New York is having a little Stephen Sondheim festival — emphasis on the little. Although all three spring productions are revivals of glorious groundbreaking works, none is opening as a grand production in a big Broadway theater.
In fact, “Sweeney Todd” (1979) is running downtown with 130 seats at Barrow Street Theatre, remodeled into a Victorian pie shop. “Pacific Overtures” (1976), starring George Takei, will be offered to just 199 theatergoers at a time at the Classic Stage Company in the East Village.
Even the single Broadway production, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984) is a transfer from the semi-staged concert version that was presented as a fundraiser at New York City Center last October. And, despite the head-turning casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in the vocally intense role of Georges Seurat, this vest-pocket “Sunday” will play in one of Broadway’s smallest houses, the new 970-seat Hudson Theatre, renovated from past lives as a TV studio, porn house, rock palace and, most recently, an event space for a hotel.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Sondheim will be the first composer-lyricist to be awarded the PEN Literary Award, a prize given to “critically acclaimed writers whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition.” If there is any doubt he deserves it, consider the following:
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, in previews before a Thursday, Feb. 23, opening, Hudson Theatre, 145 W. 44th St., through April 23.
Even for Sondheim, who found music in human meat pies (“Sweeney”) and in Commodore Perry’s 1853 invasion of Japan (“Pacific Overtures”), the idea for this one was beyond audacious. It is hard now to express the initial bafflement — and baffling early dismissal — when he and author-director James Lapine came up with a musical based on the creation of Seurat’s 1884 pointillist painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
You know the history. “Sunday,” for all the controversy, is arguably Sondheim’s masterpiece, his Pulitzer Prize winner and, incidentally, my touchstone — the piece of theater I revisit for encouragement whenever the world seems terrible or simply much too drab.
But Jake Gyllenhall? Really? Some lucky enough to have seen his unlikely and pretty adorable turn as nerdy Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the summer Encores! in 2015 knew he can sing, sort of. What few could have expected is his astonishing virtuosity in a character created for Mandy Patinkin’s meticulous technique and command of the stage. If you only know Annaleigh Ashford from “Masters of Sex” or Broadway comedies, you have another remarkable surprise waiting in her portrayal of Dot, created by Bernadette Peters.
SWEENEY TODD — THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, in previews before March 1 opening, Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St.
When I interviewed Sondheim after the 1984 opening of “Sunday,” he said he would love to see “Sweeney Todd” performed “small and really scary” as a chamber piece. When “Sweeney” had its premiere, it was in Harold Prince’s massive vision of a Dickensian London dehumanized by the industrial revolution.
Since then, the brilliant creep-out revenge thriller has been an opera house staple. Broadway has relished it in director John Doyle’s stripped-down 2005 modern-dress production — the one in which performers, including Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, played musical instruments. And the broader world, of course, knows the show as Tim Burton’s 2007 movie, starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney, the barber turned serial murderer who bakes his victims into pies.
From London comes “Sweeney,” first produced at Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, described as the city’s oldest continuously operating pie shop. It had 35 seats and the approval of Sondheim, who saw the last performance there before it transferred to the West End.
The shop setting has been recreated at Barrow Street, where, if they choose, theatergoers can pay an extra $20 and arrive at least an hour before curtain to eat meat (or veggie) pies and mash (potatoes).
“It’s such a privilege to be able to show this work up-close, with acoustics that allow the audience to hear these brilliant lyrics,” director Bill Buckhurst told me in a recent phone interview. He and the company, called the Tooting Arts Club, will not only recreate the shop but, he said, “the spirit and atmosphere. It is a horror story and we certainly capture all the terror of a thriller.”
The English cast will perform through April 9, after which Norm Lewis takes over as Sweeney and Carolee Carmello plays Mrs. Lovett.
PACIFIC OVERTURES, previews begin April 6, opening May 4, Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St.
We have less specific information now about Doyle’s revival, though we are told that, like his “Sweeney,” the actors will be playing the score.
When Hal Prince directed the 1976 premiere, it was in epic East-meets-West style. The musical had a smaller Off-Broadway revival in 1984 and, in 2004, it was rethought again with a Japanese director. In this cautionary tale of progress and globalization, the isolated Japanese were told, “Don’t be afraid, we merely want to trade.” It was timely then and it’s timely again today.