A behind-the-scenes look at ‘Sweeney Todd’

By Zoe Jovanovich | May 01, 2013
Photo by: Zoe Jovanovich Kamiak seniors Teague Parker and Gillian Werenka and sophomore Bailey Powers hold up some of the many costumes for Kamiak High School’s production of “Sweeney Todd.” The costume crew has spent 90 hours working on the musical.

Walk into the Performing Arts Center at Kamiak High after school, and you’ll be in for a sight: students lugging instruments to the orchestra pit, singing about a demon barber in practice rooms or off in corners, and doing last minute paint touch-ups on sets.

Not to mention a large number of students running about in Victorian-era dress.

This is because Kamiak’s spring musical, “Sweeney Todd,” opens May 3.

It is the story of barber Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, who has been wrongfully transported out of the country for 15 years by its corrupt judge. When he returns, he discovers that his wife has poisoned herself and his daughter is now the judge’s ward, and vows revenge.

After-school rehearsals of Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical started in February, with some running as late as 6 p.m.

“In the beginning of the rehearsal process in February, we were in the choir room learning music, and then the leads would be kept later than the chorus to learn all their blocking,” said senior Jazmine Wells, who plays Mrs. Lovett.

Wells shares the role of Sweeney Todd’s accomplice with junior Anna Vara. Blocking is the theatrical term for the precise movement and positioning of actors on a stage for a show.

With opening night just two days away, the set – centered on the London barbershop where the sinister partners cut unsuspecting clients’ throats and dispose of corpses via a trapdoor – is finally completed.

The actors are rehearsing with the pit orchestra, which has been practicing separately until this point. Actors now get into full costume, hair and makeup.

Adding melodramatic flair to their production, many of the actors have also gone through training to have either British or Cockney accents.

“All of us have at least one costume change, if not just an article of clothing, then an entire outfit,” Wells said. “It can take roughly 20 minutes to an hour to get into costume, hair and makeup. It really just depends on the character, and how experienced you are with doing it.”

But the actors and the orchestra can’t produce the show alone. There are many participants behind the scenes who the audience never gets to see.

The set and props were built by Kamiak’s stagecraft class, headed by Shirley Leonard.

The many meat pies to be “eaten” by the cast were made with cans of cat food and tuna fish. The cans were covered with dough, and then left to dry. Afterward, they were painted to appear cooked.

For the barber’s chair and trapdoor, students built a chute in the set below the chair. The actors slide down inside the set piece, where they are greeted by pillows and help from tech crewmembers.

Perhaps the most disgusting of the props are the pieces of “meat” that come out of the meat grinder. These were made by senior Natalie Kim and are her “pride and joy.”

She mixed liquid latex and red paint, and then spread it out on a board. After drying the mixture with a hair dryer, she added another layer and rubbed holes in it to give it a meaty texture.

The technical crew, led by stage managers Violet Walsh and Megan Taylor, is another key element to the production.

“The largest part that tech has… all comes together within three weeks before we open,” Taylor said. “It gets more stressful in those three weeks.

“We like to take a couple days just to have time for tech to work out our scene changes. Techies have to learn, just like actors do, how the set pieces move. They need time to practice those movements and get their muscle memory working.”

However, Taylor and Walsh, both seniors, have been at rehearsal since day one, taking notes, recording blocking, and discussing props and lighting design with the show’s director, Laurie Levine.

It’s equivalent to writing a second, behind-the-scenes script to complement the actors on stage.

“A lot of people underestimate how much paperwork stage managers do during the full process,” Taylor said.

They have compiled three binders full of instructions for the musical – the “flight manuals,” without which this show couldn’t fly.

The first binder is a record of the show’s blocking. The second is the “calling script,” which they use backstage to direct lighting, sound and scene changes.

The third binder is called the “actor’s script,” which they set backstage in case stage-frightened or memory-challenged actors want to check over their lines before they go onstage.

“It’s stressful, and people think we’re crazy, but we enjoy what we do,” Taylor said. “Tech is like a family [and] Violet and I are like parents.”

These are just a few of the many faces behind the upcoming spring musical. When all the ingredients of this production are blended into a winning recipe – whether on stage or behind the curtains – audiences members will think twice before they eat another meat pie.

“Sweeney Todd” runs May 3, 4, 5, 10 and 11, with a free preview May 2. The show starts at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $15 or $10 for students/seniors. Tickets are $10 for a matinee performance at 2 p.m. on May 11.

The show is rated PG-13 for fake blood and mature scenes.

To order tickets, go to http://schools.mukilteo.wednet.edu/Staff/levinelt/SweeneyToddTickets.pdf.

Zoe Jovanovich is an intern for the Mukilteo Beacon.

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