Many people who attend the theater don’t know it, but theater is a race. The finish line is set months in advance and is cheekily called “Opening Night,” even though it is the closing of a long journey. And, just like any race, the moments leading up to the finish line are the some of the most interesting.
The dress rehearsals leading up to opening have a crazy energy to them, so I was excited to have an invite to Landless Theatre Company’s dress rehearsal for their “prog metal” adaptation of Sweeney Todd.
But I was also a bit apprehensive. As a dramaturg, I usually don’t have a place at dress rehearsals; I usually engage in the diplomatic development of the play that happens far before tech, so I feel awkward even being in the room. These rehearsals are a time for the world of technicians with their sets, props, lights and sounds to merge with the world that the actors have been building with their character work and technique.
They have both been racing to this single point, and their goal is not to collide, but to merge into a single cohesive being that presents beautiful art before total strangers. The final dress is a complicated, hectic, sometimes violent, but entirely exhilarating world. So, very much like a civilian journalist suddenly embedded in a wartime platoon, I present to you this report from the front lines, full of mayhem and triumph, from the monumental effort that leads to the penultimate performance of Landless Theatre’s driven new adaptation of the contemporary classic of Sweeney Todd.
August 6th, 2014
5:40pm. The Passenger on 7th street NW: I have arrived with time to spare, before I carry out the secret instructions given to me by Andrew Baughman, Producing Artistic Director of Landless Theatre and, coincidentally, the eponymous character of the musical whose rehearsal I’m about to witness.
It feels odd to be given an invitation to peculiar location by a man playing Sweeney Todd, and I half expect to wind up in a meat pie, like so many of his victims. But the restaurant and its environs puts me at ease. Coming to this part of the city will remind longtime DC theatre junkies of Fringe, and the Passenger, as well as the adjoining Warehouse Theater where Sweeney Todd will be performed, are Fringe through and through. The bar’s walls are a mix of bare brick and unapologetic chipped paint. Bass-driven and guitar lick-filled music keep heads bobbing even if the conversation runs low. The Passenger, much like Landless, is entirely DC, combining old and new. The Passenger’s menu keeps half smoke and fried chicken alongside kimchi dogs and pork cheek nachos, which seems oddly congruous to Landless’ combination of Sondheim classic with new metal score.
5:49: I order a 3 Stars Peppercorn Saison to while away the minutes before I am appointed to visit the wizardry of the Landless tech rehearsal. Vibrant and tattooed young people enter the bar, nod to the bartender, and head to the back. They walk with the confidence of people who have been applauded. I imagine I will be seeing them in pseudo-19th century English costumes and belting Sondheim in metal tones before the night is out.
6:00: Now is the time I’ve been appointed to enter the fray. I walk to the back of the bar, down a hallway lit with sconces to a door that says “Employees Only.” It feels like the lead-up to a boss fight in a cheesy gothic horror video game. I feel dirty and expect the handle of the door to burn my hand, not recognizing me as an employee of the bar, but, like most doors into sinful worlds, this one open quite easily and without immediate consequence.
6:01: I’m confronted with the most familiar of Fringe-like sights, a long hallway made of whitewashed quarter inch plywood, screwed into some unseen support. There is a dashing young gentleman by the door who tells me that the theater is “that way,” and I wander into the unknown dark.
6:05: I come across Hilary, the board chair of Landless and her small cadre of front-of-house workers. Hilary is stressed, but excited and that is understandable. One thing you may not realize when you see a show is that the people who make sure that you get into the space, who service you with tickets and refreshments, and who will save your sweet patootie if there is ever an emergency, these people will be some of the last people to see the show. That’s because here, at final dress, this is one of the first times these front-of-house warriors get to see the space fully dressed and figure out precisely when to usher patrons in, when traffic makes them late. Sometimes they don’t get to see the show at all.
6:10: The front-of-house people start training, so I start to wander around. There are some melodies coming from a dark corner, so I blindly head towards them. I trip over a giant coffin on my way, which is the most metal prop I’ve ever seen. Side note: among the cast and crew, as in the wider hard rock world, “metal” is frequently used as an adjective, meaning “totally badass, while also carrying connotations of morbidity, sadism, or masochism. Also, something that is sexy with similar connotations.”
6:13: I find the source of the music, which now has a high male voice singing “Joanna! Joanna!” along with it. The music is coming from the theater, which is pitch black. Maybe someone can’t find a light switch, but maybe it is purposeful. An example of using “metal” as an adjective in a sentence: “These musicians are so metal that they practice in darkness as black as their souls.”
6:16: Not wanting to run into any more conveyances of posthumous remains, I get out of the night-clad theater and wander more, this time stumbling on the back stage. I can tell it is the backstage because there is a flood light with a sign attached to it. This is stage manager country, where everything is labeled in such a way that makes life easier for the production and keeps the actors from making their own life harder. This particular sign reads, “Do not move this light! Edit: If I catch you moving this light, I will assist you in your consumption if [sic] the ice machine’s contents.” I consider the dire implications of this threat and consequences of moving the light. Stage Managers are much like Texas: they are independent, fierce, probably armed, and not to be messed with. I back away slowly from the backstage area and hope that no one saw me approach the light which must not be moved.
6:23: Coming back into safer territory, I meet up with Melissa Baughman, director of this prog metal Sweeney Todd. She has a huge responsibility for this production, managing 20 people onstage, plus the band, plus the crew. And she’s been doing this since early June. It has been a long race for her, not only for this production, but for her work with Landless. I ask her how long she’s been working with Landless Theatre, and she responds “How long have I been married to Andrew?”
6:26: We’re interrupted by Jim, the stressed but smiling sound guy, who looks at Melissa with pleading eyes and says, “I REALLY need to find Lance.” Then he runs off. I sure hope he finds Lance.
6:27: For Melissa, this particular musical journey started last winter with an email to the persona known around here sometimes as “The Man” or “Mr. S,” Mr. Stephen Sondheim himself, but most often referred to like God is in the Bible, simply as “He.” It was one of those depressive times after a show closes. Melissa had always wanted to do a metal Sondheim, since she fell in love with the theater seeing Into the Woods on Broadway and since she has always been a “metal head.” But it is hard to do adaptations of the work of living authors, so she had written it off. Then her husband Andrew simply emailed Him, asking what He might think of Landless doing a metal adaptation of Sweeney Todd. To everyone’s surprise except His own, He said, “Yes!”
6:30: A crew member needs Melissa and I to scoot together to get by because he is dragging his own weight in cardboard boxes. Theater is such a glamorous industry.
6:31: I ask Melissa about the music of the show, prog metal, a term that most people aren’t familiar with. Some terms like, “technical,” “complex,” and “mathematical” are thrown around, but, having heard the music, the best introduction to the genre is telling you what it is not. First thing, prog metal isn’t the ear-splitting and growling death metal that many people think of when they hear “metal.” It isn’t the hair metal of Whitesnake. It isn’t pop. So, prog metal is very much like Sondheim’s work, difficult to define, but unmistakable once you get an ear for it.
6:35: Melissa needs to go make sure that her production isn’t exploding underneath her, and I get to talk to Nina Osegueda, who plays Mrs. Lovett. I’ve caught her in the middle of her prep for the night: she has put her eyes on, but hasn’t gotten to her mouth yet (Makeup can be be a huge ordeal, especially for the women of the stage). Nina isn’t a traditional actress; she is the frontwoman for the heavy metal band “A Sound of Thunder” (metal bands often use an article to begin their name. It’s very important to include the article.) She’s been pretty successful at it, too. She has her own Wikipedia article, which is my current metric for if someone is famous or not.
She has had an interesting career in the arts, starting with theater in high school, then doing art in college, performing with the Washington National Opera and finally ending up in the music industry. So, Sweeney Todd, makes her journey come full circle. Asked what one thing people should know before they come, she thinks for a moment. “No kids,” she finally says. There are moments in the show, especially the Judge’s Song that can get pretty raunchy and might be difficult to explain to little ones. This jives with what Melissa told me was their main audience for the show: 30-somethings who love rock music, but are too mature (and perhaps too creaky) to jump into a mosh pit with elbow-throwing teenagers. A nice night out with a metal edge that makes it worth getting a sitter.
SWEENEY TODD, Prog-Metal Version
Closes August 31, 2014
645 New York Ave, NW
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
6:50: Nina has to put the rest of her face on and lace herself into a corset. Remember what I said about makeup being an ordeal for stage ladies? It’s nothing compared with costuming.
6:55: I head back into the theater, lit this time, to check out what action is going on. The chairs of the audience aren’t occupied by patrons. They are full of tools and costumes and actors who have already gotten laced up, checking their phones and gossiping. The band is warming up, accompanied by the percussive tearing of tape and the ringing of a bell that needs to be put on a string at just the right length. The tension in the room is palpable, but it isn’t a bad kind of tension, just a calm before a storm. The play is going to be done fully, with technical elements and without stop, for the first time tonight and the nerves are evident. The pace of the room accelerates. Everyone is running in different directions, and there is a general din that occasionally has some insistent phrase peeking over-top of it all. The actors laugh to pass the tension. The techies sweat.
7:00: “We NEED the harmonium!” someone yells. “Does he have it on the train?” I imagine the looks that some poor actor is getting, hauling a harmonium on the Metro and looking like an organ grinder.
7:02: “Anyone who dies, come onstage to see Steve!” I wonder if, as a mere mortal, I should go up there. But this call is actually not unusual for pre-performance. Unbeknownst to most audiences, there is a mini-performance that happens before you are let into the theater. It is called “fight call,” where the actors practice the violent parts of the work before the actual show. Fight call is an intricate balance: selling the violence that needs to be conveyed versus making sure that the fake violence doesn’t turn real and endanger the safety of the actors. The actual mechanics of the fights are still be fine-tuned, and the balance is constantly being adjusted for the comfort of the actors and the audience.
7:10: “Who’s next for a douche?!?” Blood packets, that is. In a show as full of razor cuts as Sweeney Todd, there is lots of blood and that blood is conveyed with “douches,” little spray packets of fake blood that need to work in conjunction with the staged violence.
7:16: Fight call is like watching the whole show go in fast forward, aided by the band playing the difficult parts of songs throughout the play. Characters die in rapid succession, some easily, some roughly, some hammily.
7:28: Now is a relatively new phenomenon in the theater: selfie time. Actors die and then get up to grab a quick pic of themselves with another friend in the cast. Not even death can stop the selfie.
7:33: “Oh, yay, harmonium!” A gorgeous blonde man comes in with the most rickety musical instrument I’ve ever seen. It fits perfectly into the rickety London world that Landless has created.
7:40: The voice of God: “We go in about three. Place and holding.” This isn’t the voice of Stephen Sondheim, but the Stage Manager, who is as close to God (or Goddess, usually) in this room as you can get. The voice engenders a Catholic-esque call-and-response from the entire room, “Thank you three.” This tradition is deeply ingrained in theatrical liturgy. When the Stage Manager makes a call, you respond with “Thank You [repeat back the call]” This is so God knows that you’ve heard Her, and that you have no excuses when you don’t do Her bidding.
7:43: “Give me some volume!” This demand is for the last minute mic check. With a cast full of rockers, this request is dangerous. Some of the cast threaten to blow the speakers out.
7:47:”Curtain Speech! Curtain Speech! Curtain Speech!” The house lights dim, and the instruments rev up, and suddenly, almost out of nowhere-
7:48: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…” The musical has started, not to end until the final lyric, “The demon barber of Fleet Street…” I brace myself for a roar of thrashing guitar and overwhelming wall of sound. But it never comes. I thought I knew what to expect when I was told this would be a metal adaptation, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The difference in the music from the original isn’t jarring; it just sounds like the orchestra has been replaced with the bands Rush or Yes. It has more punch, more verve than I remember Sondheim usually having. I think I might like the music even better than the original. If this is metal, prog or not, then call me a metal head.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Music by Stephen Sondheim . Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim . Book by Hugh Wheeler . Directed by Melissa Baughman . original prog metal orchestration by The Fleet Street Collective . Featuring Nina Osegueda as Mrs. Lovett, Andrew Lloyd Baughman as Sweeney Todd, Greg Bowen as Tobias Ragg, Patrick M. Doneghy as Judge Turpin, Irene Jericho as Beggar Woman, Joe York as The Beadle, Bobby Libby as Anthony, Angeleaza Anderson as Johanna, and Robert Bradley as Pirelli and Amy Baska, Matt Baughman, Steve Custer, Dani Ebbin, Jacki Ebbin Muir, Devin Gaither, Franklin Allen, Ally Jenkins, Dexter Warren, and Kristen Zwobot. Scenic Design is by Jared Davis . Costumes by Devin Gaither. Lighting Design by Chris Holland. Sound Design by James Wauters. Prop Design by Brenna St. Ours . Produced by Landless Theatre Company . Feature written by Alan Jay Katz.