“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a musical thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, may be one of the most famous musicals around. It’s won accolades and fans since its debut in 1979. Boise State’s Departments of Theatre Arts and Music will present their own take on the celebrated work, opening March 8 at the Special Events Center.
The piece tells the tale of Sweeney, a barber in Victorian England, who gets revenge on a society that has done him wrong by killing his unsuspecting, well-heeled clients. His partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, turns the victims’ bodies into meat pies.
“It’s a comment on the topsy-turvy nature of Victorian society, and how the upper classes ‘fed’ off the lower classes, using them and abusing them socially, and in employment,” said Darrin Pufall, an associate professor of theatre arts. He is the show’s director and costume designer. “Here the lower classes are literally feeding on the upper classes.”
The story and its characters exist in a limbo zone, half urban legend, half news accounts. Similar crimes may, or may not have actually happened. Whatever the case, the story of the murderous barber has been around for a long time — even before Sondheim set it to music. The story appeared in “penny dreadfuls,” popular illustrated melodramas during the Victorian age. It appeared in films, including a 2007 version that paired Johnny Depp with director Tim Burton. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival staged “Sweeney Todd” as part of its 2013 season. Presenting such a well-known piece came with certain challenges for the Boise State crew.
“Audiences have an expectation that we’ll deliver something new,” said Pufall.
Since this is a murder story, the production designers had to find a creative way to “show the body count,” he said.
Pufall hit on the idea of using neckties to represent the growing number of victims with slit throats. Watch for neckties transformed into upholstery, neckties transformed into the costumes characters wear. Even Mrs. Lovett, the malevolent baker, wears a dress made of blue neckties. Pufall based that costume on a story he read about a criminal who may have been the real world inspiration for Mrs. Lovett. When that Mrs. Lovett was in prison, she sent for a blue dress to wear during her trial. Unbeknownst to her jailers, there was poison sewn into the pocket. She killed herself to avoid doing time. It doesn’t matter to Pufall whether or not anyone gets the reference. It’s just one in a mix of clever visual elements. The character of a judge, for example, has a cane topped with a gavel. Touches like these lend a sense of things cobbled together, what Pufall calls a “Frankenstein” mix, but one where nothing is accidental or without meaning.
Boise State audiences will see a stripped down set for this version of “Sweeney Todd.” It’s not necessarily true to Victorian style, but will give a sense of desperate times.
“People in that era lived a rough life,” said Michael Baltzell, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts who designed the production’s sets. “This is the Industrial Revolution. Buildings are being torn down and built up. There are all of these contrasts, not unlike today, with the lower classes being pushed out,” Baltzell said.
The multi-level set will reflect that kind of motion, with people moving through space, some shown in silhouette, and lighting used to great effect.
“We will have this sense of society being picked clean,” said Pufall. “The set exposes everything.”
That includes Sweeney’s victims hurtling down a chute to their doom. The show is technically demanding, said Baltzell. Creating a sense of chaos required utmost control of all technical aspects, and meant many sleepless nights, he added. Sweeney’s famous barber chair — the last chair in which many of his victims will ever sit — is a character itself.
“Sweeney refers to it as another of his friends. In the same way he references his razors,” said Baltzell. “A lot of work went into figuring out how to engineer that.”
Pufall estimates that around 150 people, from students, faculty and staff, gave countless hours, not to mention “blood, sweat and tears” — appropriate imagery for “Sweeney Todd” — to the production.
Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. March 8-10 and 15-17, and 2 p.m. March 11 and 18 at the Boise State Special Events Center. Tickets are available at the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts Box Office or online at ticketmaster.com. More information: firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 426-3957.