A Moment of Inspiration at Sweeney Todd
Were you there too? What did it mean to you?
This year’s keynote speaker at the Song, Stage and Screen conference, Anthony Drewe (lyricist of The Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins, Betty Blue Eyes, Honk, Just So, Soho Cinders and much more), identified the formative moment in a theatre that inspired him to want to write musicals – it was a production of Sweeney Todd at the Drum, the little black box studio at Plymouth Theatre Royal, in March 1983.
That was a show that was also my break into musical theatre when I was invited to play for rehearsals. Sweeney Todd had only been performed in huge venues, and this was before the days of actor musicianship, but David Kelsey (director) decided to scale the show down. Martin Waddington (Musical Director) arranged the music for a tiny ensemble of 11 actors and 5 musicians, and while he wrote the band arrangements he employed me to play for rehearsals. I had met Martin some years earlier in my local youth amateur dramatic society that he supported while resident MD at the Nuffield Theatre in Exeter – and where I was performing as a teenager. Until then I hadn’t been aware there was a career path that I could take as a Musical Director, or that a passionate interest in a subject might lead to a career. But after a University degree at Birmingham University I moved to the brand new Plymouth Theatre Royal to work front of house, and within weeks my old mentor Martin arrived there with a show. He immediately involved me, giving me the break I needed working as a rehearsal pianist on the Christmas shows for both houses, and playing for the performance of one, followed by this ground-breaking production of Sweeney Todd. From there my career took off as I was invited back to London to continue my apprenticeship, and the work never dried up until I decided to branch out to become a researcher and writer. But by a curious coincidence, that same show was formative for a far more important figure in contemporary musical theatre than myself - Anthony Drewe saw that very same production while a student at Exeter University.
It was an extraordinary production in the tiny 175 seat thrust theatre. The material had a strong visceral impact on audiences that Anthony described from his own personal experience in his keynote address. I remembered it well too; my parents, sitting in the front row, were sold hair tonic by Pirelli, given a meat pie by Mrs Lovett, and the blood from the many killings practically splattered their faces. I was involved in this extraordinary production that, it turns out, had not only inspired my career, but had also inspired one of the leading British lyricists of the day. I worked with Anthony later, as assistant MD for the revival of The Card at Regent’s Park Theatre for which he was writing new lyrics – the last show I performed before beginning the transition to academic research by enrolling on an MA programme at Exeter University where he had been studying when he saw Sweeney Todd.
Now, as a researcher it is my pleasure to document his successes and those of the other writers and composers whose work he discussed in his excellent keynote address. With the book series Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre my co-editor, Dominic Symonds, and I are promoting this research in association with Palgrave Macmillan. By engaging with Musical Theatre Network, Mercury Musicals and other industry bodies we are encouraging interactions between writers, performers and researchers so that the gaps in the written history will be filled (and published in our series), but also so that musical theatre projects, processes and productions will be available for future generations of readers. A moment of performance in a tiny theatre in Plymouth in 1982 turns out to have been quite remarkably inspirational.
Prof. Millie Taylor, July 2017
Prof. Millie Taylor is a Professor of Musical Theatre at University of Winchester and co-editor of the Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre series.