David McLaughlin wasn’t originally supposed to be the director of Hugh Wheeler and Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, which opens at the Flowertown Players’ Summerville theater this Friday. The musical production is the tale of a murderous London barber who seeks revenge against the corrupt judge who caused his wife’s suicide and adopted Todd’s daughter. But a management change within the Flowertown organization left the production without a director and allowed McLaughlin, an experienced musical director who’s handled 140 different productions, a chance to correct a nagging 20-year-old regret.
“The president of the Flowertown board approached me and asked if I wanted to take over on this project,” McLaughlin says. “And Sweeney Todd was the very first musical I directed 20 years ago professionally. So it kind of brings me full circle and gives me an opportunity to do it again, so that was an attraction because I hadn’t done it in so many years. It was a chance to do it right this time because my last production of it was kind of crazy.”
The play, which also involves the meat-pie making Mrs. Lovett (who takes Todd’s murdered customers off his hands through a trap door to make her pies), Todd’s daughter Johanna, and a sailor named Anthony Hope who loves her, first opened on Broadway in 1979, and has proven to be one of Sondheim’s most popular productions, spurring numerous revivals and a film version starring Johnny Depp in 2007. The play is almost entirely sung, with tunes like “Worst Pies In London,” “God, That’s Good!” and “Not While I’m Around” mixing comedy and the macabre with ease. It can also be one of the bloodiest productions on a theater stage depending on who’s directing it, but McLaughlin says he’s going to be toning down the bloodshed, in addition to taking some other liberties.
“The neat thing about taking on the project last minute was that I didn’t come into it with any preconceived notions,” he says. “Those who are expecting that blood and gore nonstop, we’re not going to do that to them. We’re going to be very artistic with all the killing, the blood and gore, kind of the way they did it in the original Broadway production.”
McLaughlin was also looking for a lot more of a sympathetic version of Sweeney Todd, played by Steve Tarnow, than Depp’s film version or any number of the other theater productions.
“I did know that I wanted it to be completely different from the movie,” he says. “I wasn’t looking for a Johnny Depp lookalike. I was looking for someone who would put a lot more emotion into it. Every production I’ve ever seen, the character is this demented evil person from beginning to end, and they miss a lot of the story. This man lost his wife and child. That’s what drove him crazy. He isn’t some killer from the past who’s returned to London to keep killing. We see him as the man released from prison (exiled by the corrupt Judge, played by Jamie Young, who has designs on Todd’s wife, Lucy) hoping to return back to his wife and child only to find out that his wife is dead, and his child has been taken by somebody else. We see his character progress and become this killer.”
McLaughlin says he made the choice to give the audience a character to connect with, even if he turns into a horrific murderer.
“I want the audience to follow him and feel a little bit sorry for him in the beginning,” he says. “I want them to understand why he does what he did, and how Mrs. Lovett, our comedic relief, pushes him into it.”
Perhaps the most stunning element of the Flowertown production of Sweeney Todd is the set. It’s a six-sided, revolving model that’s seven feet tall, with each side serving as a different location. Part of the 20-member cast ensemble rotates the set on a large turntable, negating the need for blackouts or pauses while the sets are changed.
“Since the show moves from place to place to place, I needed to make sure it ran seamlessly,” McLaughlin says. “I do not do scene changes in my shows because I don’t want to bore my audience. So we go from one scene to the next as the turntable rotates.”
As you might imagine, this has created some challenges.
“We need to make sure it’s turning exactly when it needs to, because I have actors going up and down three different flights of stairs while this turntable is rotating,” he says. “We also have a trap door for when Sweeney Todd kills people. They’re sinking down to the floor while the turntable is turning. It all relies on musical cues, for when to start the rotation, what direction and at what speed. So it comes down to an amazing stage management team rehearsing it over and over again. You can cut a lot of time out by transitioning the scenes, and there’s no downtime for the audience to lose focus.”