Fittingly, it was cold and foggy the night I went to visit MUSKET’s “Sweeney Todd” production set. It was a week after Halloween, but October still lingered in the air, mingled with the scent of decomposing leaves and wood smoke wafting from the distant neighborhoods snaking along the outskirts of campus. As I trekked through the concrete maze from the baseball stadium to Kipke Drive, the location of the Student Theatre Arts Complex, I had the unnerving feeling that I was being watched, as if someone within the dark windows of the athletic facilities was peering down, waiting for me to pass by. Maybe it was the video clips of the Demon Barber I had watched in preparation for the night, or maybe it was that Mrs. Lovett’s ballad “Worst Pies in London” still rang shrilly in my head, but I felt Sweeney Todd’s presence — cold, bitter and hushed — lurking in the night air. I quickened my pace and finally arrived at the throbbing heart of the production.
Nov. 21-22, 8 p.m. & Nov. 23, 2 p.m.
The STAC is, quite literally, an underground operation. Upon entering, I was certain that I was in the wrong place. I cautiously made my way to a descending staircase, feeling very much alone in the silence of the building, until a young man carrying a barstool walked across the landing and looked up at me.
“Hello!” he said cheerfully, unperturbed. He shifted the stool to his hip and brandished his hand. “I’m Ryan Lucas, MUSKET producer. You must be the writer from the Daily. We’re all in here.”
Ryan led me to a rickety table where a handful of cast members and producers had gathered to eat Panera takeout before rehearsal began (the rehearsals, I later learned, ran six days a week from 7 to 11 at night). While they ate, the crew took turns introducing themselves and their majors, as well as what drew them to join MUSKET in the first place.
MUSKET prides itself on being a theatre group that’s not just for theater kids. Since its establishment in 1908, the quiet but impactful group has welcomed University students of all disciplines, from engineers to business students to neuroscience majors, all whom have one thing in common: a passion for theater.
“MUSKET is the place to come if you love to act, but don’t necessarily want to do it for the rest of your life,” said Hillary Ginsberg, a senior double-majoring in Business and Screen Arts and Cultures.
She found out about the group from a classmate who had nudged her in class one day and asked whether she liked to sing. Surprised, Ginsberg had said yes and humored her friend by auditioning for MUSKET’s production of “Hairspray.” She landed the lead role and hasn’t left the group since. This year, in “Sweeney Todd,” she is serving as a producer with Lucas, coordinating inter-staff communication and overseeing the organizational details of the show.
Though the crew recruits all types of students, there’s still a strong showing from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Director Henry Nettleton is a senior majoring in Musical Theatre and has every intention of pursuing a career on stage after graduation.
“I speak for myself when I say that yes, I will be acting or directing in the years to come,” Nettleton said. “Can I say the same for everyone here? Absolutely not. But that’s what makes what we’re doing right here, right now, so cool. We only have four years to mingle with so many different kids — chemists, business students, you name it — and we won’t get that chance in the real world.”
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” first debuted on Broadway in 1979, directed by the infamous Harold Prince (“Phantom of the Opera”) and continues to be revered as the Holy Book of Musical Theater. On the surface, the grim tale spins like an old-timey urban legend, the kind of scary story parents tell their kids to keep them from sneaking out at night (don’t let Sweeney Todd snatch you!).
The story goes that a vengeful barber under the fictional name of Sweeney Todd finds his way back to London after being exiled by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who had lusted for Todd’s beautiful wife Lucy. Upon his arrival, Todd is informed by Mrs. Lovett, the owner of a pie shop on the ground floor of his old barber shop, that after Benjamin Barker (Todd) had been exiled, Judge Turpin had lured Lucy to his home, raped her, then kept the couple’s infant daughter, Joanna, confined with him. Infuriated, Todd seeks to unleash hell on the streets of London for revenge. He moves back into his barbershop and opens business, darkly boasting “the closest shave” in the city. In alliance with Mrs. Lovett, Todd uses shaving razors to slice the throats of his clients and then dumps their bodies downstairs for his partner to bake the flesh into meat pies. As the bodies pile up and the pies grow in popularity, Todd patiently waits for Judge Turpin to come in for a shave.
It’s a creepy tale with an amazing set and soundtrack, yet it seemed doubtful that Victorian-era “Sweeney Todd” could be relevant to students at U-M. Last year, MUSKET presented “RENT,” which addressed more obviously accessible issues of discrimination, identity and acceptance. What does “Sweeney Todd” teach us, other than not to eat MoJo’s mystery meat?
“The play is timeless because it presents lust, revenge and grief. Whether we like it or not, we identify with Sweeney. Think of it this way,” Nettleton said, pressing his fingertips together. “You’re in line behind some obnoxious person at Starbucks and all you can think about is how much you want to punch the guy in the head. You don’t, but you think it. The only difference between you and Sweeney is that he acts on his murderous thoughts.”
The production itself follows the same idea: instead of recreating the Broadway musical, the MUSKET actors are telling the story of Sweeney Todd, posing as college-aged kids who have broken into an old, abandoned attic and decide to scare each other with a ghost story.
“Though the set changes, we never leave the attic,” said Carly Snyder, a junior musical theatre major who plays Joanna. “Everything that we use to act out the story has to be found in an attic. An overturned bicycle becomes the meat grinder; a box is the barbershop seat. We’re really playing off the idea that ‘Sweeney Todd’ needs very little to make it spectacular — the music speaks for itself.”
Nettleton strongly agrees. “Originally I asked myself, what play can I stage with absolutely nothing? ‘Sweeney Todd’ was it. I wanted to do it with just a box, a light bulb, and maybe a birdcage,” he said, laughing. “We ended up with a slightly more elaborate set, but the story is still the centerpiece.”
This weekend the Demon Barber will lurking on Fletcher Street rather than Fleet Street, inviting you to come attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.