According to a friend who grew up in London and Coventry during the Blitz, little English children used to be told that if they misbehaved, Sweeney Todd the Barber would come and get them. Whether this classic bogeyman is based on a real historical criminal, or simply a folktale evolving out of the fact that barbers and surgeons in old Europe were often the same person, remains a matter of scholarly debate. We do know that the earliest literary Sweeney Todd appeared in a penny dreadful of disputed authorship titled The String of Pearls, published as a serial in 1846/47, but there are hints that the basic story may have been kicking around since 14th-century France.
Whatever their origins, the characters of the vengeful barber who murders select customers and the pie-shop-owner who boosts business by disposing of the human remains have long exerted a grip on the popular imagination. The first stage interpretation followed publication of The String of Pearls within a year and a silent film version appeared in 1926. Sweeney Todd inspired a comic song that became a staple of the English music hall circuit, and there has even been a ballet version. But most folks know the story nowadays from what is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s most musically ambitious stagework: 1979’s multi-Tony-winning Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which starred Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in its critically acclaimed original Broadway run.
Sondheim’s version of Sweeney Todd, with book by Hugh Wheeler, is operatic in scale, laden with tragic, passionate melodrama, its generous helpings of black humor alternating with moments of sweet lyricism. The songs are simply stunning; and if the only version that you’ve seen is Tim Burton’s 2007 movie with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, you haven’t heard the half of it – including the show’s ominous, oft-repeated, Dies Irae-based unifying theme, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”
That gap can be rectified over the next four weekends, as the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck hosts Up in One Productions’ latest offering: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, produced by Diana di Grandi and directed and choreographed by Kevin Archambault. The cast includes Monte Stone as Sweeney Todd, Victoria Howland as Mrs. Lovett, Richard Prouse as Judge Turpin, Harry Forman as Anthony, Alexandra Haines as Johanna and Amy Gustin as Lucy. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays from October 23 through November 15.
Tickets cost $27 general admission, $25 for seniors and children under age 12. Parents take warning: Though the stage gore probably won’t be quite as realistic as the nightmarish charnelhouse special effects of the movie, Sweeney Todd is decidedly not a kid-friendly play. But if your teens have a strong stomach for horror flicks, this may be a good opportunity for a more serious introduction to the Grand Guignol theatrical tradition.
To order tickets, call (845) 876-3080 or visit www.centerforperformingarts.org. The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck is located at 661 Route 308, about 3 ½ miles east of downtown Rhinebeck.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Friday/Saturday, October 23/24, 30/31, November 6/7, 13/14, 8 p.m., Sunday, October 25, November 1, 8, 15, 3 p.m., $27/$25, Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, 661 Route 308, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-3080, www.centerforperformingarts.org.