Paul Kerryson admits he is taking on the biggest challenge of his career when he directs the anniversary production of Sweeney Todd in London. He talks to about his long association with Sondheim and his plans for the concert.

SSS: Paul, your appointment as director for the Sweeney Todd concert was approved by Sondheim himself. When did you first become aware of his work?

PK: I went to see A Little Night Music in London in 1976, starring Jean Simmons, Joss Ackland and Hermione Gingold. I was much younger then and approached it in the sense that I hadn't seen many musicals, so at that time the fact that it was written by Sondheim didn't really mean much to me. But it was a great show and Hermione Gingold was hilarious, and although it didn't turn me into an instant fan, when I started working at the Library Theatre in Manchester, many years later, I suggested that we put on Side By Side By Sondheim.

It went on, I didn't direct it, and it starred Jeanette Ranger, who was to become my Mrs Lovett years later in Leicester. No-one was doing Sondheim at that time in England so we agreed we should set the trend and we did the European premieres of Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures and Follies. Cameron Mackintosh saw Follies, everyone got the Sondheim bug and Follies was produced in the West End.

SSS: What made you continue putting on Sondheim shows when you moved to Leicester Haymarket Theatre nine years ago?

PK: I had a big theatre to play with and could do it myself! We couldn't have had a better start because Sondheim came over for the entire rehearsal period of Merrily We Roll Along. It was fantastic. There was a lot of pressure but it was enjoyable pressure because we were dealing with someone who was so inspirational.

SSS: How did the request to direct the Sweeney Todd concert come about?

PK: The producers needed to find someone who would get the approval of Sondheim. He said "yes" to me. Casting had already been approved for Len Cariou, Judy Kaye and Davis Gaines but once I was approved, the rest was up to me.

SSS: How much costume and set will be used for the concert?

PK: Looks aren't really important for a concert version, it's more important that we have voices which will carry across the Festival Hall over a 40-piece orchestra. You can have a brilliant actor-singer, but their voice might not be strong enough. But I've never directed a concert ever, so it's scary for me too. What is wonderful is that the entire back wall of the Festival Hall is covered by a huge array of pipes of a 1950s organ. We certainly plan to make the most of that.

SSS: So you're using the full organ introduction then?

PK: The show will be totally uncut. The Judge's song, parlour songs, tooth-pulling scene, everything. The whole book, the whole score. I don't really see the point in doing it any other way.

SSS: How much staging are you planning?

PK: I have to be careful because you either do the whole thing or you don't. This will be a staged concert, we are trying to create an atmosphere on a concert platform. We have a chorus of up to 40, which will be very Greek in style with lots of pointing and comment, as part of the action. There's no place for a set with an upstairs and downstairs, and the concert the night before doesn't finish until 11pm, and our first run-through is at midday so time will be tight. I've got to be clever, there won't be ovens and drains and buckets of blood. But we will be doing full costume.

SSS: Will it be intimidating to direct the man who created the role of Sweeney Todd and won a Tony Award for it?

PK: Len has played the character many times before, and sung it in concert, but I have it on good authority that he is still very good and can still do it, and Sondheim did approve his casting. Judy Kaye is brilliant, really fantastic. Even thought they have done it before they have never done it with me, and it would be a mistake to do it exactly the same as before, or what's the point in having two weeks of rehearsal? I don't think they've done a staged concert of the piece before so it will be different, new and exciting for all of us.

SSS: Which role do you find most challenging to direct, and why?

PK: It's almost an impossible question, but Mrs Lovett is very difficult because she has so many levels. She is a manipulator who changes and adapts throughout the piece. Sweeney has a clear line and a goal and a set of values. But I tend to take them as an item together.

SSS: Given a free choice, which other Sondheim shows would you like to direct in concert form?

PK: I love Sunday and Into The Woods and Company, but they wouldn't work as concerts because there is so much dialogue. I guess it would be Follies as a second choice after Sweeney Todd.

SSS: How will you present the concert as a whole, when a concert is obviously less than the whole?

PK: I'm hoping to create a whole, satisfying event. There will obviously be minuses, in the lack of set, but there will be pluses too, the big chorus and huge orchestra. It's a challenge because I know I will want my blood-soaked sheet, chute and chair, but when people see an opera sung through in a concert they listen to the words and music, and use their imaginations. It still works. I just have to be able to stimulate people aurally and make them use their imaginations.

SSS: Thanks for talking to, Paul. Just one final question: Do you eat meat pies?

PK: I've not eaten them since I was about three and my Gran warned me that you never know what's in them. But I'm not averse to giving them to guests!








Sweeney Todd Concert Showcard
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