BWW Interviews: Landless Theatre Company's SWEENEY TODD Promises A Little Priest and A Lot of Prog-Metal
When Landless Theatre Company announced that they were not only staging a production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but a Prog-Metal version of the musical, it caused many theatergoers to ask two questions: what is Prog-Metal and what does this mean for a show many consider a masterpiece?
"Prog-Metal is very intricate and complicated. It borrows from classical and jazz and is almost classical itself in structure," says Sweeney Todd's Director Melissa Baughman. "It [Prog-Metal] is not going to be like Poison does Sweeney Todd, it's very serious. We are giving a theatrical interpretation of metal which will highlight some of the darker elements of the show."
This production is the fulfillment of a lifelong passion for Baughman, one which marries metal and theater. Growing up she used to write metal operas, although she now admits with a laugh that they weren't very good. With Sweeney Todd, she and Landless have the opportunity to introduce a whole new audience to metal.
"A lot of what Prog-Metal does is what Sondheim does," says Musical Director Charles Johnson. "One of those things is the heavy use of meter changes. Both [Prog-Metal and Sondheim] do that."
The genesis for Landless' Sweeney Todd was the result of their 2013 production of the Richard Campbell rock musical Frankenstein. Having wanted to stage a Sondheim show, the creative team realized that Sweeney Todd was the most adaptable to the Prog-Metal style. That led Landless Artistic Director Andrew Baughman to write what he previously described as a "Hail Mary" letter to Sondheim seeking his permission. To everyone's surprise, the composer agreed with a few stipulations.
"His involvement was that he wanted the final say on our arrangements or cuts. So our arrangers worked really hard and fast to give them [the arrangements] to him. Afterwards, he then let us know what he wanted cut and what he was ok with," says Baughman. "What was great about working with him was that he had his involvement in this project and he also gave us the respect of being artists and allowing us to present his work with our vision."
For Baughman, that vision included staying true to the script. When it came to staging the production, she was quick to dismiss any notion that a Prog-Metal Sweeney Todd would include the Demon Barber of Fleet Street smashing a guitar into an amplifier. In fact, her vision is quite the opposite saying that for her, the most challenging aspect of this production has been to stay true to the story.
"It's easy to get whipped up about what your idea of Sweeney Todd is and what the show should be. But, it really is about being true to the show," says Baughman. "It is sticking close to the script and marrying Sondheim's words to this vision. What I do as the director is go back to the script. What is it telling me?"
Two major challenges the creative team faced were to see what effect changing the show's musical style would have on the score and casting performers who could sing in the Prog-Metal style. Johnson says that the creative team was adamant about remaining true to Sondheim and Prog-Metal, not wanting to slight either one.
"When we did our first sitzprobe we sort of banged our way through the score," says Johnson. "Now, we hit a song, it may seem problematic, we come back and it's down. Everyone is going home and doing their homework which has been great."
Because Prog-Metal is very rhythmic and technical, changing the musical style of Sweeney Todd has made some of the songs more challenging according to Baughman. Two examples of which are "The Barber and His Wife" and "Pretty Women." When it came to casting this production the creative team looked for actors who could sing in a rock style.
"Several of our principle actors are front people from metal bands in the area, they have the voices we're looking for," says Baughman. "We're looking for people who could sing in a rock style. We had them submit MP3s of them singing in the rock style."
As for the band for this production, it will consist of bass, drums, two guitars and two keyboards. Johnson says, "When you talk Prog-Metal, your heart is heavy guitar, bass percussion and there is room for a piano."
With the show beginning performances this week, one thing is for certain, the tale of Sweeney Todd audiences are about to attend at Landless will be unlike anything they've ever heard before.
"I just want people to come in with an open mind and experience Sweeney Todd as if they're seeing it for the first time. I want them to come and enjoy metal for the music that it is. Into the Woods at the Martin Beck Theatre was my first Broadway show," says Baughman. "Sitting there I realized that I needed to do theater for the rest of my life. This [The Landless Production] is theater for a whole new generation!"
Johnson is quick to echo her sentiment, "Look, we're just trying to present something new and our hope is that people enjoy it."
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is currently running thru August 31 at the Warehouse Theater - 645 New York Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20001. For more information and tickets please visit the Landless Theatre Company website: http://www.landlesstheatre.com/
Photo: Andrew Lloyd Baughman as Sweeney Todd in Landless Theatre Company's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Credit: Brandon Penick Photography