In honor of American composer Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, the Scottsdale Musical Theater Company will round out its 10th anniversary season with a production of “Sweeney Todd.”
But this isn’t your typical production of “Sweeney Todd.”
“This is a concert version, which just basically means there’s no sets rolling on and off or tracking. There’s no backdrop flying in and out. The orchestra will be on stage, and then the action will go on in front of the orchestra,” explained SMTC Executive Producer David Hock.
“Sweeney Todd: In Concert” will be presented March 31 and April 1 for the first time at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
“I really liked the idea of the encore presentation model of concert versions, and Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts fits that format better,” Hock said. “This move ... is a very exciting development for SMTC and our audiences.”
SMTC’s previous productions were at Tempe Center for the Arts, but because Hock plans to pursue the encore presentation model, he will continue to rent the Virginia G. Piper Theater at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
“What has typically set SMTC apart from the other theaters in town is I’ve always used a live orchestra,” Hock said, adding that he uses a full live 20-plus-piece orchestra. “It’s the full arrangements as they were written for the original Broadway show.
“It’s just a different way of approaching doing the shows — more intimate because you don’t have everything moving around,” he added.
This is cast member Jason Chacon’s first time performing in the musical. He will perform the lead role of Sweeney Todd.
“While I’ve always loved the music and the show itself, I’ve never gotten the opportunity to study it and perform it. It’s really exciting!” Chacon said.
When Hock approached Chacon with the idea of a staged concert version of “Sweeney Todd” late last year, Chacon said it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“This show is really unlike anything else in musical theater. The musical motifs, the subject matter: It’s all delightfully macabre and unconventional,” Chacon said. “Sweeney is one of those dream roles for any baritone worth their salt, and it’s a challenge to say the least.”
Hock agrees, saying that “Sweeney Todd” is the most intricate and most challenging music for the performers.
“The music alone has so many key changes and abrupt time signature shifts. Sondheim’s score is truly a work of genius, no matter how tedious it can be,” Chacon added. “Then you have to factor in the character himself. The journey he’s been through and to be able to take yourself to some pretty uncomfortable places... It’s really all that any actor can ask for.”
Chacon was last seen with SMTC guest starring opposite Peter Scolari in “Man of La Mancha.”
“I’m a highly competitive person by nature, so seeing Peter work with such intensity kicked in those instincts and absolutely made me a better actor. It made me shift into a whole other gear as far as emotional prep work and getting into the drama of the story. He’s an immensely talented artist, as proof of his lengthy and illustrious career demonstrates,” Chacon said.
Performing the role of Mrs. Lovett is Elizabeth Blair, who was last seen with SMTC starring opposite Cory McCloskey in “Pajama Game” last summer.
“She is such a meaty role,” Blair said. “As an actress, there is so much to play with, so many sides and such a rich storyline. As a singer, it’s very rangy and such fun to sing!”
“It’s been my favorite musical since I was 7 or so. While everyone else was singing ‘Tomorrow’ from ‘Annie,’ I was singing ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,’” Blair said. “The music of Sondheim has always spoken to me above all other composers, and though I didn’t truly understand the dark side of humanity at that young age, something in me recognized that this piece as special.”
Hock chose “Sweeney Todd” to celebrate SMTC’s 10th anniversary because it’s the most recognizable Sondheim musical.
But what makes this particular production so special for Hock is it features performers who have been with SMTC since its inception.
“While SMTC is by no means a community theater, they have been able to maintain the purity of one. There are many artists who return time and again to the company because they just have to scratch that performing itch, and they’ve found a group they like doing it with,” Chacon said.
For Chacon, SMTC is where his acting journey began.
“When I walked in to that first rehearsal in the fall of 2011, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what an octave was. I didn’t have any training. But by the end of the process, I had garnered a bit of confidence. Since then I’ve tried to grow both professionally and personally from every project I’m a part of. That began with SMTC and it’s something I’m grateful to come back to,” he said.
SMTC started in the Shiloh Community Church gym in Phoenix with 50 to 75 folding chairs.
“I was Big Jule in SMTC’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ back when it was in the gymnasium of a church,” Chacon recalled.
With more than 30 years' experience in theater, Hock has helmed a total of four theater companies — one in Los Angeles, one in Las Vegas, and one in San Francisco.
He attributes the success of SMTC, so far, to both the talent and the environment he’s created.
“I have a thing called ‘same, but different’ where I never want anything done the same way. I don’t want a line read the same way. I don’t want them to relate to each other the same way. It gives the performers 100 percent freedom within the story and within the characters to do whatever they want. That’s hard for a lot of performers to have to think on their feet and be that creative all the time. But I think that’s what’s kept SMTC fresh and going,” Hock explained.
SMTC kicked off its 10th anniversary season with “Thoroughly Modern Millie” last April and will round out the season with “Camelot” in late August.
“Days of Our Lives” and “The Nanny” actor Charles Shaughnessy will play the lead role of King Arthur.
“I’m very close with Charles now. Him coming back out to do another show for me is just more fun than anything. He really loves working with the SMTC performers,” Hock said.
Following “Sweeney Todd: In Concert,” Hock will begin filming a television show called “L.A. Mix” with Shaughnessy.
The show follows the lives of a diverse group of people living in a converted loft building in downtown Los Angeles.
“We get to see their struggles in their personal lives and their professional lives,” Hock said. “It’s not a reality show; it’s a drama. And the episodes are only 12 or 15 minutes long.”
Hock, Shaughnessy, and Shaughnessy’s brother, David Shaughnessy, recently founded a production company called Dynamic Digital Content Worldwide in late 2019.
They begin filming “L.A. Mix” in April, and all seven episodes will be available on a streaming service sometime in May.
SMTC musical director Joni Van Rossum will compose music for the TV show.
“The goal will be to do a lot of content that has this clickability, which no one’s used before,” Hock said.
“While you’re watching the show, let’s say you see the handbag or the dress of your favorite character, and you go, ‘I love that dress,’ you will be able to touch your screen on your phone or your tablet or click on your computer and, without stopping the show, it’ll save that dress and it’ll take you directly to the website where you can buy it,” Hock explained.
Hock said the other goal is to franchise “L.A. Mix.”
“So, there’ll be an ‘L.A. Mix,’ ‘San Francisco Mix,’ ‘Dallas Mix,’ ‘Chicago Mix,” he said. “There will be a new series that takes place in a different urban city.”