Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd is back on Broadway with Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford taking on the demon barber and his pie-making accomplice (respectively). It's always exciting for a big, splashy Sondheim revival to be on the boards, and it's perhaps especially so this time around because the production is using Jonathan Tunick's full 26-piece orchestration for the first time on Broadway since the original 1979 production.
But it's not the first time the show, or those orchestrations, have been heard in NYC since 1979. It's contrary to what the tweets from The New York Times claimed today: "The musical hasn't been seen or heard in New York for 43 years," tweeted the paper of record, who then later added, "A fully-staged production of the musical hasn’t been seen or heard in New York for 43 years." No tea no shade, but let's take a look back at the Tony-winning musical's long and storied relationship with the city that gave it its world premiere.
The macabre tale of a Victorian London barber who slits his customers' throats, and then sends their bodies to his neighbor and accomplice Mrs. Lovett to become the main ingredient in her meat pies, started as an apocryphal "news" story in a National Enquirer-style British tabloid. The story captured the public's attention so much that a dramatization was quickly put together by George Dibdin Pitt—the Victorian version of a hastily-produced Lifetime made-for-TV movie. But that story and play have little to do with the Sweeney Todd we know from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. Beyond some character names and the nature of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's scheme, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd tells a completely different story. It was based on Christopher Bond's Sweeney Todd play, which premiered in the U.K. in 1970. Sondheim happened to catch a performance, thought it would make for a good and scary musical, and the rest is Broadway history.
The work opened cold on Broadway in 1979 with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury starring as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, respectively, becoming the last successful collaboration between Sondheim and director Harold Prince.
And quite the success it was. The original production won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Scenic Design (Eugene Lee), Lead Actor in a Musical (Cariou), Lead Actress in a Musical (Lansbury), Book of a Musical, Costume Design (Franne lee), Direction of a Musical, and Score. The production closed after 557 performances and embarked on a national tour.
The show first returned to NYC in 1984 via New York City Opera, which mounted Prince's original production (or rather the slightly downsized national touring version of Prince's original production) at the New York State Theater, now Lincoln Center's Koch Theater. This run, which originated at Houston Grand Opera, was notable in that it reinstated "Johanna (Judge Turpin)" to Prince's staging after the director had cut the dark number during previews of the original run. This production also featured Tunick's full orchestration. The company revived the production in 1987.
Just two years later in 1989, Broadway got a completely new production of the musical directed by Susan H. Schulman, an Off-Broadway transfer that originated at York Theatre Company. Lovingly nicknamed "Teeny Todd" by fans (and Broadway parody revue Forbidden Broadway), the revival envisioned the operatic musical on a dramatically smaller scale than Prince's production, with an "orchestra" comprising just two keyboards.
Tunick's full orchestration returned for a starry 2000 staged concert production via New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall (now the David Geffen), starring former Broadway and national tour Sweeney George Hearn opposite Patti LuPone. They shared the stage with such names as Davis Gaines, Audra McDonald, and Neil Patrick Harris. This concert was recorded live and released on CD, and later filmed when it moved to San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall—where Victoria Clark filled in for McDonald. That concert film was later broadcast on PBS and released on home video.
Four years later, in 2004, the show was back at Lincoln Center when New York City Opera revived their 1984 production. This time, West End and Broadway star Elaine Paige starred as Mrs. Lovett. This second NYC opera production also used Tunick's original orchestration and Prince's original staging.
And apparently NYC couldn't get enough. Just a year later, Broadway got its second Sweeney Todd revival, a West End transfer that served as director John Doyle's Broadway debut. This Todd was even teenier than the 1989 outing, with Doyle reducing the cast to just 10 actors, all of whom did double duty as the production's orchestra. Michael Cerveris starred as Sweeney Todd with a tuba-playing LuPone taking on Mrs. Lovett for a second time. The production would win two 2006 Tony Awards, for Sarah Travis' new orchestration and Doyle's direction.
In 2014, the musical headed back to Lincoln Center for another concert staging with the New York Philharmonic, this time with opera star Bryn Terfel in the title role and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett (Audra McDonald once again played the Beggar Woman). With Tunick's full orchestration back yet again, this concert staging was also filmed for TV and aired on PBS.
The city's next brush with the demon barber came in 2017 in its second Off-Broadway revival. Directed by Bill Buckhurst, this immersive production originated in the U.K., where it was performed in an actively functioning pie shop. Barrow Street Theatre was transformed for the Off-Broadway run into a pie shop, where theatregoers had the option of starting the evening with a nice meat pie (sans human flesh, if the producers were to be believed). The revival's original U.K. stars Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy opened the production, and were later replaced by a string of Broadway favorites, including Carolee Carmello, David Michael Garry, Norm Lewis, Hugh Panaro, Thom Sesma, and Sally Ann Triplett. This nine-actor production was the teeniest Todd yet, with just three musicians providing accompaniment.
Now, of course, the show is back on Broadway at it's epic and operatic height with a cast of 25 and, as previously mentioned, Tunick's full orchestration. And its Sweeney Todd, Josh Groban, told Playbill that he had seen Sweeney Todd in 2005 Broadway and again in 2017 Off-Broadway. It would be accurate to say that this production is the first big Sweeney to play Broadway since the original production. But it certainly isn't the only production, nor is it the only big production to be seen (or heard) in New York City in the years since the musical premiered. New York has been lucky to get lots of Sweeneys over the years, and we wouldn't have it any other way!
More hot pies!