Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Returns
“Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” returns to the stage Friday night at the Pavilion Theatre on campus in a re-creation of a highly praised staging by director Susan H. Shulman.
Shulman directed the Broadway revival of this darkly comical musical play by Stephen Sondheim at the suggestion of Sondheim himself.
“It has been quite wonderful to revisit this production with young students,” Shulman said. “Their instincts are visceral. This is an intimate production and there is something inspirational about working with a younger cast.
“I recently sent a note to Stephen Sondheim to tell him that “I am in love (with Sweeney Todd) all over again.”
Shulman is very clear about what theater can accomplish. “It’s all about entertainment,” she began. “Audiences have to be emotionally attached.”
The story of “Sweeney Todd” is centered on love and revenge as a barber slits the throats of those who have been responsible for the pain in his life. He has a partner who them bakes his enemies into pies.
“The story is told in an expressionistic way,” Shulman said. “It is dark and tragic and hilariously funny. It’s an emotional roller coaster. Huge emotions come together in this melodic love story.”
The characters in the show may be misguided, but they are motivated by love.
Shulman’s interpretation of the musical includes the belief that our past will follow us and will eventually catch up to us. “I think we all know that in our hearts. It resonates different things to different people. This is a great musical that has survived many different interpretations.”
She has been very pleased that the student cast and design team are very much in tune with the show’s worldview.
“This production has been beautifully designed by an undergraduate student. It is very environmental and puts the audience in the middle of things,” Shulman said.
Shulman has been at Penn State for the past five years and serves as the head of the graduate directing program. At the same time, she has maintained an active and personally satisfying professional career.
“I am working (directing) all the time,” she said.
Frequently back in New York City, Shulman is a Tony Award nominator and Tony voter. Shulman was nominated for a Tony Award for her direction of the “Sweeney Todd” revival.
She finds the work very satisfying. “Yes. I love the process and I love seeing the effect that it has on an audience. I like, in some way, to enlighten and move an audience, get them to think about things. I get to invite them to enter the imaginary world with me. I have been doing this my whole life.”
Not every show is as rich and rewarding as “Sweeney Todd.”
“Of course some are better than others,” Shulman explained. “Some have a life and for some, I have to find that life. If it doesn’t affect me, it’s not going to affect the audience.”
The best part of directing, for Shulman, is sharing the experience with so many other artists.
“Collaboration is a joy to me and musical theater is the most collaborative art. As Stephen Sondheim once said to me, ‘Reviews don’t tell you how much fun you had,’” Shulman said.