U performing arts join forces for an epic "Sweeney Todd" at Kingsbury Hall

April 11 2022
from "Sweeney Todd" rehearsal | photo courtesy Robert Breault from "Sweeney Todd" rehearsal | photo courtesy Robert Breault

Performing Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” with the University of Utah opera program has been a long-held aspiration for director Robert Breault. Beyond its cultural popularity, moody environment, and complex characters, the show allows for broad collaboration and interdisciplinary participation.

“I always try to choose pieces that will allow [U Opera] to include as many students as we can. ‘Sweeney’ has a lot of ensemble work that allows more performers to be part of the storytelling – there are about 40 of us involved,” Breault said.  

To pull off the mighty production that runs this weekend (April 15-16) at Kingsbury Hall, collaborators from all corners of the U’s performing arts units have come together, embracing the idea that “it takes a village.” 

The cast is made up of not just opera students, but those in musical theatre and dance as well. Logistics will be run by Stage Management students in Department of Theatre, led by Amber Bielinski. Music director Jeffrey Price also directed the music in the first Utah production of Sweeney 40 years ago – and was the first to plant the idea of doing the production at the U. The Utah Philharmonia, conducted by School of Music professor Robert Baldwin, provides the score.

It is especially exciting to see faculty from each of the performing arts units lending their particular expertise to elevate the production. School of Dance’s Melissa Bobick brings her ballet eye as choreographer. Department of Theatre’s Sarah Shippobotham serves as both Intimacy Director and as a dialogue coach.

"The idea that we can have this interdisciplinary cooperation in one production mirrors the way it will be in the real world. Stage management, singers, dancers…we all get to know each other, and realize how it all works together."

After an already extensive singing career, James Bobick, who plays the titular role, is pursuing his MM in the School of Music. Working in this way, he says, is an authentic glimpse at how the professional world operates.

“This is about training young musicians, singers, and performers. Whether they become professionals or not, they can use this skill set as they move on in their life and in their careers," he said. “The idea that we can have this interdisciplinary cooperation in one production mirrors the way it will be in the real world. Stage management, singers, dancers…we all get to know each other, and realize how it all works together.”

Although musical theatre and opera often vary quite a bit stylistically, “Sweeney Todd” has been an opportunity for the two disciplines to learn from one another, and get stronger as a result. “The musical theatre students are getting a chance to hear how we sing, and we are learning from their acting,” Breault explained. “We’re singing with mics for the first time, and we aren’t using supertitles. I did this purposely to put the pressure on all of us to improve our diction.”

Undergraduate senior Brynn Staker, who plays Beggar Woman, also spoke to how the character’s dramatic needs were affecting her singing approach. “The accent work has been tricky,” she said. A lot of times when you are singing, your vowels tend to sit in the same place. In this, it’s been different because accents communicate class differences. We’ve had to work to get a brighter sound to convey the same things the accent would convey while we sing.”

There is quite a bit of character work necessary to bring this dramatic tale of revenge home. 

“Sweeney is, like the great operatic characters, complicated, and has more levels of his personality than most people give him credit for,” Bobick said. “This is a real man, with real problems, and real conflict. And as he seeks to resolve them, it’s not a spontaneous impulse – this is fifteen years of brooding over injustice. Fifteen years he has tried to figure out how he can avenge the wrong done to him and his family.”

Staker agreed that the story allows for deeper performance. “I feel like in opera we put on a mask a lot – we sing big words with big sound,” she said.” This show gives us a chance to portray real people in real situations, and allow the audience to connect with them on a vulnerable and intimate level."

Ultimately for Breault, the best thing about "Sweeney Todd" is coming back together after two full years of missing the stage – another reason to more fully embrace collaboration. 

"It’s been over two years since we have had the family feeling in the Voice Box that we had before the pandemic. To have everybody hanging out, to see people spontaneously dancing while working on scenes – I see the joy of finally coming together again. This has been so fun for me as a director."

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd! 
Tickets on sale now
U Students free with Arts Pass

Apr 15 @ 7:30 pm
Apr 16 @ 7:30 pm
Kingsbury Hall