Horror tale 'Sweeney Todd' a lucky find
Michigan Opera Theatre will host Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" Saturday through Nov. 24, with its tale of a butcher-barber and fabulous meat pies. But the celebrated musical may never have come to pass had the director of MOT's production, Ron Daniels, not stumbled on the Victorian horror-tale in a "penny dreadful" storybook in England in the late 1960s.
The Detroit News caught up with Daniels to chat lucky finds, Sondheim's adaptation, and his Anglo-Brazilian roots.
Do you remember where you found the "penny dreadful" with the Sweeney Todd story?
Ron Daniels: "I have no idea. This was 50-odd years ago. But we must have searched the libraries, I'm guessing."
And you and actor Christopher Bond turned the story into a non-musical play?
"Yes. We sat down and adapted it, giving it the greater psychological depth the play has. Chris took credit for writing it, and I for directing the first production."
How in the world did it become a musical?
"Lo and behold, Stephen Sondheim must have seen a revival a couple years after our production, and bought the rights and made it into this amazing musical. But if you look at the front page of the score, it still says, 'Based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond.'"
So you think Sondheim did well by your original play?
"Yes. Chris and I were just 25 or 26 years old at the time, and had this incredible energy and verve, all of which went into the play. All that is still there in the lyrics. The wonderful thing is how Sondheim manages not only to maintain the vigor of the narrative, but to really enjoy the play's various modalities. So the emotional temperature of the work turns on a dime."
Have you directed it before?
"I produced 'Sweeney Todd' for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis seven years ago. I sent Stephen an email at the time saying, 'Forty years later, here we are again,' and he was very gracious."
Do you have a favorite song?
"No. I think they’re all just wonderful."
Despite your English accent, I read that you were born in Brazil. What's up with that?
"My grandfathers went over to Brazil from Britain in the early 1900s for work, and both married Brazilian women. So my father and mother were both born in Brazil. My father ended up going to school in England, so at home we were completely bilingual.
"When I first went to England, I still had a Brazilian accent, which I had to clean up for the British theater. So now I speak posh. And of course, Americans love it, not knowing it’s a total fraud."
Where did you grow up in Brazil? And when did you leave?
"I was born and grew up in a little town across the bay from Rio, Niteroi. I left for England when I was 21."
Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit
7:30 p.m. Sat., Wed., & Nov. 22
2:30 p.m. Nov. 24