MANILA — This revenge tale set in the same London environs that produced Jack the Ripper has been described as Stephen Sondheim's "most powerful work that will survive the ages."
Forty years after its Broadway debut, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a musical that tackles among others cannibalism and murder, continues to enthrall audiences and theater artists alike.
Topbilled by Lea Salonga and Jett Pangan, this modern classic is being staged again from October 11 to 27 at The Theatre at Solaire by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group and ABS-CBN. The musical is Atlantis's 20th anniversary offering to its loyal followers and new converts.
Set in London during the 1800s, "Sweeney Todd" is about a man driven to his worst. Accused of a crime he didn't commit, he is punished to do hard labor in a faraway country. But after 17 years and with a new identity, he comes back for revenge as a sociopath on the loose.
He finds an accomplice in Mrs. Lovett, the only person who loves him and shares his mission in life to punish society.
"They're despicable people," said Salonga, "but so much fun."
"For the longest time, Mrs. Lovett is so obsessively in love with Sweeney. She's very interesting to play — a female character obsessed with a man. For her, I did a bit of research so I watched films like 'Fatal Attraction' and 'Misery,'" she added.
"Fatal Attraction" is a 1987 film about a family man who has an affair with a woman who becomes obsessed to the point of destroying his life and those of his loved ones. "Misery," meanwhile, is a film about a novelist and an obsessed fan.
Asked further to explain her character, Salonga amusingly shared how Mrs. Lovett keeps her small meat pie shop. "It's like glorified empanada but times are hard in this part of England. She is unable to make delicious pie kasi walang laman," she said.
"So she hits upon the idea of using a special kind of meat. She has to kill people and she uses the meat for the pie. Then her business goes well and prosperity changes her. And she's so obsessed with Sweeney. That's why she's a very interesting character.
"There's not much of a spoiler really because 'Sweeney Todd' is a well-known story. The musical has been staged many times all over the world in different languages since it debuted 40 years ago in Broadway. Then there's the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter," Salonga said.
Originally a straight play written by Christopher Godfrey Bond in 1970, the story of "Sweeney Todd" was reportedly based on a real person who lived in London during the Victorian era. Bond's material was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1979 by Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book).
Bobby Garcia is directing this Manila restaging that also celebrates the musical's 40th anniversary. "I'm so excited to be collaborating with a creative team full of geniuses in their craft," he said.
The musical direction is by Gerard Salonga with the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, set design by Tony awardee David Gallo, costume design by Rajo Laurel, choreography by Cecile Martinez, lighting design by Aaron Porter, hair and make up by Leslie Espinosa, vocal direction by Manman Angsico, and sound design by Justin Stasiw.
Salonga is not worried that her fans are going to hate her character in "Sweeney Todd," especially those who know her in family-oriented musicals.
"This is not the first time that I got to play a villain and my fans, I think, are intelligent enough to separate me as a person from the characters I played before," she said, mentioning her previous roles in other past productions by Atlantis like "Fun Home" and "God of Carnage."
"I am not always the happy person with a happy ending. I am 48, honey, I'll leave that to the 24-year-olds," she added.
She has high praises for her Sweeney Todd, played by rocker-actor Jett Pangan. She said there were times during rehearsals, she found herself standing there and watching Pangan like an avid fan to her idol.
"I'm fortunate to work with him. I've never heard anyone who sings like him. I've traveled the world and never heard of anyone who sings close like him. The voice that comes out of his body? He uses that full range, that textured sound he produces is so effectively Sweeney. And he is terrifying!" she gushed.
She cited Pangan's number, "Epiphany," in the show: "It's the second to the last song in the first act. It's when Sweeney started to take his vengeance. He is swearing he is going to kill more people. But there's the epiphany that no matter how many throats he cuts to avenge his wife and daughter, he won't have satisfaction so he transforms into this bloodthirsty human."
"And I'm like just five feet away and watching him. I just sit there and be a Jett Pangan fan for two to three minutes. I am lucky that he is looking at me with those demented eyes," she said, pausing for a few seconds and realizing something offbeat, she added, "As dictated by the script."
"Direk Bobby and I have discussed it after seeing Jett Pangan like that. There's no one else who can play this role."
ON THE DARK SIDE
Being a rock musician, Pangan can easily channel his anger into songs. For those living under the rock, he has been a vocalist since the mid-1980s for one of the most enduring rock bands in the country, The Dawn.
He was asked during the press conference by another actor if there's a part in him that somehow relates to the wild side of Sweeney.
"We all have a dark side, either we leave it at home or keep it behind a smile," said Pangan.
"No one knows who we are 24 hours a day. We can't be happy 24 hours a day. If someone pushes the button the wrong way, we react accordingly. For my role as Mr. Todd, it's just magnifying that," he added.
Incidentally, 2019 marks Pangan's return to musical theater after a five-year hiatus. Early this year, he started with "Dirty Old Musical" for Spotlight Artists.
But before that, the last one he did was in 2014, also for Atlantis. He played the main antagonist Lord Farquaad in "Shrek the Musical" at the Meralco Theater.
As early as now, the production has earned admiration outside Atlantis.
Veteran actor-director Audie Gemora played Sweeney for Repertory Philippines nearly a decade ago. He is now director for entertainment at Solaire and having witnessed during the press conference two excerpts from the musical, he has nothing but praise for the Atlantis version.
In an online conversation on Thursday, Gemora told ABS-CBN News: "I am stoked that Atlantis is doing 'Sweeney Todd' here at The Theatre at Solaire. This show is personally special to me as I choreographed the Repertory Philippines' staging in 1983 starring Junix Inocian and Baby Barredo, then played the title role for its re-staging in 2010 opposite Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.
"I know Jett and Lea are going to bring newness to the Stephen Sondheim iconic roles and bring it to spheres not yet treaded. The cast sounded awesome at the press conference. I hear the staging is totally fresh and new."
For samplers, Gemora as a vlogger took some videos to share the experience.
Garcia said he is bringing a unique version of "Sweeney Todd," as told by Salonga and Pangan, with some of the best musical theater storytellers in the Philippines.
Ima Castro, who like Salonga is a "Miss Saigon" alumnus, is playing the Beggar Woman. She said she was hesitant to join the production when she got an invite from Garcia, knowing how hard "Sweeney Todd" is.
But upon knowing that Salonga and Pangan are part of the cast, she agreed.
Gerald Santos is playing Anthony Hope, the kind-hearted sailor who falls in love with Sweeney's daughter. This is Santos' first major role in the Philippines after his stint as Thuy in the UK and European tour of "Miss Saigon.”
Santos said he was able to relate to Anthony because he also likes to explore the world, like a sailor.
"He is also mapusok kasi na love at first sight siya kay Johanna. Most of all, Anthony likes pretty women. And I also like pretty women," Santos said, bringing laughter to his co-actors.
Recovering from laughter, his Johanna reacted. The tormented beautiful daughter of Sweeney is played by Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante.
"Adding to that, Gerald is the most innocent Anthony you can get. I think he is the purest Anthony. For one, his jokes are not funny but he means well,” Bradshaw-Volante said.
Her real-life husband, Nyoy Volante, plays Adolfo Pirelli, the Irish con man. As if warning Santos, he said in jest, "Uy, asawa ko ‘yan."
Santos replied: "Ang sabi ko 'women, beautiful women'. Hindi isa lang." This joke also brought the house down.
Opera singer Andrew Fernando plays the despicable Judge Turpin, Luigi Quesada as the teenage Toby, and Arman Ferrer as Beadle Bamford, the equally despicable assistant of Judge Turpin. Dean Rosen plays Jonas Fogg, corrupt head of the insane asylum.
The ensemble is composed of Steven Conde, Sarah Facuri, Christine Flores, Jep Go, Kevin Guiman, and Emeline Celis Guinid.
"'Sweeney Todd' is not an easy musical to do, but the burden is shared. Everybody helps. After a while, everything makes sense within the musical and it's so fulfilling, gratifying, exciting. And it's a wonderful feeling to be in a company of dedicated theater artists," Salonga said.
"Sweeney Todd" opens at 8 p.m. this Friday, October 11, at The Theatre at Solaire.