Director Stephen John reflects on stepping into the world of Sweeney Todd 37 years after its Broadway opening. He’s been waiting 20 years to get a stab at directing this bloody tale and has run headfirst at this opportunity with the Curtis & Southgate Productions to re-imagine and re-envision the classic musical. Stephen John will direct Sondheim’s most gruesome musical this October (just in time for Halloween) to kick off the start of our ’16/’17 season.
Don’t know the show or just need a refresher? Here’s a (very) short synopsis:
This dark and witty tale of love, murder, and revenge takes you to 19th century London. The road to vengeance leads Sweeney Todd to Mrs. Lovett, a resourceful proprietress of a failing pie shop. Mrs. Lovett’s luck sharply shifts when Todd’s thirst for blood inspires a secret ingredient into her meat pies that has the people of London lining up!
Our operations assistant, Lottie Frick, met up with Sweeney Todd director, Stephen John, to get more information on his vision for this production.
Lottie Frick: To set things moving, tell us a little about yourself and give some background on your work as a director.
Stephen John: I have been directing in Orange County theatre for 16 years, but have also branched out and worked in Arizona and Indiana. When directing a straight play, whether it be comedy or drama, I like to work fairly organically and rely heavily on the script as the primary source. Whereas, when it comes to musicals I am much more into creating a strong concept and beginning from there!
My vision of our production is a cleaner more efficient version of the show that tells the story through the eyes of Tobias.
LF: What inspired you to direct Sweeney Todd?
SJ: I am actually the first in my family to be born in the U.S. My Grandparents emigrated with my father and my uncle from London in the early 60’s. My grandfather was a theatre manager in London both for live theatre (primarily Musicals) and then also for a movie house. He had a personal obsession with the horror genre of film and therefore I grew up entrenched in Horror and Musicals; the perfect combination to set me on a trajectory for Sweeney Todd. I must admit that I have loved the show since I first saw it and have wanted to direct the show for 20 years. I can now say that staging the Prologue with this group of actors and on this set has been one of my favorite things to stage and has truly lived up to the hype in my mind!
LF: Awesome – I can’t wait to see the final product! Can you explain your overall vision/concept for this production of Sweeney Todd?
SJ: My vision of our production is a cleaner more efficient version of the show that tells the story through the eyes of Tobias. It is my hope to trim the fat away and present a much more streamlined production.
LF: Layering on that, how is it different from what others may have seen in past Sweeney productions?
SJ: Our production looks at the two main characters, [Sweeney] Todd and [Mrs.] Lovett, and reconsiders who the worst of the two really is. If you think about it, while Todd kills, it is with revenge in mind and in response to some pretty awful circumstances. Whereas, Lovett sacrifices others for her own advancement of purpose. In our production, we hope to present the idea that she is actually the evil one and Todd is the one that deserves at least a little of our pity.
LF: An interesting point to think about. What do you think will be the biggest challenge in this process?
SJ: The original production relied heavily on the spectacle of a grand set, multiple props, and blood, Blood, BLOOD! Our production trims all of these things down dramatically. The challenge for me, our design team, and actors is to tell the story by focusing more on the character relationships rather than spectacle.
Our production looks at the two main characters, [Sweeney] Todd and [Mrs.] Lovett, and reconsiders who the worst of the two really is.
LF: I’ve heard temporary tattoos might be used in the design process, can you talk a little bit about that?
SJ: We are looking at bringing the design of the production forward in time. The idea is to keep the period appropriate silhouette but use fabrics that are more contemporary. Following the contemporary thought, we are considering more modern hair and styles for the actors, including temporary tattoos. By doing so, we will make the show more relevant and approachable to a modern audience.
LF: Along with directing, you also did the set design; give us some insight on what the space will look like and the meaning behind it.
SJ: I was actually in London this summer and was inspired by the claustrophobic feel in London itself. The buildings are literally stacked on top of each other! Our set is itself very narrow at only 16 feet wide on its main platform. This will force us to work efficiently and when the full cast is on stage will reinforce the claustrophobic feel that I remember from this summer.
LF: Flash forward to opening night — the audience is walking out from a night with Sweeney Todd. What do you hope they take away from this production?
SJ: Ultimately, we have to remember that the show should be entertaining. As we are producing the production in October, it is our hope that the audience comes into the production to have fun and walks away with exactly that, some good Halloween fun!
Sweeney Todd runs Oct 7-23, 2016. Half-off preview Oct. 7 with an official opening & reception Oct. 8. Runs Fridays & Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are on sale now for Sweeney Todd. Visit our website or call the Box Office at 714-990-7722 Tues-Fri 12PM-3PM. Have questions? Contact us! Let us know your thoughts on Sweeney Todd — previous productions you’ve seen, what you hope to see in this one, etc.