Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street premieres Saturday evening, July 9, at The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown and closes August 26. American conductor John DeMain with a vast operatic, musical theatre and symphonic repertoire, leads from the podium. The busy maestro spoke to Blasting News in an exclusive interview on the second day of rehearsals.

Just what is Sweeney Todd?

We humans try to pigeonhole everything and everyone. So finding the right name for a work that’s subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be a bit daunting. John DeMain was the first conductor ever to lead the work in a traditional opera house — Houston Grand Opera — in 1984.

“A lot more opera companies are presenting the work, because of the Classical nature of the piece — it’s quite operatic in dimension. Even Sondheim refers to it as an operetta.”

What’s that you say?

But isn’t an operetta supposed to be bright and light and frothy, not full of grim gloom and doom? Actually, according to John DeMain, it fits the definition, which alternates singing with spoken dialogue. “Stephen Sondheim says it all depends on the venue: if it’s a Broadway theatre, then the audience expects it to be a musical; at an opera theatre, the audience would expect it to seem more like an opera.”

Francesca Zambello weighs in

Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, who stages The Cruciblethis season, also provides input.

In her newsletter, From Francesca’s Traveling iPad, she wrote that, in 1979, Sweeney Todd “broke boundaries the same way Hamilton is doing today.” The “score and lyrics are still exciting, vibrant and fresh.” It is “an unconventional love story woven together with genius lyrics and some of the theater’s most gorgeous melodies.

The work breaks my heart every time I hear it.”

That’s not fair!

Keeping with the Festival’s theme of unjust accusations, the title character returns home from a penal colony in Australia, where he spent 15 years for a crime he did not commit. Back in London he searches for his wife, Lisa, and their daughter, Johanna (or Joanna), whom he left behind in infancy.

Sweeney, formerly known as Benjamin Barker, soon discovers the injustices that befell them, thanks to the same corrupt Judge Turpin, who had him transported. Don’t worry; no spoilers here.

What to expect

After Giacomo Puccini’s 1900 opera, Tosca, the concept of a tragedy in which ‘everyone dies but the conductor’ remained unchallenged until the 1979 debut of Sweeney Todd. According to the libretto, which Sondheim co-authored with Hugh Wheeler, the final body count rises to 11, including … Ah, but we’re not giving anything away, are we?

Yet, surprisingly, Conductor John DeMain says it’s family-friendly. “It’s funny; it’s got wonderful humor. Though dark, it has the Broadway musical’s knowing way of tempering drama with humor.”

Need more convincing?

Maestro DeMain further says, “You’re going to hear a work that was composed in English, that’s sung in English,” by native-English-speaking singers whose diction is so clear that “in the 950-seat theatre, you may not need to look at the projected surtitles.”

“The show is very different from the movie,” says John DeMain, meaning the 2007 Tim Burton film, starring Johnny Depp in the title role and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs.

Lovett. Different? How so? “For one thing, the movie had no chorus,” and Sondheim composed considerable music for a sizable chorus. “It took a lot of license, as only Hollywood knows how to do. So audiences are in for quite a different experience, seeing the original show.”

Just how bad could he possibly be?

The conductor will also play an instrument in this production. How? “With my left hand while I’m conducting with my right hand,” he says wryly chuckling. “Sondheim said that if I play it right I oughta get people to scream.” So be sure to see for yourself whether such a talented musician is that atrocious playing an instrument, or if he maybe meant something else.

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