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The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Theater department opens “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Cast and crew members of this year’s winter musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” share their perspectives on the production process.
Printed with permission of Woo Sim
Cayley Tolbert-Schwartz ’24, who plays Mrs. Lovett, sings alongside patrons of her meat pie shop.

Walking to rehearsal while attending a summer theatre program, Elise Fried ’24 and Anna Ames ’24 eagerly discussed their favorite Broadway shows. With their senior year approaching, Fried and Ames knew the winter musical was going to be announced soon and nervously awaited the news. Suddenly, Fried felt a buzz in her pocket and took out her phone to see an email notification from Performing Arts Teacher Sabrina Washburn. Upon seeing “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was chosen, Fried dropped to her knees out of excitement.

“When I found out about the show, I fell to my knees dramatically because ‘Sweeney Todd’ is my favorite musical,” Fried said. “There are so many Broadway shows that I love, but I find it so impressive how much care Stephen Sondheim put into ‘Sweeney Todd.’ The music is really beautiful, but it also ties so many different themes together and often foreshadows events [that occur] in the show. Every time I listen to [cast] recordings, I am floored by the intricacy of the music and the care that was put into creating it, so I was just so excited that we would have the opportunity to emulate such a complex show.”

Set in Victorian London, “Sweeney Todd” is a dark and comedic musical that tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a barber who is wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt judge. After years of suffering, Barker escapes and returns to London under the new identity of Sweeney Todd. Consumed by a desire for revenge, he resumes his barber profession and forms a gruesome plan with his landlord, Mrs. Lovett, to exact vengeance on the judge and those who wronged him.

With music and lyrics written by Sondheim and a script written by Hugh Wheeler, “Sweeney Todd” is based on a 1970 play adapted from a nineteenth-century penny dreadful — sensational stories published in weekly parts.Since the musical opened in 1979, there have been multiple revivals, international productions, national tours and a 2007 movie. A current Broadway revival of the musical opened in March 2023, subsequently grossing over $20 million and winning two Tony Awards.

Fried, who plays Adolfa Pirelli, said because of the show’s current run on Broadway, the prospect of the school creating its own version was exciting.

“I have been following the current Broadway revival of ‘Sweeney Todd’ since it was announced,” Fried said. “My acting class got to see the show in October when we visited New York City, and [it] was fantastic. The set was beautiful, the effects were really cool and the actors did an amazing job. We are obviously not Broadway, but when the show was announced, I was really excited to see how we would make the show our own. I started thinking about what our set, costumes and blood effects would look like.”

Performing Arts Teacher Michele Spears, who is directing the show, said “Sweeney Todd” impressed her because of its mix of grandeur and personal moments.

“What stood out to me when deciding what show to produce was how big yet intimate it is,” Spears said. “Sondheim describes ‘Sweeney Todd’ as being a movie on stage, and it really feels that way. The music is operatic and the show is chaotic, but every moment reveals so much about the characters. I’m a big believer that there’s so much to learn about the potential of musical theater through Sondheim, and this show provides so many learning opportunities for actors because of the degree to which music and storytelling are intertwined.”

“Sweeney Todd” is an operata, featuring very little spoken dialogue, as the majority of the musical takes place through song. Additionally, the majority of scenes with dialogue are underscored with music. The school’s production will feature a 21-piece orchestra to produce this music. Ames said she enjoys the show’s emphasis on storytelling through music.

“Something interesting about ‘Sweeney Todd’ is that almost the entire show is set to music, making it different from recent musicals we’ve done that have both straight scenes and musical numbers,” Ames said. “I think it is so interesting to watch the story unfold through the music.”

Spears said she was interested in the show’s thematic exploration of human emotion and the dichotomy of good and evil.

“The show examines the spectrum of human emotion, and more specifically, what does it take in one’s life to tip them one way or the other,” Spears said. “Diving into this epic story about good and evil, and whether they are separated or intertwined, is such a compelling experience. The story has both horror and comedic elements, which adds to that exploration of duality since laughter and tears are not far apart in our own lives. This show is a thrill ride for the audiences, and I think like any good horror film, people will be left reflecting on their own lives.”

In the school’s production, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are portrayed by Ian Kim ’24 and Cayley Tolbert-Schwartz ’24. Tolbert-Schwartz said she enjoys portraying a character with complex motives that result in sinister actions.

“[Mrs. Lovett] is a character that is very different from a lot of the characters I usually play,” Tolbert-Schwartz said. “There’s something so twisted about her thought process, and it’s kind of fun to explore that and try to humanize that. I think her relationship with Sweeney is kind of the most humanizing thing about her. She does all these horrible things, but most of them she just does for him.”

Tolbert-Schwartz said exploring her character has allowed her to improve her acting abilities.

“I definitely feel like I have grown as an actor,” Tolbert-Schwartz said. “It has been a lot of character study for me where I’ve just been working on making sure I really understand [Mrs. Lovett] as a character. I’ve realized that as an actress, like, if I understand the character really deeply, the movements and the emotions will just kind of come naturally.”

The musical features a Greek Chorus ensemble that narrates the story and influences the events of the show. Ames said being a part of the Greek Chorus has been a rewarding experience due to its unique role in the show.

“The ensemble in ‘Sweeney Todd’ is different from any ensemble I have been a part of,” Ames said. “We take on the roles of many different characters and mainly serve as kind of a collective narrator for the story. Sometimes it seems as though we are existing in the minds of the characters, sometimes we are a part of the world and sometimes we are looking at it from an outside perspective. It has been really interesting to explore as actors.”

Traditionally, the Theater Department stages productions as actors learn the music. However, due to the size of “Sweeney Todd,” actors spent a month learning the music before stepping on stage to learn blocking. Isaac Tiu ’24, who plays Tobias Ragg, said the show’s rehearsal timeline allowed the cast to become confident with the music before working on other elements.

“The rehearsal process for ‘Sweeney Todd’ has been unlike any other rehearsal process I’ve experienced because of how complex and vocally demanding this show is,” Tiu said. “With that in mind, we spent the first month of our process just having vocal rehearsals where only the music was rehearsed. By doing that, we were able to really grasp the complex music and establish our sound as an ensemble. With a thorough month of vocal rehearsals, we were able to focus on staging the show and tackling the complex scenes instead of worrying about the difficulty of the music.”

An iconic component of “Sweeney Todd” is Todd’s modified barber chair, which he uses to dispose of his victims after slitting their throats, according to Playbill. Performing Arts Teacher and Master Carpenter Rees Pugh built a chair that was capable of flattening and shooting actors onto a slide hidden under a trapdoor. After engineering the chair, Pugh built the multi-floor set in Rugby Theater. Spears said due to the show’s wide variety of set pieces and props, it is technically challenging to produce.

“The show is so complex in terms of the practical requirements,” Spears said. “There are so many different locations, and because the show is so theatrical and large, we wanted to bring those locations to life as much as possible to immerse the audience in the story. The show also requires numerous props, period costumes and plenty of blood, so it has been fun to work out all the different elements that enhance the performances of the actors.”

Jackson Hollis ’25, an assistant stage manager for the show, is responsible for overseeing props and maneuvering the moving set pieces. Hollis said he enjoys the problem-solving aspect of working backstage.

“It’s shaping up to be a real good show,” Hollis said. “It’s cool to see how each of the actors has grown [during the process], and we’ve been just adding more and more set pieces and more props over time. My favorite part [of rehearsal] is solving problems when they come up and trying to figure out ways to do complicated moves that need to happen during the show.”

Finn Slootweg ’26, a member of the Greek Chorus, said the rehearsal process has fostered a sense of community within the cast.

“It has been a really interesting process doing ‘Sweeney Todd’ as my first show at the Upper School and my first show since elementary school,” Slootweg said. “It is so cool to be a part of a show that has so many moving pieces because it’s such a collaboration between everyone in the theatre community. Doing such a big show has allowed me to really get to know everyone in the cast and form really strong friendships. When I joined [the cast], I quickly started to feel the support and I really appreciate that.”

Jasmine Sorgen ’25, who plans on attending the musical, said she is excited to see the show because she has no prior knowledge of “Sweeney Todd.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing my friends perform,” Sorgen said. “[‘Sweeney Todd’] is not a musical I am familiar with, so it will be exciting to experience something new. I’ve peeked my head into the theater a few times and the set looks really cool, so I think it will be cool to see how they utilize it.”

Performances of “Sweeney Todd” will be held on Feb. 8, 9, 10 and 11 in Rugby Theater.

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