Monday, November 28, 2005

God, that's good!

This post is for theatre people, so I put it underneath incase you're not interested. But I hope you are.

This weekend I went to a Sondheim symposium hosted at Goldsmiths. I helped out with the registration, which meant I got in for free. Now, the symposium kind of reminded me of the one described in "Proof"--the two days I was there was a lot of academics reading papers, which was interesting, but I felt like the dumbest person in the room. I like Sondheim--or rather, I like his musicals which I am familiar with, but I haven't studied him as a contributor to musical theatre, and theatre in general. So it was a real eye-opening experience.

My favourite papers were both on Sweeney Todd. The first, on Friday, was the keynote speaker who talked about the musical quality of the act II opener "God, that's Good!" I should mention here that I do not know Sweeney Todd, so I was hearing the music for the first time. The speaker talked about the role the song played in the show, as well as the influences from old movies (like "Hangover Square," for example) on the show, and then proceeded to Power Point a chart of the song, showing the different sections: a-b-c-d, the repeats, how different sections contributed to the sense of pacing and character. It was really interesting to see how not only does Mrs Lovett, for example, have a very short staccato melody line, but her words are also very short and punctuated. Her part in this song is the biggest, and she sings to eight different people--short lines of "speech" give her a harried feeling (I learned) which is compounded by the music. The speaker compared Sondheim to a medival architect who lovingly carves the buttresses on a cathedral: no one's going to see it (or see the layers of music within a song) but it's there. And if you look for it, it's amazing. Then he showed a video of the original production, starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (below), and said, "But, in the end, that's what it's all about."

I really appreciated that most of the speakers and the audience, while dissecting and analyzing the contributions and social implications of his musicals also made space for: "But it's still theatre and still entertaining and not a show unless it's up on it's feet!" It's easy to forget that when you're talking about how Sondheim's shows demonstrate the American dream in reverse: communities falling apart and misfits ending up together.

That was followed on Sunday by a speaker who had followed the current production of Sweeney Todd now on Broadway from it's original incarnation. I didn't know this, but the "new" version was actually produced at a small theatre here in England called the Windmill. It was subsequently moved to the West End before going to Broadway.

Here's the London version from 2004.

What's interesting about this version (if you haven't heard me rant on about it yet) is that it's scaled DOWN: there are only nine performers, and they all play instruments, so there's no orchestra. The speaker noted how the director used their instruments as additions to the character, rather like dance or the music itself, so it wasn't meant to distract from the show. (and hasn't, from what I've heard) What is so interesting about this Sweeney is the implications for smaller theatres: obviously there is an economic factor to be considered; Sweeney transferred to Broadway for $3.5 million dollars--compare that to the $20 million Lion King.

The new Broadway version.

But it's also really taking to heart the idea of a smaller budget meaning more creativity. I know I was taught that at Point, but how many times did we go over budget? Here Sweeney is stripped down to one room, with no mad barber chair or pile of fake meat pies. The costumes are modern, reflecting the characters, not the time period. (and I think it's an interesting character choice to have Sweeney be bald...I know that Michael Cerveris DOES infact shave his head, but why does Sweeney? Interesting...) It's also something to consider for smaller theatres: how much of a show do you have to change before you lose the message of it? Apparently, you can change quite a lot.

Another play that got a lot of time at the conference is "Sunday in the Park With George" which just happens to be playing at a theatre near here, so I'm going to go see it and see what everyone has been ranting on about.

So this is what I did with my weekend. I had to get the Sweeney soundtrack just so I could learn "God, That's Good!" but I'm still trying to be patient and wait for the new show to come out.


Laura said...

Sweeny Todd is the Sondheim musical I most want to get the soundtrack for. Although Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart. MSUM is doing it here in March or Feb, so I'm definately going to see it and NDSU is doing A Chorus Line which I've never seen so I'm all over that. And then MSUM AND The Tin Roof Theatre Company in town are doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but I'm afraid I'll likely be seeing the college production because it's not $40. Oh, you got me talking about theatre....

Samantha said...

While the Times and the Post and several other papers love the show, I have not heard rave reviews from the fans of musical theater. Most of them tend to dispise this production of Sweeney Todd. It is not fit for Broadway where, let's be honest, people are paying nearly $100 a seat and expect to see a spectical at that price. I haven't seen it yet, but will probably love it. It is a shame that what people consider to be the theatre capital of the world is so shallow.

Nicki said...

Some of the people at the symposium mentioned how hard it is to get a smaller "concept" show onto Broadway--it is turning into a theme park. And if a composer/writer can't churn out an acceptable "ride" they don't go. Of course they then lament that the West End is coming to that as well (for some reason, "We Will Rock You" seemed to be the scapegoat) :) to which I reply: "well, hop on the tube, go a bit further and see theatre in a warehouse!" Sillies.