Orchestration to “Bandistration”
Signature backs its third Sweeney with a quartet


Fall, 2010

Having twice directed Sweeeney Todd at his theatre's smallest houses – one with 86 seats where Signature Theatre started 20 years ago, and another with 136 seats, a former chrome-plating shop where the theatre spent more than a decade before relocating to grander quarters in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Va. – director Eric Schaeffer wanted his third incarnation of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to be distinct.

"We have audiences who have been with us for 20 years and have seen the earlier ones," he says, "so we wanted this to be a different experience." The word "different" is an apt description of the band of just four players accompanying the production – a pianist doubling on harmonium, a cellist not doubling at all, a woodwind player handling flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe and English horn and a percussionist playing everything else from tom-tom and timpani to glockenspiel and washtub.

Schaeffer has a history of pulling out all the stops when it comes to big productions. For First You Dream, his recent revue of music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, he commissioned charts for an orchestra of 19 from William David Brohn to be performed in a house seating only 299, approximately one player for every 16 people in the audience. He says, "We asked, 'How can we make it different?' and we decided to make it sound different."

For this Sweeney, Schaeffer intended a striking visual design that TSR's Suzanne Bixby termed "creepy, scary, sometimes even delightfully shocking," using a cast of 18 performers. "With 18 voices in the piece, it seemed like they could make up the majority of the sound," he said.

Schaeffer turned to his longtime musical director, Jon Kalbfleisch, who had been both music director and conductor for the two previous Sweeney productions. This time, Kalbfleisch thought he could be music director, but he preferred to give the conducting role to Zak Sandler, a young man who had been asking him for the opportunity ever since the rumor surfaced that they would present Sweeney in Signature's 20th season.

Sandler, a 2008 graduate of Yale University who is 23, had been the Signature's conductor for Michael John LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See and assistant conductor for Les Misérables. Kalbfleisch had confidence in his abilities. "When we decided to go with a small group, I asked him to go think through what instruments would be needed" Kalbfleisch says, "and when he came back, his list was identical to mine. So I knew we were on the same page.

"I knew he could handle the orchestration duties. Not only is he a talented conductor and composer in his own right, he impressed me when he wrote new exit music, sort of a mega-mix, for the final performance of Les Miz.  He brought all the players in on it, but I didn't know about it. So, when I gave the downbeat after the bows that last night, different music than I had ever heard came from the orchestra. However, it was in keeping with the style of the show. I knew he could do it, so I asked him if he'd orchestrate Sweeney."

It took Sandler two months of intensive work to craft the charts, checking from time to time through emails with the musicians who had been selected to play in the band, especially the heavy doublers, percussionist Lee Hinkle and woodwind player Ben Bokor. "I'd ask if such and such a doubling was possible, or if such and such a range would work. … Sometimes they said yes, sometimes no, and sometimes they'd suggest alternatives." He had a four-stave score with instrument notation from Jonathan Tunick's original charts. "I listened to the original a great deal," he says.

Sandler conducted from the piano. His orchestrations made much use of the piano while the original orchestrations by Tunick had not included a piano at all. Sandler, however, found it invaluable for his ability to create a wide range of sonic effects. He didn't add to the vocals in an effort to augment the instrumental sound, but, instead, tried to "rely on the vocals to find the balance without the mass of the full orchestra."

The biggest challenge for Sandler? "Oh, definitely 'Epiphany!' I used a lot of percussion to get some of the build that the brass and full orchestra had."

At one performance late in the run, Sandler and his quartet invited me to sit (or, more accurately, stand) on the platform behind the show's set where the four musicians played their hearts out, attempting, often with surprising success, to provide the same kind of support given by 26 players who supported the original Broadway production. However, when veteran Washington actor Edward Gero as Sweeney Todd has his "Epiphany," four instruments simply couldn't erupt with the same force.

Still, the experience of seeing, as well as hearing, the passion that went into this piece of music-making was impressive, and the complexity of Sondheim's harmonic invention came through even more strikingly when I was closer to the accompanists than to the vocalist. Hinkle could, indeed, shake things up from the percussionist's post, and Sandler filled in some tricky touches from the piano and harmonium. At some of the quieter moments, such as during Act I's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" or Act II's ominous underscore for "Johanna" and the throat slitting, it was Aron Rider's cello that provided a mellifluous atmosphere, often with an assist from Bokor on flute. The two achieved a distinctive blend. 

Sandler is not a fan of reduced orchestral forces for musicals, a movement affecting musical theatre of late. But he was interested in the challenge of making "it still be Sweeney" with a quartet. Kalbfleisch thinks they succeeded admirably and says he wishes "the audience could see how hard the four musicians were playing, especially with the doubling involved." Probably most in the audience had no idea how so few players in the band produced such a frequently thrilling, satisfying sound. [TSR]