Just a little off the top, please: Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo in "Sweeny Todd"

Just a little off the top, please
By Walter Ang
December 2009 issue
Metro Magazine

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo was excited but also scared when she found out she would essay the role of "Mrs. Lovett" in Repertory Philippines' staging of Tony-winning Broadway musical "Sweeny Todd."

You wouldn't think that someone who grew up acting on stage and has 25 years of experience under her belt would be afraid of anything at this point in her career. Menchu has starred in the leading roles of musicals such as "West Side Story," "Camelot," "The King and I," and "Evita," just to name a

Not only that, she's actually acted in this musical before. Menchu played Todd's daughter Johanna in Rep's 1982 staging with Junix Inocian (Sweeny Todd) and Baby Barredo (Mrs. Lovett). But it is her familiarity with the material that intensified her apprehension.

The 2007 movie version, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett), introduced to a wider audience the story of how 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, Todd vows revenge.

The original musical 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.

So perhaps it is the pressure of performing such a well-known piece that scared Menchu? Or maybe it's because of all that blood? (For readers who are not familiar with the story, Sweeny Todd is not called the Demon Barber for nothing--he puts a shaving razor to much use apart from actual shaving.) The reason for her initial apprehension, apparently, was the musical's, well, music.

"Sondheim's music is not your usual predictable sequencing of melody. On the contrary, to someone not familiar with his work, it may seem jarring at first. It takes genius to create a harmonious fluidity in the dissonance," she says.

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.

Menchu finds the chance to perform Sondheim's music for "Sweeney Todd" a major milestone for any serious actor. She notes that it can be frustrating when you "come in from the cold." With this in mind, she rose to the challenge and started rehearsing a few months before the actual cast rehearsals, working with a voice coach to prime herself for the work.

"It sounds complicated and is complicated to sing, but the music is extremely beautiful. 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," she says. "When you think you're singing it right, that's when you're off. And when you think you're off, that's when it's right!" she adds with a laugh."

Menchu will share the stage with Audie Gemora who plays the titular character. He's always considered "Sweeny Todd" as the classic masterpiece of Sondheim. He jokingly remarks that if Repertory Philippines did not choose to produce it, he would. "For athletes, it's the Olympics; for actors, it's "Sweeney Todd." He adds that the musical is an art piece that has to be performed with precision, because the ear has to be trained for this particular type of music. The challenge is to bring the audience to that space where the dissonance is actually harmony.

"This musical is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for audiences to hear this kind of music," says Menchu. "Combine the music with a darkly irresistible story, you're bound to have fun in a darkened theatre when the bizarre events unravel and you experience delicious, tingly sensations."

The tale is somewhat dark, but there is a satirical, black comedy mood that takes off some of the edge. And as Audie points out, "[What happens to Todd and the things that he does] ? are things we see everyday and take for granted. We've become cynical. 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. Bottomline, this production really has good music and it's good theater."

Menchu 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.

The musical also features Liesl Batucan (beggar woman), Robbie Guevara (Beadle), Robbie Zialcita (Pirelli), Franco Laurel (Anthony), Lena Mckenzie (Johanna), Marvin Ong (Tobias), and Roger Chua (Judge Turpin) with Ms. Juno Henares as the Mrs. Lovett understudy.

Baby Barredo (The Fantasticks, The Sound of Music) co-directs with Michael Williams (Miss Saigon, original London cast). Other members of the artistic and production staff include Gino Gonzales (Golden Child, Mulan Jr.) for costume design, John Batalla (West Side Story, Once On This Island) for lighting design, and Mio Infante (West Side Story, N.O.A.H.) for set design. Gerard Salonga (West Side Story) conducts the FILharmoniKA orchestra.

"Sweeney Todd" runs from Nov. 13 to Dec. 13, 2009 at Onstage, 2/F Greenbelt 1, Ayala Center Makati City. Call Repertory Philippines at 8870710, 8880887 or Ticketworld at 8919999 or visit www.ticketworld.com.ph