Why Sweeney Todd Is Packing People Into a Strikingly Ordinary British Pie Shop
With real pie and mash served on-site, off-Broadway audiences come together to share a uniquely English — and unarguably American — experience.
"Pie and mash is probably alien to most people outside of London, but it's a quintessential London dish," said Mayor of London Sadiq Khan at a press event for the off-Broadway transfer of British theater company Tooting Arts Club's immersive Sweeney Todd. But beginning Valentine's Day, the dish will be a little less foreign to a few New Yorkers each night. When previews begin for Sweeney Todd, audiences will be given the opportunity to tuck into a heaping helping of real-live (animal) meat or vegetable pie and mash inside a replica of London's oldest working Pie Shop: Harrington's.
The off-Broadway show began life in 2014 as a tiny local production in the South London neighborhood of Tooting, presented by Tooting Arts Club. "I spend a lot of time in the neighborhood looking for spaces, and I used to walk past this old pie shop and opposite the pie shop was a barber shop," remembers producer Rachel Edwards. "I used to look left and right, and this idea started brewing, that the pie shop would be a wonderful place in which to do Sweeney Todd."
The modern classic musical follows murderous barber Sweeney Todd as he collaborates with cannibalistic pie maker Mrs. Lovett to hide his crimes. The brainchild of venerated American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, it has previously been presented as a traditional stage musical, but Edwards feels Sweeney Todd's full immersion in a typically English setting is completely natural. "Sondheim, as we all know, is forensic in his knowledge and detail...so, strangely, Sweeney feels incredibly British," she says. "It feels very gothic Victorian…very much like a kind of penny dreadful."
Shut inside the tiny South London pie shop, audiences felt completely at Mrs. Lovett's mercy, and the setting ended up adding what Edwards calls "a really lovely resonance and texture to the experience." Even Sondheim himself agreed that the Tooting company had hit on something special. The famed writer not only made the trip to London to witness the production, but also recommended it to his friend, producer Cameron Mackintosh, who quickly moved the whole show (rebuilt pie shop and all) into central London. Again, it was a booming success.
"When we did it on Shaftesbury Avenue, people said to me, 'Oh you need to find a spot in London where it can run," recalls Edwards. But rather than finding the production a permanent English home, she was determined that the show's next move should be across the pond. "I was like, 'No, the next place it needs to go is to New York,'" she says. "We're talking about this being a kind of quintessentially English gothic tale. But ultimately its home is New York. A lot of support and love of the production has come from [there], so it felt very much like this has to be the next thing we do."
And remarkably, they did.
After securing an American theatrical home at off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre, the next hurdle was moving an operating restaurant across the Atlantic Ocean. "From a construction point of view and a design point of view, it was hugely challenging," says Edwards. "There are layers upon layers." In building a working version of the century-old shop, she recalls that some of the biggest questions were, "How do we keep the intimacy of the shop, and how do we keep it atmospherically similar to what we had in Tooting?"
The result of their successful rebuild is just what Edwards had in mind, but she suspects it will be something of a surprise to much of the audience, who may be anticipating surroundings with a distinctly Victorian flavor. "I think what may surprise people is that Harrington's Pie and Mash Shop is truly unremarkable," she laughs. When the producer came upon the store in 2014 it was fully a 21st-century function-centered eatery, and she's insisted on keeping that realistic vibe. It's important to Edwards — and the production as a whole — that their audiences first enter the world of Harrington's, not the world of Sweeney Todd, so attendees are invited to enter the space an hour and a half before each performance to mingle while lingering over their potatoes and pie. Slowly, they're immersed in an alternate reality two layers deep.
"There are things about the set which we have carried through, even taking elements of when we were at Shaftesbury Avenue," Edwards explains. "It's important because the story of this production is very unique and each chapter so far has been meaningful for different reasons. So to chart that in the fabric of the building in some way is very lovely." Even if the secrets Edwards sees when she casts her eyes around set will be a bit more elusive for newcomers, the space's nuance is sure to add (literal) layers of meaning to the audience's experience.
As a work of theater and a story that has now traversed the Atlantic no fewer than three times (as a Victorian thriller, an American musical, and an immersive South London production), TAC's Sweeney Todd is doing some heavy lifting in the arenas of shared experience and artistic exchange. The site-specific show works as a concentrated model not only for the way environment affects theater, but also the way art can be universal. "Culture is the glue that binds different cities together and different cultures together," said Khan. "It's international. It translates."
Edwards feels similarly: "Art is something that should be shared. Theater brings people together quite literally. It puts people in one room," she says. "And the more we're able to do that across the world, the more we can encourage cultural exchanges and bring different people together to have shared experiences in these somewhat unstable political times, the better."
Even if doing so is a bit uncomfortable…
"The pie shop provides this claustrophobic, terrifying environment because of the proximity of the performers and your fellow audience members. There's really no escape," grins Edwards. "My dream is for it to be slightly unnerving and unfamiliar — and yet accessible at the same time."