Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller – opened tonight, March 1, 2024 in Cape Town, at The Olympia Bakery in Kalk Bay. It is the 45th anniversary of the Broadway production of Sweeney – which opened – 45 years ago on March 1, 1979. Forty five years later and here we are in the seaside village of Kalk Bay, with a site-specific production of this iconic musical. The Olympia Bakery (behind the Olympia Cafe) is a working industrial bakery. The bakery equipment is cleared away at night to make space for theatre. This production is intensely immersive, with the audience sitting in the story. The bakery is the set.  The building was once a cinema, a non-segregated cinema, in Apartheid South Africa. Silent movies were screened in the cinema, with a pianist tinkling away at the keys. This resonated profoundly with the creative team as Sondheim maintained that Sweeney Todd “is is a movie for the stage”. The site – what it is now – what it was – the past – the present -was core to the concept of this innovative production which features eight in the ensemble cast and accompaniment on the piano. Sweeney is a co-production between Abrahamse and Meyer and Tally Ho! Productions. What does Sweeney say to us now as a morality and cautionary tale? Marcel Meyer of Abrahamse and Meyer Productions, provides insights into the concept, design and how it reverberates in our times.

TCR: Stephen Sondheim said: “What Sweeney Todd really is is a movie for the stage” and that was in a sense the prompt for this production?

Marcel Meyer: “Yes, that quote by Sondheim was sort of there missing piece in the puzzle that made us know that this is the right place [the Olympia Bakery] and the right way to do this particular production. Sweeney Todd has sort of baffled, musical theatre people into where to put it on. Is it an opera? Is it a musical? Where is it? It is often done by opera companies in opera houses. Sondheim mused that if Porgy & Bess is done in an opera house, it is an opera. If it is done On Broadway, it is a musical. Sondheim originally conceived Sweeney to be a small chamber piece and Harold Prince then came up with this epic big Brechtian production in the biggest theatre on Broadway, which was the Uris and is now The Gershwin, which is now where Wicked is playing. 

TCR: Sweeney Todd can swing from small chamber to epic- from bakery to huge opera house?

MM: In scope it can go from enormously operatic to intimate. There is currently a big revival with Josh Groban, on Broadway, with a 27 piece orchestra. Three years ago there was a tiny off Broadway revival, which started in London in an actual pie shop. So, it’s this incredible piece that morphs and shapes as it is done and produced.

TCR: The Olympia Bakery was once a cinema –so there is a potent intersection of Sondheim’s framing it as movie and the bakery as venue?

MM: We’ve always looked for interesting spaces to do things that aren’t traditional theatre spaces. When we went and saw the space we knew that that was environment to do Sweeney – an actual working bakery. But it is it not just a bakery. It is a bakery that was once a cinema, where silent movies were screened. It was a non-segregated cinema. So you’ve got this shell of an old movie house that is now a functioning bakery.

RYC: And that shell becomes a potent space for a morality and cautionary tale?

MM:  Yes, it is the past, speaking to the present- the same way the play does. The play is performative. Sondheim wrote a prologue where the first lines are “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”. So it is storytelling. The play is this fable- the dead are speaking back to the living. It is a cautionary tale about the folly of seeking vengeance. It never ends well. How do we right wrongs? How do we make sure that justice is actually served in a corrupt world? The play asks all those questions, but it starts with Sweeney rising from the grave and saying: “Here is my story, hear my story.”

So, to do it with a small company like we do with our Shakespeare productions, it streamlines the storytelling. The actors are storytellers. The ballad of Sweeney Todd runs through like a leitmotif. You are constantly reminded that you are engaged in the act of a group of people telling you this story, this myth, this fable, of someone who was wronged; someone who wants vengeance for what was done in the past, and then loses track of it, and then then unleashes hell into the world, until order is finally restored at the end- potentially – but not really. We each have the potential to become that unhinged person -if we are not mindful.

RYC: And designing for that our immersion in in this tale- in the bakery- with its macabre ghosts of a cinema?

MM: Yes, that’s why the bakery space seemed so right – inspired by the silent movies from the 1920s these horror movies like Nosferatu; the macabre of it. So our design concept maintains a Victorian 19th Century setting of the original- that sort of Jack the Ripper era. It was a menacing time in London. But here we are, looking back at the past but seeing the present very potently reflected. The parallels are obvious. If you listening to what is out there – corruption, corrupt systems- and the fact that the little man is always at the losing end of this battle.  That’s why this particular play – now.

RYC: Immersion in the production – audience is part of the story?

MM: That’s why we choose to stage the play in this space. It is very much being designed and conceived for this space. We are not seating the audience, cinema style. We are actively trying to remind the audience they are not sitting in a theatre or in a cinema but in an actual bakery. We’ve opted for a traverse staging – two rows on either side of the whole room. The action is going take place everywhere- not just in one corner- sometimes behind you, then in front of you, all around you. The whole length of the room is the performance space as opposed to a stage and an audience, which makes it far more immersive. In this production, we want to integrate the audience as much as possible- remove the divide between what is the playing space and what is the audience space. We are all of us in one space – because the audience is directly addressed by the actors at the beginning of the play you, the audience become actively involved in the act of the making of the story from the get-go right through to the end of the play. It is going be up close in personal.

RYC: The design- out of the city by the sea – in an industrial bakery?

MM: We are not going try and hide the room and make you feel like you are in a theatre. We want you to know where you are and to embrace where you are.  When Mrs. Lovett sings “By the sea, Mr. Todd,” and her fantasy of getting away, out of grimy London you would’ve just driven past the beautiful Kalk Bay Harbour and beach. It looks like a little Victorian seaside Village, part of what Lovett dreams of. There’s so much that resonates back into the play by the virtue of being out of the city by the sea, but in an industrial bakery. All the baking equipment will be there. It is part of the visual that you’ll take in. It will still smell like it has been used as a bakery. All your senses will be engaged in this space, seeing this particular production

TCR: Circling back to Sondheim’s vision conceiving Sweeney as a film/movie for the stage?

MM: Sondheimwas inspired by film composer, Bernard Herrmann, who composed the score for Psycho and a lot of the other Hitchcock films. He was a master at using music to create tension. In Sweeney, 70-80% is sung. The music is almost continuous. The underscoring functions like it would in a movie. Sondheim maximized how music can build tension -can frighten us – can unnerve us. The Olympia bakery was originally built as Leslie’s Olympia Picture Palace in 1918, where a pianist sat at a piano and created a similar mood, ambience to these flickering images on the screen, 100 years ago. To have a live pianist back in that space, creating that same tension and mood and movement by bringing this incredible score by Stephen Sondheim to life, will conjure up the notion of a silent/un-silent movie coming to life. The realism, for lack of a better of word of the actual ovens and things around you, to root you in the actual setting of the story, a pie shop – where human flesh gets backed into meat pies.

TCR: It doesn’t matter where you sit?

MM: Everything is integrated: what the story is, where the story is unfolding, making this production immersive in the true sense of the word. You’re close to the action no matter where you sit. There are two rows on either side of the room.  Because of the limited capacity and the layout of the space, everything should be close to you and at certain points, very close to you. The play has this wonderful sense of movement, a tragic momentum – the plot unfolds at a rapid speed – building towards its tragic climax –that metaphoric motion becomes the kinetic drive of the staging as the action unfolds -all around you speedily- like a python coiling and coiling itself around the audience.

TCR: The palette of the production – mirrors black and white silent films?

MM: The palette for this production is very much in keeping with the framework of silent movies. So mostly black-and-white- with some grey and silver. The only colour in the production is red, the colour of blood. Dotted through-out the design are these spot flashes of red- red flashes in Mrs. Levitt iconic cat wig. The red of the blood. Sweeney has splash of red in his waistcoat. There will be these wonderful flashes of blood red throughout the play in this otherwise silent movie – and its black-and-white monochromatic feel.

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller

Where: Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay (behind The Olympia Café)
When: March 1-24, 2024

Time: Performances commence at 20:00, Wednesdays to Saturdays with selected Sunday performances. The Olympia Café is open from 17:30 for patrons wishing to have dinner before the performance
Tickets: R380 and may be purchased online through Quicket
Direct booking link:
Producers: Abrahamse and Meyer and Tally Ho! Productions
Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler  
Director: Fred Abrahamse

Musical director and accompaniment on piano: Jaco Griessel  

Sweeney Todd: Marcel Meyer
Mrs. Lovett: Zoë McLaughlin
Judge Turpin: Graham Bourne
Beadle Bamford: Paul Griffiths
Beggar Woman/Pirelli: Jeani Heyns
Tobias: Thinus Viljoen
Anthony: William Young
Johanna: Zoë Gray    
Bakery in a Victorian seaside village: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller– in the Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, Cape Town, March 2024. Pic: Fiona McPherson. Supplied.

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller– Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, Cape Town, March 2024. Pic: Fiona McPherson. Supplied.