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East West Players continue their Sondheim tradition with their second staging of the musical thriller, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," directed by Tim Dang.
Video: Watch the video with the director and cast of Sweeney Todd.
Click here to view the video in Windows Media Player.
Interview with Tim Dang, Ronald M. Banks, and Marilyn Tokuda
February 9, 2006
Article by Ada Tseng
Video Edit by Charlotte Wu
Stephen Sondheim is a legend in the theater world. A Broadway composer and lyricist, Sondheim is responsible for stage classics such as Into the Woods, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and also provided lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. And, of course, Sweeney Todd.
First produced in England in 1979, the original won nine Tony Awards and starred Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. The story is a dark, twisted, yet comedic tale of revenge and madness -- beginning with Sweeney Todd's release from jail and following his fierce but unsettling determination to murder the unscrupulous judge that sent him to prison and raped his wife. Sweeney Todd is an elaborate and challenging production to stage. Because it combines many genres and boasts Sondheim's clever and complex lyricism, Sweeney Todd has become a dream project for many actors. In fact, there's currently a Broadway rendition, starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cervers, and rumors constantly resurface that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have plans to helm the Hollywood version of the story.
Usually, with such popularity, it becomes difficult to get rights to a play like this, but East West Players has had a special, long-standing relationship with Sondheim. East West Players' former (and founding) artistic director Mako was actually the lead on Broadway in the Sondheim production of Pacific Overtures. In 1978, East West Players produced their own version of Pacific Overtures and since then, they've done ten shows by Stephen Sondheim. "You could even consider Stephen Sondheim the foremost composer in Asian-American theater, because we do him so much," says Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players and director of their current production of Sweeney Todd.
This is the second time that East West Players has staged Sweeney Todd, the first time being in 1994 -- also directed by Tim Dang. That production was so successful that it won them five L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Awards, five Drama-Logue awards, and a LA Weekly Theatre Award. To celebrate their 40th anniversary, East West Players decided to bring it back.
"Sondheim's work is very challenging, and many times Asian-Americans don't get a chance to play these types of roles in Broadway or other regional theaters, so here, we have the opportunity to cast ourselves," says Dang. "I think Sondheim is very open to seeing his work done in a myriad of ways with various casts. And, Asian-American talent has improved greatly in the last 12 years because there're more opportunities out there."
With only four weeks of rehearsal, casting was key, and Dang was looking for actors who could bring their own unique interpretations and characteristics to these time-honored roles. The intricacies of Sondheim's writing calls for a delicate balancing act, making sure one has a good grasp of the words as well as the musicality. Ronald M. Banks, who plays Sweeney Todd, dove into the role and immersed himself in the research -- reading every single version of the play, the Hugh Wheeler novel, even the history behind the real barber that the character is based on. He watched all the different stage and film interpretations of this role to get tips on what he liked and what he didn't. He even got in touch with his own personal turmoil. "He's so wounded, so obsessed with revenge, that he ends up destroying all around him, including what he loves dearly," says Banks. "It was about getting in touch with the elements of pain he's in and committing myself to becoming him."
Musically speaking, Banks has had 20 years of opera training to develop his deep baritone voice that was crucial to his performance. He had been working off-and-on on his voice and technique; in the back of his head, he had been preparing for this role ever since he first saw the musical 15 years ago. "It's a lot of study," says Banks. "Sondheim is very complex musically. He has interesting and intricate lyrics, clever rhyme scheme, and it all has to come out in order to do justice to the role."
For Marilyn Tokuda (Mrs. Lovett), the experience was just as difficult and intimidating, if not more. She had never expected to be given an opportunity to play a role like Mrs Levitt, and while she had her reservations, she was seduced by the fact that it was such a great role. "It was frightening," she says. "I hadn't sung in four years. I'm an actress who sings. And it was overwhelming because everyone else, they're all singers. They're all pros. And my timing was so bad. So it was really stressful. I was very intense with the music for a while, taking voice lessons, breaking it down and taking it all apart. Every actor's nightmare I went through. It was a very humbling experience, but everyone was so supportive."
As for her character work, "I put a lot of myself in there," Tokuda says. "I'm kind of scatterbrained, and I'll be going on this little tangent and that little tangent. Everyone associates the role with Angela Lansbury, but I didn't want to mimic her." She decided to play the character more comedic, as opposed to being dark and sinister. Asked if she interpreted her character as a villain (being Sweeney Todd's partner in crime as he leaves behind a bloodbath and she makes meat pies out of the murder victims), Tokuda responds with an emphatic no. "I think she's just very practical," she says. "Number one, she's very in love with this man. She has the opportunity to have the love of her life. She's been pining for him all her life. It's about approaching it as a character." One could say that, as an actor, it's about finding the humanity, finding something to relate to.
"I think the theme of revenge in Sweeney Todd is relevant to what's going on today," adds Banks. "So many groups, individuals, political parties, nationalists...they say they want justice but what they really want is revenge. Justice implies a sense of coming to an understanding of what caused conflict in the first place, whereas revenge is just an eye for an eye. I think, still, as far as we've come from Industrial Revolution -- which is where the play is set -- we have a lot to learn. The obsession in Sweeney Todd shows us the consequences of that kind of revenge. It explores the destruction of evil, perceived or otherwise, and also the destruction of good."
Sweeney Todd is playing at East West Players, and it has just been extended until March 19, 2006.
Date Posted: 2/23/2006