'Sweeney Todd'--the musical, not the movie--in Manila

'Sweeney Todd'--the musical, not the movie--in Manila
By Walter Ang
November 9, 2009
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The movie musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" directed by Tim Burton in 2007 generated awareness for the Stephen Sondheim musical. It starred Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, Alan Rickman (Professor Snape in the "Harry Potter" movies) as the antagonist Judge Turpin, and Sacha Baron Cohen ("Borat" and "Bruno") as comic relief Pirelli.

Sweeney Todd returns to London after being imprisoned on false charges. When he learns from his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett, that his wife killed herself after being raped by the Judge who wrongly accused him, he vows revenge.

Repertory Philippines will stage the musical at Onstage Theater, Greenbelt 1 in November. Given Tim Burton's quirky filmmaking style, the movie did not scrimp on blood and gore. "But the musical is not just about that," says director Michael Williams.

"The movie was more like a horror slasher movie. It cut down the songs, took out the chorus parts and a lot of the lyric orchestrations," he says. "Come watch our staging to get the full version where you'll hear all the great songs."

Menchu Launchengo-Yulo played Todd's daughter Johanna in Rep's 1982 staging with Junix Inocian (Sweeny Todd) and Baby Barredo (Mrs. Lovett). This time, she plays Mrs. Lovett. "This musical is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for audiences because they will get to hear Sondheim's very complicated but extremely beautiful music. The songs go from super low to super high Ds. There is even a song with six part harmony in dissonance. It makes the actors sound like they're off, but they're not."

Sondheim is a multi-awarded composer and lyricist for stage and film. He's won nine Tony Awards (more than any other composer) including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. He wrote lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," and was composer/lyricist for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and "Into the Woods," among others.

Powerful story
While this is not the usual Christmas fare from Rep, it is nonetheless a production with a strong cache. It premiered in 1979 on Broadway with Angela Lansbury (of "Murder She Wrote" and Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" fame) as Mrs. Lovett. Nominated for nine Tonys, it won eight, including Best Musical.

Aside from its music and awards, Williams notes that the story is "fundamentally powerful" and "can move audiences." The story has themes that may appeal to educators and parents, such as family, love, capitalism, social injustice, and class struggle, to name a few.

"It shows how society and environment can drive a person to the extreme," he says. "The story is set during the Industrial Revolution. People were working and living in really bad conditions in 1930s London. Though the use of coal was banned under penalty of death, businesses still used it anyway. That's why if you watch movies set in those times, London is always portrayed as dark and foggy because of all that pollution. People got pneumonia and consumption."

"Against this backdrop, the story shows how all of these things can dehumanize you. You can get caught up in the system. Politics, bureaucracy, abuse of power, and big businesses can eat you up. It shows how revenge can consume a person. Todd's circumstances and the things he does are exaggerated. Killing people and making them into pies is absurd and extreme, so if you pick up on the dark humor, it's actually funny in a bizarre way," he says. "Audiences can even discuss the importance of quality control in food establishments," he adds with a laugh.

Good theater
Audie Gemora, who plays the titular character, says, "These are things we see everyday and take for granted. We've become cynical. It will be interesting for audiences to experience the musical on stage because to see live actors act it out for you, it helps you understand and get drawn to the story. It can be a potent and shocking piece of work. It is impossible for you to remain unaffected. Not just that, this production really has good music and it's good theater."

Yulo is excited that long time fans of Rep and new audiences will get to see "a mix of the old and new." Half the cast are actors in their first production for Rep. "It will give audiences a different flavor. Everyone is learning from each other and making things fresh," she says. Franco Laurel is playing the romantic lead Anthony opposite Lena Mckenzie as Johanna, while Robby Zialcita is Pirelli.

The artistic team includes John Ilao Batalla for lighting design; Gino Gonzales for costume design, and Mio Infante, who recently designed the set for Trumpets' "N.O.A.H.," for set design. Gerard Salonga will conduct the PhilHarmonika orchestra.

"Sweeny Todd" runs from Nov. 13-Dec.13. Open for buyers who wish to use the show as a fundraising event or as a Christmas gift for employees or clients. Call 887-0710, 215-8752 or 0917-528-0765.

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