Halloween may be over, but the spooky, dark season remains at Quad City Music Guild, in one of the largest productions in the community theater’s 75-season history.
The monstrous, bloody musical masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” will open Friday, Nov. 10 at the Prospect Park theater, 1584 34th Ave., Moline, running at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10-11 and 17-18, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees Nov. 12 and Nov. 19.
There will be 55 people on the revamped stage (with the floor extended over the orchestra pit to bring the action closer), with a phenomenally talented cast of 32 and a tremendous orchestra of 22, led by amazing music director Mitchell Carter (**FULL disclosure – I am the show assistant music director, rehearsal accompanist and one of two keyboard players in the “pit”).
You can hear me play “organ” at key points throughout the show, as well as a variety of other instrumental sounds. The orchestra is performing on stage from behind the set, and Carter conducts with the help of a monitor at the back wall where he can see what’s happening on stage, and what he calls “Mitch-cams” displaying him on screens above the stage so the cast can see him.
For just about everyone involved (myself included), the towering Stephen Sondheim masterwork – which premiered in 1979 and won eight Tonys, including for best musical, score, book, and for its original leads, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury – is a bucket-list show.
It’s simultaneously a dream and a nightmare, the sweeping, powerful score is beautiful and brutal, so devilishly difficult, and often dissonant, to reflect the inescapable creepiness of the subject.
Justly revived again this year on Broadway (starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford), the tale spotlights Todd, an unjustly exiled barber, who returns to 19th– century London, seeking vengeance against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife.
The road to revenge leads Todd to Mrs. Lovett, a resourceful proprietress of a failing pie shop, above which he opens a new barber practice. Mrs. Lovett’s luck sharply shifts when Todd’s murderous thirst for blood inspires the integration of an ingredient into her meat pies that has the people of London lining up for more.
The gritty, intense, soaring Music Guild production – directed by Luke Vermiere and set design by Robert Crist (complete with the trademark sliding chair) – has been a true labor of love. And God, it is good. The perfectly cast leads are:
- Sweeney Todd – Rob Keech
- Mrs. Lovett – Shana Kulhavy
- Anthony – Caleb Swinney
- Johanna – Jordyn Mitchell
- Tobias – Will Emerle
- Judge Turpin – Michael Van Belle
- Beadle – David Edwards
- Beggar Woman – Hillary Erb
- Pirelli – Colleen Houlihan
Below are thoughtful reflections of some of those involved in bringing this thrilling, unforgettable tale to life (and death):
Luke Vermiere (Director):
“I really wanted to do Sweeney Todd because it was a different type of show. It isn’t the glitz and glamour, flashy musical.”
“Sweeney to me is about mankind’s struggle with its inability to work collectively. The show is about taking advantage of one another and using them to achieve what their heart desires, at the expense of others. Sweeney is about how we turn blind eyes to injustice and to those we perceive as beneath us and what a society of that sort of thinking results in. All this is wrapped in a layer of brilliant comedy that takes the edge off of, as well as some of the best music ever written.”
“This show isn’t just about death, this show is about vengeance and retribution. Sweeney returned to London to bring his judgment day to society. It’s about punishment for sins, and that punishment is primarily focused on the evil and greedy members of upper-class society. This is the genius of Sondheim that many overlook.”
“Directing ‘Sweeney Todd’ was a huge task. This is a dream show for myself and most of the people involved with this production so there was pressure to do it justice. Furthermore, there aren’t many shows as difficult to tackle. Sweeney proves to be a challenge from the set, the costuming, the props, the makeup, the score, the blocking, and the weight of the subject material. However, I owe everything to the passions of my staff, cast, and crew. THEY are responsible for what you see today.”
“ ‘Sweeney Todd’ highlights wealth disparity, greed, the exploitation of labor, ignoring those we perceive as beneath us, and how society, like a factory, manufactures people like Sweeney Todd. It also shows how we all are forced to be cogs in that machine, often against our will. What is the solution? In the true style of Brechtian theater, Sweeney Todd doesn’t pose a solution to the world’s problems. Neither do we. That’s not our place. Our job is only to highlight those problems and why they exist.”
“For me, the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a director is living up to my own expectations as a director. Especially because I know this show has been on so many of our cast/crew’s bucket lists. The subject matter has also been difficult to tackle. When working with sensitive subjects in shows, it’s important to have communication with your cast to ensure everyone is able to set and respect boundaries. It takes extra effort and time, but it’s vital to creating a safe and effective environment.”
“The immersive aspects of this show were vital to me. From day one, I knew I wanted to blur the line of where the show begins and the real-world ends. I was heavily inspired by haunts in that manner. They’re true immersive theater. Bringing the action closer not only gave us the opportunity for a more intimate experience, but has allowed us to balance the pit and vocals more. This was crucial for a music heavy show like ‘Sweeney’.”
Mitchell Carter (Music Director):
“As a music director, I have so deeply admired Stephen Sondheim’s work for as long as I’ve been involved with musical theater. The first show I ever played in an orchestra for was Sondheim’s Into The Woods when I was in high school. I’ve been fascinated by his works ever since, and I could never turn down the opportunity to work on one of the greatest works by one of the greatest composers for the medium.”
“A large part of Sweeney Todd‘s appeal is the sheer spectacle. Lush and striking music, dramatic staging, compelling characters and motives — everything you want to see on stage is there! But it’s also not constructed in a terribly obvious or overt way. For all of the beauty in the music, Sondheim finds ways to subvert the listener’s expectations.
“Sweeney Todd really leans into an unsettled sense of confusion, and the audience may find themselves strangely compelled to root for our titular anti-hero.
“Sondheim’s musical score is an absolute monster — I’ve joked that the score is the real villain of the show! Every music director I’ve spoken to has told me that I was up against a behemoth, and they were right. Some of the most challenging sequences in all of musical theater exist in this score.
“Something that may appear simple on the surface may have several additional layers of complexity to consider to successfully pull it off. However, diving into this dense score is entirely worthwhile; the complexities of the music are also what makes it so appealing and smart.”
“Immersion is a vitally important part of the theatrical experience. As artists, we have a story to tell, and we need you to be part of that story with us. This is a show with some universal themes, but they are presented in a highly stylized way. Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are 19th-century London business owners, which is not an experience any of our audience knows. But so much of what Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett experience and grapple with are incredibly relatable issues — trying to understand other people’s intentions, seeking to right wrongs of the past, and surviving in a cut-throat capitalist society, for example.
“Immersing the audience in this world means allowing them to walk alongside these characters and share the experiences with them. As a creative staff, we are doing that in several figurative and subtle ways, but also quite literally — we have covered the pit orchestra to literally extend the stage and bring the action closer to audiences. We’re using every square inch of space, every second of time, and every resource available to us to invite the audience into this world to attend the tale.”
Michael Van Belle (Judge):
“It’s simply the finest musical ever written, in my opinion. I was a senior in high school when it opened on Broadway and was given the cast album that March for my birthday. I saw the original in summer 1979 and my mind was blown by the music, the acting and that giant foundry on stage. Playing the worst of its villains is immensely satisfying.
“It’s Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece. Every note was carefully chosen, and every lyric was tailored to its character. It is my favorite piece of musical theatre by far.
“Judge Turpin is the worst among several villains in this piece. I have been challenged to find the right level of heightened drama that the character needs without making him a caricature. And I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that his number, the Judge’s ‘Johanna’ may be the most difficult song to pull off.”
“I think the decision to cover the pit and bring the drama closer to audiences is a good one. We also have planned pre-show and intermission activity that should draw people in. For non-theatre people, this is important because Sweeney Todd’s book is relatively short — it’s all about making sure we are honoring the music, which tells the story.”
Michael Dunn (ensemble):
“I wanted to do this show for a multitude of reasons not the least of which is the iconic reputation of the show that was having new life breathed into it by Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford on Broadway. More importantly, I knew there was a big vision for the Quad City Music Guild’s production and I very much wanted to be a part of it.
“Having the opportunity to work with several of my RENT cast mates again was just a delightful topping on one of Mrs. Lovett’s famous meat pies.
“Anything written by one of if not the most iconic and beloved figure in musical theater history, Mr. Stephen Sondheim, is likely going to bear his standard of excellence and this show is no exception. The score is brilliant, setting the tone for a sinister tale of revenge and the repercussions it has on an entire community. The characters are memorable with clever dialogue and intriguing relationships. There’s just so much to love about this piece.
“This production has a very large ensemble and organizing that many bodies can be formidable task at times. Additionally, the score, while absolutely brilliant, is also very challenging. Mastering the music while also immersing yourself into the dark and sinister universe of Sweeney Todd is tough, but also very satisfying.”
“While RENT did explore some sensitive topics including sexual identity, poverty, racism, and homelessness it was wrapped up with a bow of love, community, and resilience. ‘Sweeney Todd’ explores the dark and twisted corners of the human psyche as one spirals into madness pursuing the primitive justice of revenge (Sweeney Todd) and the corruption of morality that is driven by the need to survive in an impoverished society (Mrs. Lovett). There is no redeeming bow on this tale.
“One of the joys of the theatrical experience is to disconnect from the stresses of our day to day lives and immerse ourselves into another world full of fascinating characters and stories. The more elements that you can add to a production to bring these universes to life and allow the audience to become fully immersed the better. With this production the audience is going to feel like they stepped into another world as soon as pass through the auditorium doors.”
Dave Edwards (Beadle):
“I wanted to do this show because it is so iconic. Doing it this time of year, spooky fall season, made it all the more enticing.
“The show means a lot to me. I saw friends in a ‘Sweeney’ production in college, so to be reminded of them is special. The depth of the story, the setting, the madness, the social and societal commentary all give it such great meaning to me. I think all that, in addition to the incredible score, make it so iconic. It’s like taking a look in the mirror, but seeing Mr. Hyde instead of yourself.”
“Immersion is very important. Theater creates a world on stage. We want to bring that world into the seats, the aisles, the lobby, the whole experience. You can’t just watch the story, you’re in it with us. In a social commentary story such as ‘Sweeney’, you have to be immersed to experience it properly.”
Rob Keech (Todd):
“It’s such a fascinating show and unlike anything I’ve been involved in. It’s gothic horror. When you’re watching it, there’s that level of anxiety and tension waiting to see what will happen next. Like a roller coaster, it’s scary but fun.
“On a technical level, the show is amazing. Melodies are repeated, altered, and inverted throughout the musical. Every song has so many clever lyrics packed in that you can listen to it a dozen times and still pick up on new things.
“This is by far the hardest role I’ve ever had in musical theatre. The music is incredibly difficult and channeling the extreme emotions in this show doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. There is satisfaction when you know you are dialed in, but it’s a hell of a lot of work.”
“Everyone is very professional. The cast gets along very well and everyone is putting everything they have into this show. I’ve felt that in every MG show I’ve done.
“This show has a massive cast and orchestra, but having the stage extend out in front of the audience has been a good way to create a more intimate atmosphere in a lot of the scenes. It should heighten the tension.”
I have called “Sweeney Todd” the Mount Everest of musical theater — daunting, imposing and a true test of endurance. Counting the crew, we have over 80 people working hard to ascend this majestic, dizzying height and it’s the thrill of a lifetime. The view from the top is breathtaking.
You can join us on the adventure and attend this tale (rated R) by ordering tickets — $20 for adults and $15 for children (12 and under), available by calling 309-762-6610 or by visiting the QCMG website HERE.