Maybe you don’t know his name, but you’ve probably heard rumors of “the demon barber” who slits his customers’ throats; their bodies are made into meat pies and sold to unsuspecting diners. The tale of barber-murderer Sweeney Todd has been around since the mid-1800s and told in many versions, most famously in a 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical which the AllWays Lounge & Theatre is tackling this month. I sat down with Director Dennis Monn, Musical Director Ainsley Matich and Ratty Scurvics (playing the barber) to talk about the difficulties of atonal harmonies, the joys of a challenge and the sweet smell of meat pies.
Sweeney Todd is one of Sondheim’s most famous musicals. What made you choose this show, with all the history of all the other productions it brings?
Dennis Monn: Sweeney Todd has not been done here in New Orleans since 1987. Musically, it is one of the most difficult pieces ever written in musical theatre. And we love a challenge. I want to do something that challenges all these talented people I am working with, that challenges myself, challenges the AllWays. What we are doing is unheard of. You will never see Sweeney Todd in a space this size or with a cast this small.
Ratty Scurvics: Or a cast this strange. It is a real group of characters, no one who is typically involved in musical theatre.
Ainsley Matich: I met Dennis through friends of friends. This seemed like a really interesting project. I’m not a huge musical theatre person. It’s not where my training is but I love to do anything that stretches me as a musician. This absolutely does that, basically in every way possible.
DM: The more I do theatre in New Orleans, the challenge becomes even more fun. The people are really into it. The audience is like, “They’re going to do Sweeney Todd at the AllWays Lounge? How crazy is that?” That’s what I get off on.
The cast, as you said, is small but really extraordinary.
DM: There are ten people in the show and a five-piece orchestra. I was very careful with casting. I didn’t cast any actors, mainly because musical theatre actors fall into a certain type of acting. They depend too much on the characters and not enough on singing. Sweeney Todd is kind of one-dimensional. You don’t have fully developed characters that you need to do a history on. Opera singers are the opposite. They sing so beautifully but it doesn’t even sound like a musical. I tried to go with the middle by casting musicians… It’s so nice to be able to call people and have Aurora Nealand, Brian Coogan, Helen Gillet, Ratty Scurvics, Pandora [Gastelum] [and] Altercation. There’s this new boy to the AllWays, Barron Burmaster, a composing student at Loyola. This cast is stellar. But the most important thing about any project is that everyone like each other and have a good time. I don’t put together people based solely on talent level or experience but that they also have such great personalities and all get along. The secret is if everyone is having a great time on stage, the show won’t fail. It just leaks out into the audience. It is infectious.
You also seem to really like producing musicals.
DM: This is our third musical we have produced in a row. Zalia [BeVille, coowner of the AllWays] and I were like: if we can do this, we can do anything.
AM: That’s how everyone in the cast feels. If we can pull this off, there is nothing we can’t do.
DM: This show typically has a cast of forty and a production budget of $100,000. We have a cast of ten and nowhere near that much money. This is truly about the spirit of performing and entertaining.
AM: Sondheim is really good at writing music for moods. I am good at following chord changes but there is none of that in here. You have to be really good at reading music. Sometimes he will go from five sharps to six flats and you have to catch it right away.
RS: Sometimes the melody and music have absolutely nothing to do with each other, which is really tricky. I really dig the music now that my intimidation is over and I am understanding it. It was a bit of a mindfuck in the beginning. It is really tricky stuff, really complex; but once you discover the patterns in it, there are really good tunes.
DM: They are doing five-part harmonies with ten people!
AM: And really atonal harmonies, things that are not instinctual notes to go to. This cast picks it up amazingly. I can’t even say how impressed I am.
DM: It is a lot of singing. It is a fucking lot of singing.
Dennis, you always put your distinctive mark on any show you direct. Anything you want to let us in on now?
DM: We will have some surprises. We are adding some musicians to the cast and some of the cast will be doing some of the music. I’m throwing out what people already perceive Sweeney Todd to be and turning it into, hopefully, a big party. A big creepy party. It will be everywhere around you. The cast will get bloody and gross and we are going to pump stinky meat pie smells into the audience. We will serve meat pies at intermission. Free food!
RS: That’s why I like doing these things with you. I don’t think on my own I would pursue musical theatre. Although so much of my music is theatrical and all my records follow narratives (as far as musical theatre), I’m not interested. But I like the way you do it.
DM: I have to admit, I go to a lot of theatre and I am bored. That’s my goal as an artist: to make sure people aren’t bored.
RS: It has to be a little dangerous, doesn’t it?
DM: Yes, a little dangerous. People are so stuck on their perceived notions of this show and the way they think it is supposed to be done but I am trying to throw all that out. If you see your best friend in the audience, say hello to them for a second. Throw a little piece of meat pie at them; it’s okay. I’m very Brechtian when it comes to directing. I never forget we are putting on a play. Because the audience never forgets. To own that fact is key. That’s the goal: to stay in character and sell that but still be able to do [winks and smiles]. I already see moments where I think, that’s going to steal the show. Right now, as it stands, there are enough moments that people would walk away feeling pleased. But when I get all those moments together—
RS: They will walk away bloodied and in tears, laughing hysterically.
Sweeney Todd runs at the AllWays Lounge & Theatre, 2240 St. Claude Ave., for two weekends, from December 6th through 16th at 8 pm. For more info, go to theallwayslounge.com