The musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — produced by the Yale Dramatic Association — opened on Wednesday night and will run through Nov. 23 at the University Theatre.
“Sweeney Todd” is a 1979 musical thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and is also a book written by Hugh Wheeler. The show won the 1979 Tony Award for Best Musical and 1980 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
“[Sweeney Todd] is the show that made me realize the power of theater,” said Noam Shapiro ’15, director of the 2019 Dramat Fall Mainstage musical.
Shapiro said that he first saw “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway in 2005. The show was also the 2011 Fall Mainstage, and the first Dramat show Shapiro watched in his first year at Yale.
The Dramat’s current rendition brings the story from its original setting in mid-19th-century England to the present, with set design inspired by London diners. The show explores cycles of violence, criminal injustice and betrayals of love — themes that Shapiro said are “still with us today.” The modern setting helps make the show’s issues feel present in today’s society, he added.
“At its core, the show is about how violent actions and a lust for revenge can corrupt even the best people, and how cruelty can spiral out of control,” Shapiro said.
Dramat President Joseph Bosco ’20 explained that the Fall Mainstage musical is selected based on discussions with both the Dramat board and broader Yale community. “Sweeney Todd” was announced as the Fall Mainstage in late February. The team hired a professional director and professional designers for the show.
Bosco said that the social issues in “Sweeney Todd” are especially relevant considering the current discussions about mass incarceration and political corruption. He added that the show “blends comedy and tragedy in a balanced and beautiful way.”
Producer Mikaela Boone ’21 noted that the production features a full team of female designers, which she said is uncommon in the male-dominated tech theater world. Boone added that the show enables the production team to build a diverse cast with first-time actors and students from different years and backgrounds. Shapiro said that the team intentionally cast the show with a diverse ensemble to reflect the diversity of the modern world.
Shapiro explained that the ensemble in the musical has a similar function to the chorus in a Greek drama, both commenting on the action and driving it forward.
Bosco said that because Shapiro was a Yale undergraduate himself, he understood the challenges of working on a theater production as a full-time student. At the same time, Shapiro is able to offer a professional perspective and connect students with the professional theater world.
According to Shapiro, one of the most exciting challenges he faced during this production was working with students with different levels of theater experience and diverse interests beyond the rehearsal room. He endeavored to bring individual interpretations into the show’s creation, Shapiro said. He added that he tried to make actors feel “as empowered, safe and fulfilled as possible” throughout the rehearsal process.
Rebecca Salzhauer ’22, who plays Mrs. Lovett, said in playing this “iconic role,” she has learned how to consider her own priorities in interpretation when approaching an often-depicted character. Salzhauer said that she tried to portray her character with empathy and focus on Mrs. Lovett’s love for Sweeney.
Shapiro said that the show is an “emotional rollercoaster.” He instituted wellness practices, such as warmup and cooldown exercises, to help the team differentiate between the story and reality. Salzhauer said she has appreciated this emphasis on personal well-being that helps actors deal with the play’s intense material.
“Even when we’re working on a show that is exploring some really dark themes, the rehearsal room is always a place of joy and experimentation and silliness,” Salzhauer said.
“Sweeney Todd” will run from Nov. 20 to 23, with shows at 8 p.m. each evening and an additional afternoon show at 2 p.m. on Nov. 22.
Carrie Zhou | firstname.lastname@example.org