model geared specifically to a strictly limited 26-week season. The Adelphi is already booked for another unidentified incoming show at the end of 2012. (Smart money is on “The Book of Mormon.”)
Matthew Byam Shaw, lead producer at Playful, points out that they were in on the production from its inception.
“We worked closely with Jonathan Kent and Chichester producer Alan Finch, and enhanced the production budget to create a model that would have the ability to move,” he says.
Considering the grand scale — 10 principals, 16 ensemble players and a band of 15 that alone makes for a daunting pricetag in labor costs alone — the £2 million ($3.2 million) budget is nevertheless impressively low for the West End. Playful is general-managing the production, and Byam Shaw notes that partner Nick Salmon’s tightened production costs are well used.
“There’s no stinting on quality,” he says. “The entire company is coming in. Money is being spent where audiences will see it. The design is being enhanced to turn the Chichester’s open-stage production into the proscenium arch shape at the Adelphi.”
Their asset, he believes, is the pairing of the popular Ball in another unexpected role (he previously confounded expectations and won raves for his Edna Turnblad in the U.K. presentation of “Hairspray”) and formidable stage and screen star Staunton (“Vera Drake”).
Nonetheless, isn’t it a rather a tight window of opportunity through which to hope to turn a profit?
“Curiously, our slot is, I hope, good for our model,” Bryan Shaw says. “We feel we have a good chance of being a 2012 theatrical event. An unlimited run might be riskier.”