Artistic Director Jeremy Quinn goes behind the scenes of the Sondheim musical, told from Toby’s perspective.
There’s Sweeney Todd, and then there’s the White Plains Performing Arts Center’s Sweeney Todd. When Jeremy Quinn, the theater’s artistic director, decided that he was no longer going to attempt to construct productions that mirrored those on Broadway, he set in motion an innovative theatrical experience. Sweeney Todd tells the tale of an unjustly exiled barber who returns to 19th-century London to get revenge against the judge who stripped him of his family. Told from the perspective of Sweeney’s apprentice Toby, the WPPAC mounting takes place at an insane asylum. Gone are the pie shop and barbershop; in their place is a reimagined locale in which doctors and those in their care tell the tale with the same dialogue and songs that Sondheim famously brought to life. Quinn, who also serves as director of Sweeney Todd, spoke with TheaterMania about his creative venture, and the vision he has for the future of regional theater.
You have worked on productions of Sweeney Todd in the past. Why reimagine this one?
It was the first show I ever directed at WPPAC. It’s kind of cool that nine years later I’m doing it again, but this time I’m messing with it. Nowadays you have to produce well-known titles in order to sell tickets because people don’t go to see things they don’t know. Because the cost of producing a Broadway show is limiting and restricting, it can be done cheaper outside of New York with a reenvisioning. That being said, I thought to myself, What can I do with Sweeney? I think [with] Sweeney, you can choose to figure out optional ways of telling that tale.
The concept behind your production is really intriguing. How did you develop it?
I wanted to answer the question of what happened to Toby, because at the end of the original he is sort of left there having gone insane. You don’t know what happens to him next. That was always a question for me. My thinking was that he got dragged off to an asylum and then he would tell his story of what happened to him to the other inmates and the staff. Basically, as part of his therapy, he is facilitating his memory and we use the hospital staff and inmates to tell the story. The staff assimilates into certain characters in the real story: The head doctor is Sweeney Todd, the head nurse is Mrs. Lovett, and the nurse’s station doubles as a pie shop. It also takes place in one day. Much of the storytelling with the ensemble happens as playtime activities for the inmates.
What is the biggest challenge in taking a well-known piece and making it new and exciting?
The biggest challenge is that smart choices are being made, rather than your just doing it. Plopping it in an asylum isn’t enough. You should answer a lot of questions and make intellectual choices. We are setting up a pre-show where the doors to the theater will be left open and they will have gates on them. We’re going to hold the audience, and then have our Sweeney and Lovett drag Toby through the lobby and take him into the asylum. The anticipation of the audience will be growing because they will be hearing screams and electro-shock sounds. We’re setting up this whole event.
It’s always exciting when theatre is an “experience” more than just a show.
I think it’s a very strong choice. I always go back to the question: What’s going to get people off the couch from watching Netflix? It’s a challenge to get people to come out of their houses to see a live show. The more you make it an event and an experience, audiences are feeling like they are getting more for their money.
How is WPPAC unique to other regional theaters?
If you live in the tri-state area you know where to go to see great theater, and New York City is only forty minutes away, so if people want to go to Broadway, they are going to go to Broadway. We’re sort of picking up the audiences who may like these titles and giving them an option for a cheaper ticket price. Plus, we’re trying to change it up and look at it through different eyes.
Which other shows would you like to reimagine for WPPAC?
I have a concept for Jesus Christ Superstar that has been percolating in my brain for a few years. And Into the Woods: setting it in Queens, and using New York as the backdrop for the woods. With certain titles that people may have seen over and over again, it’s necessary at this point. Why would people see a show when they already know what happens?