Manoel Felciano and Patti LuPone in Sweeney Todd
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Manoel Felciano and Patti LuPone in Sweeney Todd
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
It was my buddy Donald Curtin who told me first: "I just came back from London, where I saw the greatest Sweeney Todd! This very smart director named John Doyle has set it in a mental institution!" I gasped in astonishment, and if I'd had any vacation days left, I would have jumped on a plane that afternoon. But I didn't, so I just had to imagine Sweeney Todd in a mental institution.

Memories of another show with a mental institution milieu immediately came to mind. Though almost 40 years have passed since I saw the original Broadway production of Marat/Sade, my mind's eye can still vividly see the inmates in the asylum of Charenton persecuting and assassinating Jean Paul Marat under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. Here's where I came to know the then-unknown Glenda Jackson, who was riveting as Charlotte Corday. When she taunted poor Marat (Ian Richardson, equally unknown back then) in his bathtub, she seemed so marvelously crazy that I wondered if, perhaps, the character was just pretending to be insane. Jackson shrewdly never let us know. I still remember the tingles I got near the end of the show, where the rag-tag bunch of inmates sang in what was supposed to be unison but wasn't at all. As they waved their arms wildly, they scared the hell out of me.

I also remembered the day when I got a phone call from a man who said he was a recovering drug addict but had now written a play, and asked if I'd come to see it. He sounded so sincere that I agreed to go. I soon found myself in a room in a homeless shelter where people wandered around in bathrobes in front of the "stage," looking absolutely lost and unaware that a play was being presented, occasionally spewing words of utter madness. It was a scary night, but it did give me a hint of what John Doyle's Sweeney would be like.

Maybe Doyle would put a row of chairs on stage in which ticket-holders could sit, with the institution's doctors and nurses interspersed among them. Perhaps one of the doctors felt that inmates mounting a play would be therapeutic, and though he had reservations about their wanting to do a piece as incendiary as Sweeney Todd, he'd still let them try. Someone higher-in-command, less sure about the enterprise, would stand up from time to time and literally stop the show. That would provide some extra drama, for we could actually see members of the staff fighting over whether or not the show must go on. The inmates would also greatly enjoy that, and when the show was allowed to continue, they would be pleased with figuratively having gotten away with murder.

Sweeney Todd depends on at least one razor for a prop, and no one committed to an asylum would have access to such a dangerous item. Aha! I knew what Doyle would do here. His Sweeney could use a splinter of wood from the floor and pretend that it's a razor. For blood, how about a bottle of strawberry soda or some left-over tomato soup from lunch? When Donald told me that the cast also played the instruments, I knew exactly what that'd be like: Distressed-looking discards on which a string would be missing, a key broken. And the inmates would have fashioned makeshift scenery from pieces of paper, clothing, or whatever.

Here's the best idea of all: Maybe Doyle would to scatter the stage with dead bodies in white coats and uniforms representing the doctors and nurses murdered by the inmates, who are now literally running the asylum and are therefore free to put on this play they've wanted to do for some time. Well, as Mrs. Lovett sings, "Half the fun is to plan the plan." I had more fun imagining Sweeney Todd in a mental institution than seeing what Doyle put on stage, even though all of the performers are highly accomplished.

I think I've figured out why I feel that way. The show opens with Tobias (Manoel Felciano) in a strait-jacket with his mouth gagged. Once a nurse unties his gag and takes off his jacket, he tells us to "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd." So I think Doyle's concept is that Tobias is recounting the tale that put him in the madhouse, and we're seeing what's in his head. These other people around him are all in his imagination, and while they may be based on the inmates (and doctors and nurses) that surround him each day, they don't necessarily have to exhibit any craziness in telling the tale. This also means that razors, guns, saws, pinking shears, and pincers are admissable as props, because they're all just part of his fantasy. And it explains why all of the musical instruments look shiny and new.

It's happened to me before, and now it's happened again: The production in my head turned out to be more potent than the one I saw on stage. Has this ever happened to you? If so, I'd love to hear about it.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]