ST. PETERSBURG — Sweeney Todd is a Victorian potboiler that goes totally over the top. The title character, "the demon barber of Fleet Street," teams up with a piemaker, Mrs. Lovett, in a diabolical scheme. Todd gives his customers the closest shave in London before slitting their throats, and then Lovett bakes the corpses into confections that turn her shop into the toast of the town.
Murder, cannibalism, madness — the musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) is full of mayhem and gore as Todd enlists Lovett in his plan to take revenge on a judge who unjustly sentenced him to prison, raped his wife and lusts after his daughter. Yet at most performances, audiences howl with laughter. What's so funny?
"It's the juxtaposition of something that's so dark with such gorgeous music," says Mark Sforzini, artistic director of St. Petersburg Opera, which is opening its 2012-13 season with the Sondheim thriller-diller. "We're not used to hearing people sing Broadway songs about killing people and cutting them up and putting them in meat pies."
Peter Kendall Clark, the baritone playing Todd (for the first time), likens the musical to a roller coaster. "I think we tend to be drawn to things that are scary," he said. "It's some little weird, quirky part of our nature. We love to watch horror movies. There's so much maniacal glee that you're kind of drawn to it. And then there's Lovett, which is a tour de force comic role."
Buffy Baggott has played the grisly piemaker in two previous productions, most recently with Arizona Opera, and she draws inspiration from Angela Lansbury, who originated the role on Broadway in 1979. "I love her comic timing. The original Broadway cast album is still the recording I listen to the most," she said.
Todd and Lovett bring down the first act curtain in one of the show's wittiest numbers, A Little Priest. It's a "list song" in which they assess in giddy rhyme the consistency of pies with ingredients that range from priest to tinker ("Something pinker") to cashier, from fop ("Finest in the shop") to friar.
After the cast assembled on Sept. 12, Baggott and Clark first rehearsed the song together, informally, in the parking lot of the Lithuanian American Club, the hall in St. Petersburg where the opera company rehearses before moving into the Palladium Theater. "It's so much fun to sing this wonderful, upbeat number with the darkest intentions you could possibly have," she said.
More hot pies!
Many people will be familiar with Sweeney Todd from the 2007 movie, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton. Though Sondheim reportedly was happy with it, the screen version dropped some of his best music, big choruses like The Ballad of Sweeney Todd and City on Fire that give the score its feverish power.
The St. Petersburg chorus, or ensemble, has 17 singers, and director Dean Anthony focused his attention on them one afternoon during rehearsal. Over and over, he drilled them in slamming down their cups during a scene in Lovett's crowded shop, portraying frenzied, unsuspecting customers, eating and drinking and singing: "More hot pies!"
"The trickiest scenes in this show are the full cast ensemble scenes such as Pirelli's Miracle Elixir and God, That's Good!," Anthony said. “There is a tremendous amount of physicality in the choruses. Those are the scenes that have to be really, really tight."
Anthony, who as a singer performed the roles of Tobias and Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, designed the demon barber's chair, equipped with trap door and slide, for the production. He sees the ghoulish subject matter as a commentary on the evils of the English class system and the industrial revolution, an angle stressed in director Hal Prince's original staging. Set in 1849, the horror story has been presented in many versions, and Sondheim got the idea from a 1973 play by Christopher Bond.
"I think everybody in this show is a victim of the time, the evilness, trying to survive in that period," Anthony said. "Every single person has a horrible life. To survive you had to do whatever it took."
Sweeney Todd is the third Sondheim musical to be done by St. Petersburg Opera, following A Little Night Music and Into the Woods. It probably is the most operatic of the three — Sondheim himself calls it a "dark operetta" — because it has relatively little spoken dialogue and the score is so rich and complex.
"It's got a lot of things musically that are more operatic than most Broadway scores," said Sforzini, who will conduct a 23-piece orchestra. "All the characters have musical themes, leitmotifs that follow them around and come back at key moments. Broadway composers don't seem to do that kind of development of ideas so much."
For example, he cites the character of Anthony, a sailor who falls in love with Todd's daughter, Johanna. "Anthony, a younger, hopeful character in the story, sings most of his music in the key of E flat," Sforzini said. "This is traditionally the key for heroic or noble elements, like Beethoven's Eroica symphony, or the Porgi amor aria Mozart gives the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, or Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Most of Anthony's music in Act 1 is all in E flat."
Baggott, a mezzo-soprano, has often played the title character in Bizet's Carmen as well as numerous Rhinemaidens and other Wagnerian roles. "I think Sweeney Todd can go either way, musical or opera," she said. "I can't imagine anyone not having a good time watching this show. I know it sounds gory and horrible, but there are so many beautiful moments."
"It's a piece for serious music lovers," said Clark, whose repertoire ranges from the title role in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin to Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. "To get to hear it live with the original Jonathan Tunick arrangements, there's nothing like it. The lushness and colors are glorious."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.