Ask a student on campus to say the first thing that comes to mind when you say “Sweeney Todd” and they might say “Johnny Depp,” in reference to the 2007 movie directed by Tim Burton, but they’re missing the history surrounding the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
“We’ve done quite a bit of research,” said assistant professor of theater Chaya Gordon-Bland. “Mythically, the story was based on a real set of killings that happened on Fleet Street in 1846. It was immediately adapted into a play in 1847.”
Gordon-Bland is the director of the University of South Dakota Theatre Department’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” It premieres Wednesday in the Wayne S. Knutson Theatre in the Warren M. Lee Center for the Fine Arts at 7:30 p.m. and will play through Saturday. There will also be a matinee show on Sunday at 2 p.m.
According to Gordon-Bland, the story of “Sweeney Todd” was published in “penny dreadfuls” and adapted for radio broadcast and ballet before it “came into life as we know it in the ‘70s as a play,” Bland said.
“Those earlier productions were melodramas, and melodrama has very black and white notions of good and evil,” Gordon-Bland said. “The ‘70s version made Sweeney Todd into a fully fleshed out human being. Stephen Sondheim latched onto it from there.”
Gordon-Bland described “Sweeney Todd” as an epic piece.
“Sondheim wanted to create music to support the story on this epic scale,” she said.
The “epic” story starts with a London barber who is accused of crimes he didn’t commit, by a judge who lusts after his wife. He is sent away and the musical opens with his return to London and his search to learn what became of his wife and infant daughter.
Assistant professor of theatre Matt Nesmith will portray the character of Sweeney Todd and said it is a very demanding role.
“This is one of the great roles in the musical theatre cannon,” he said. “Sweeney is a mass-murderer spree killer, so finding elements to justify his actions and make the audience root for him is difficult.”
According to Nesmith, it is not unheard of for a professor to be part of the cast of a major production.
“It isn’t something we do very often. Maybe it’s an every other year kind of thing,” he said, “but it lets students have a chance to work with professionals and there are certain roles that require someone of a certain age which just isn’t doable with a collage-age casting pool.”
Nesmith said he is also looking forward to performing with his students.
“This opportunity is great,” he said. “I get to practice what I preach in class.”
Gordon-Bland said “Sweeney Todd” is an immensely complex musical.
“The first level of complexity is the music,” she said. “It’s an incredible score. People argue about whether it’s a musical or opera because the music tells the story as much as the words.”
The technical requirements for the show are another issue Gordon-Bland said she’s been dealing with.
“The show requires blood, guns, slides, trap doors and all sorts of technical components that must function in a very specific way to tell the story,” she said. “Then there’s the way the action unfolds. There are a lot of scenes and settings with simultaneous action.”
Gordon-Bland said she isn’t worried about being compared to Tim Burton’s film adaptation, but is hoping it will help sell tickets.
“It’s not Tim Burton’s show,” she said. “The play has been adapted so many times and Tim Burton’s movie was just one of them. Film and theater are very different experiences.”
Nesmith laughed when asked if he was worried about being compared to Johnny Depp.
“Certainly that’s the most recent comparison,” he said, “but it’s a completely different experience from the movie and as soon as folks see me in the production the comparisons will end there.”
Sophomore Ruthie Wetzel said she hasn’t seen the movie but is looking forward to the musical.
“I’ve heard from friends that it’s their favorite movie or musical and they are super excited about seeing this, so I’m jumping on the bandwagon,” she said.
Despite the horde of people who’ve been gushing about “Sweeney Todd” around Wetzel, she doesn’t know what she’s looking forward to the most.
“I’m not sure what to expect,” she said.
Reach reporter Jordan Foye at Jordan.Foye@usd.edu.