Stephen Sondheim is notorious for writing difficult musical theater. And “Sweeney Todd” is considered to be his best — and perhaps musically toughest — work.
Which is exactly why the show has been chosen by directors David Roth and Kerry Long for this spring’s Staples Players mainstage production.
The curtain rises next Friday (March 13) on a unique version of the 1979 Tony Award-winning thriller. Set not in 1849, but 200 years later — 2049 — Staples’ “Sweeney” envisions a post-apocalyptic world. The undefined-but-class-war-type disaster unfolded in 2015 — this year — when both Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett were 17. That’s the age, of course, of the stars of the show.
Those stars have embraced what Roth and Long are asking them to do.
“Musically, this is the most challenging production since I’ve been here,” says Roth, a 1984 Staples graduate who directed his first Players show in 2000.
“The harmonies, rhythms and lyrics are all very tough,” Roth says. “That’s why actors love it.”
Before auditions began, Roth compared it to “A Chorus Line.” He told potential cast members that, just as that show demanded above all else the ability to dance, this one revolves around musicality.
And, Roth noted, that does not just mean a good singing voice. Actors also need to handle very complicated music.
“Sondheim says it bothers him when everyone singing a musical theater number has the same thought at the same time,” Roth explains. “So he writes 8 or 9 different thoughts. It’s much closer to reality.”
It’s also a lot to ask of teenagers. But Staples Players are not typical teenagers.
Like Roth and Long, they love Sondheim’s dark humor. They understand his tragic, broad themes. Like the best actors anywhere, they’ve appreciated the chance to find out where all those characters come from.
To prepare for the show, Roth has scheduled more singing rehearsals than usual. Music director Luke Rosenberg — who talked about doing “Sweeney Todd” since arriving at Staples 3 years ago — has worked hard with the directors to make sure the cast understands exactly what they’re singing.
“With Sondheim, music informs the emotion of a scene,” Roth says. “We’re trying to let that happen.”
He’s given the actors plenty of table work — talking about what happened to them in the “apocalypse,” figuring out the events that led them to where they are in 2049.
Technical director Pete DiFranco and professional set designer (and Players alum) Reid Thompson have built a clever brick structure that evokes the world Roth and Long have envision.
Meanwhile, Priscilla Stampa and Marjorie Watt — Players’ longtime costume designers, who are retiring after this main stage production — have created very innovative, post-acopalyptic costumes.
The best theater challenges, provokes and prods its audience. Stephen Sondheim is a masterful creator of the best theater — and Staples Players are wonderful interpreters of it. The 2049 version of “Sweeney Todd” promises to be a show for the ages.
(“Sweeney Todd” will be produced on Friday and Saturday, March 13, 14, 20 and 21, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 15 at 3 p.m., in the Staples High School auditorium. For tickets and more information, click here.)