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Demon Barber of Fleet Street Comes to Campus

BU on Broadway stages Sweeney Todd

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Watch a preview above of Sweeney Todd, playing this weekend at the Tsai Performance Center. Slideshow by Amy Laskowski. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, Chris Behmke absentmindedly pulled a theatrical prop from his pocket—a straight-edge razor—and began twirling it in his hands. His pal stared back, startled.

“I mean, the razor is completely blunt, but my friend didn’t know that,” recalls Behmke, who is so outgoing in real life that he greets strangers with a hug. “I have a level of comfort with the prop now. The razor is very much a part of the show and my character.”

This was the moment when Behmke (CAS’11) knew he’d successfully inhabited the murderous Sweeney Todd in BU on Broadway’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which opens tonight and runs through Saturday at the Tsai Performance Center.

Founded in 1994, BU on Broadway is an entirely student-run group, open to all students, regardless of their major.

Behmke is studying international relations, yet sings as a baritone in his spare time. Other members are studying subjects ranging from neuroscience to musical composition. While not a requirement, many cast members have a background in theater or music.

With a cast of 28, a crew of 60, and an orchestra of 29, this is “the largest student involvement we’ve ever had in one show,” says Sweeney Todd codirector Brian DeVito (CFA’12, COM’12), vice president of BU on Broadway. “There are so many roles that just gave a lot of people things to do. And the show is one of the most intense we’ve ever done.”

As the musical opens, Sweeney Todd, a barber by trade, has just returned to London after being wrongly incarcerated by a vile judge. When he discovers that his wife has committed suicide after being raped by the same judge, he vows revenge. Sweeney befriends a pie maker, Mrs. Lovett, and together they reopen his old barbershop, only under vastly different circumstances: he slits the throats of his customers after luring them in for a shave, and she then grinds them up and cooks them into meat pies. Their bustling business has customers lining up around the block.

Macabre? Absolutely. Melodious, too.

There has been much debate over whether Sweeney Todd was a real person. The character first appeared in a suspense story in 1846 and quickly became an urban legend. When Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd opened on the Great White Way in 1979, it was hailed by critics, winning seven Tony Awards, including best musical, best original score (Sondheim), and best actress (Angela Lansbury). There have been two Broadway revivals since, as well as a 2007 film version from Johnny Depp and Tim Burton.

“Our version is a bridge of the original 1979 production and the 2005 Broadway revival,” says DeVito, which was a stripped down version, with each cast member also playing a musical instrument on stage. “It’s nice to perform a show that a lot of people know, that doesn’t have a lot of fluff or excess. Everyone has so much to run with, and it’s going to be a great, dark show.”

The musical contains some of Sondheim’s best known songs, including “Pretty Women,” and “Not While I’m Around.”

This production marks a transition for BU on Broadway: it is the first classic Broadway musical the group has done in several years, focusing recently on more contemporary musicals like Rent, a showcase of Disney songs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. DeVito and codirector Jillian Angelone (CAS’11) pitched the idea of performing Sweeney Todd because it was a favorite of theirs and they wanted to do a more traditional show.

“We’re throwing all of our resources into it, and it has a high budget,” says DeVito, without mentioning the production’s cost. “We’ve been practicing since January, and it’s going to be great.”

Last Saturday afternoon, just five days before the scheduled opening, DeVito sat calmly in a hot classroom in the College of Fine Arts, watching the cast and orchestra rehearse. Students crowded the classroom, sitting around the room’s perimeter, sipping iced coffees when they weren’t performing.

Things were down to the wire. Not only does the show require a large cast, it has a notoriously tricky musical score with complicated harmonies. Musical director Jonathan Brenner (CFA’12) stood in front of the classroom, white baton in hand, as he guided the orchestra through a rehearsal of the show’s theme, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

“I played the piano during all of our previous rehearsals, but this is really the first week that the musicians and singers get to work together to perfect the music,” Brenner said. “It’s hard to do.”

At the end of the rehearsal, Angelone told the cast that Sweeney would be using Cool Whip, not actual shaving cream, on stage because the consistency is better and “it’s not as hard to clean up.”

On this afternoon, two critical props were still missing and wouldn’t appear on stage until a dress rehearsal a couple of days later: Sweeney’s barber chair and the squirting fake blood.The makeup crew was awaiting the fake blood so they could perfect its consistency before opening night.

The barber chair, where Sweeney’s customers sit while he shaves, then slices them, had to be nailed down to the Tsai’s stage. The chair will be rigged so that when Sweeney pulls the giant lever attached to the chair, his unlucky victims will be hurled through a trap door into the pit below the stage.

Despite the musical’s lurid subject matter, DeVito has some comforting words for squeamish theatergoers:

“This show doesn’t have Quentin Tarantino-esque goriness.”

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs April 14 to 16 at 8 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center, 680 Commonwealth Ave. Tickets are $10 for students, $12 for all others. More information is available online.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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