Author: Sabine Kortals

CU Boulder’s Eklund Opera Program stages ‘Sweeney Todd’

When Caleb Harris was asked to conduct Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” in Boulder, he jumped for joy. His wife, however, wasn’t so thrilled.

“I was telling [her] about the subject matter, and she said, ‘Ugh, that’s gross,’” he says, laughing.

But Harris knows theater producer Hal Prince reacted in the exact same way in 1973, when Sondheim pitched him the idea for a murderous “musical thriller”—and he’s sure his wife will come around, too.

“Everything about this ‘demon barber of Fleet Street’ musical struck Hal as being really odd, but he knew Sondheim was a genius and he wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Harris says. “Obviously, that story ended well. Thirty-eight years later, it’s still a huge hit.”

Sondheim’s award-winning work about a long-exiled haircutter and a struggling baker conspiring for bloody revenge is the kind of macabre masterpiece you have to see to believe. In March, Boulder audiences have a chance to do just that when Eklund Opera students and a few award-winning vocal professionals take to the Macky stage.

Harris assures regular opera-goers it’s not all about the macabre—“it’s about justice, it’s about  morality”—but does acknowledge that the story wasn’t always that way.

It originated in the mid-19th century with “The String of Pearls,” a Victorian book series about a devilish shaver who murdered and robbed his customers before handing their bodies over to a local baker for pie filling. For a century, the character of Sweeney Todd was known as nothing more than a villain. But in 1973, Christopher Bond gave the bloodthirsty barber a sympathetic backstory and changed everything. In Bond’s stage adaptation, a judge wrongfully imprisons Todd and holds his wife and daughter in captivity. When Todd is freed 15 years later, he’s hell-bent on getting revenge.

“Sondheim went to see the play in London and was blown away by it,” says Harris. “He started writing a libretto in his mind and the music just composed itself.”

It’s not difficult to understand why a morbid story about a wronged man might resonate with Sondheim: The composer’s father was emotionally distant, and his mother, more interested in fame than in her son, once said her only regret in life was giving birth to him. Like Sweeney Todd, Sondheim was a dark horse who got his revenge—not through murder, but through fame and success.

“Many of us have this ideal where we fight for the underdogs,” Harris says. “I do believe this piece is all about justice for the underdog.”

Join the directors, performers and production crew for a free preview of scenes from “Sweeney Todd” on Wednesday, March 14 at noon in the College of Music’s Chamber Hall (C199). More information is available here.