Days away from opening night, I sat down with the directors, the producer and the stage manager of this year’s Amherst Musical, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” This musical thriller will be performed this weekend in the Powerhouse. Producer Frank Tavares ’18, director A. Scott Parry, musical director Mark Swanson and stage manager Sophina Flores ’20 discussed the meaning of “Sweeney Todd” and the impact the revival of Amherst musicals has had on student life.
Q: This is the second musical produced since the tradition of the Amherst musical was revived. What effect have these musicals had on campus?
Tavares: Musicals are really unique projects in that they require so many different kinds of talents to come together to create a production. And it’s also something that’s very accessible to anybody in the student body. Everyone can go out and enjoy a musical, even if they don’t understand the technicalities of the music or production. So not only do we have a lot of students involved on the production side and others on the performance and music sides, but we also have a lot of student engagement from those who come see the show.
Swanson: Attendance by a student at a masterpiece like Sweeney Todd in this educational setting can be akin to reading a great book, but your best friends are writing the book. Your friends are performing it. Which is why I’m particularly glad we’re doing a piece like Sweeney Todd because it’s indisputably a great piece. Also, the students have once again been treated to a professional experience by working with a professional opera director and someone who’s so keenly committed to an experience that’s done in a professional matter but is particularly geared to educating the performers. I think the students have learned a lot from him in a fun way. Also I think the benefit of doing the musical over interterm is that the students have more time to dedicate to this show in a dedicated space like the Powerhouse, which is more conducive to a theatrical experience than our makeshift stage in the rink that we had last year. We got an upgrade, thanks to the support of Paul Gallegos and the office of student affairs and getting funding from the president’s office as well as funding from the student government. So the community is supporting this, and hopefully we can return the favor to the community by giving them a work of art performed by students who are really stepping up and growing through this experience. Even from a place as dark as Sweeney Todd, you can learn valuable life lessons.
Q: How has the experience been different between “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”?
Parry: Well, I think the important thing for me is the sameness of it, the sameness of any event that engages people on an intellectual and emotional level, which is what the process of creating a musical theatre piece is, especially one of quality. This is arguably the greatest piece of lyric theatre in the canon. To have that available not only for the cast to sink their teeth into but to find active participation with each other in the process of creation and development is a quintessential experience of growth. I’ve mentioned the idea of circular rings of a tree going outward with “Into the Woods,” but it’s the idea that then expands to the audience who comes to experience the show with us. We share a combined moment together that bonds us as a group of people who often times are so disparate in our approaches. We can all grow together in that experience of this live event, which more and more in our technological environment this becomes ever more distant.
S: I think also in these divisive times, it’s nice to have a sort of benign coming together. It provides a common topic of discussion over the dinner table, discussing a work of art. Theatre is supposed to be cathartic, it’s supposed to reach you in a tender and vulnerable place. You’re supposed to come away moved. So while there may be a way to relate Sweeney Todd to current politics, it can bring a conversation separate from all that. We really need this right now, whenever there are times of difficulty people resort to the arts as a way of learning about their situation and coming to terms with it. There’s a social utility to theater. It’s not just entertainment.
Q: What will be students’ main take aways from Sweeney Todd?
P: The banner line, or moral of the story is, “to seek revenge may lead to hell.” So the question is, how does one confront injustice? There’s a fine line between vengeance versus justice. And I think that’s what this production puts forward. In a way, we are happy that Sweeney gets the revenge he does; there’s an emotional release because of that. However, is it correct that he takes the law into his own hands and kills people? No. There’s a human instinct to want what we know we shouldn’t. This point is especially portrayed with the anachronistic setting where we have the Victorian times with their rigid class structure and its industrial machinery. As Sweeney mentions there are those who are up here and those who are down there. There’s a sense of that class struggle that was very overt during that time. By setting the ensemble as audience directed, speaking to you in modern clothing, we bring in the context of this modern experience as well. Is this same class structure still existing today? So the way this production was conceived what I’m trying to do is bring that element of the Victorian period into the modern context and find that current resonance that we might have. There are obvious applications in today’s social and political environment. Together we are experiencing someone else going through that process of division, it helps bind us together through that experience of having unity. So even by the sheer fact of attending this performance that’s showing at its core this divisiveness, we are creating togetherness.
S: I also think that the differences in social classes is a matter of emphasis in this show. You have to bring them out for people to really pay attention to them. Most people just think of this as a horror show, with a crazy guy killing people. Really, the justice system fails Sweeney in the worst possible way. I would also say that originally setting it in the Victorian era was a removing device. In the sense that you’re seeing issues from a distance, and that means it doesn’t apply to us. So you can learn the lessons without being personally indicted, which is why I really like this intermediate step with the modern ensemble acting as a sort of bridge that says, “These issues still apply today. Don’t feel so secure.” I think seeing this show as just blood and gore misses the main point, which is that this should be a direct challenge to you. It’s raising the issue that part of you is an animal, part of you is going to respond on these animalistic instincts.
P: Which is why I have you go into the audience and ask, “Isn’t that sweeney there beside you?” We are asking the audience, look at the person next to you, and even yourself. Would you behave like Sweeney did? And that’s the horror of the story. The true horror is not the knife in someone’s throat. It’s “would I be capable of the same thing?”
T: And the Powerhouse itself also really helps with that because it’s a small and enclosed space where the audience is very much in the same space as the players. And of course the industrial vibe of the location works with the Victorian England setting. But I think the intimate locale where the audience is so close to the action that’s happening really helps bridge that connection as well.
Q: As a first-year, how has your experience been coming into this growing musical sphere?
Flores: It’s been really great to be here and see the people who have so much invested in the show and so much passion, because coming from high school everyone is like, “We’re doing a show, whatever,” but here’s there’s definitely the drive and everyone very much wants this to happen and people are willing to fight for the show and that’s really the best part about it, that people really care and say, “We’re going to make this happen, no matter what.”
T: I think it’s also interesting thinking about the difference in our choice of shows between this year and last year. I think “Into the Woods” was the perfect show for bringing back the musical because it’s a coming-of-age story that centers on community. You can think of Sweeney Todd as the maturation of our musical project at Amherst. It’s oddly fitting for this time, where we’re dealing with power being wielded unjustly. That’s becoming a very real reality in our day-to-day lives. So how do we take these communities that we’ve forged and use them appropriately to combat the injustices that we find in the world? So in a way, these very different shows connect.
S: There’s a large aspect of Sweeney Todd where we don’t know what the real facts are all the
time. When Mrs. Lovett sings “poor thing,” do we know if that’s what really happened? So it’s also in this “alternative facts” world.
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