Caspe, Bellová discuss Prague Playhouse production of Sweeney Todd

'Sweeney Todd', photo: Gunther Doe/Prague Playhouse

In today’s Arts my guests are American actor and producer Brian Caspe (who is also the artistic director of the Prague Playhouse) and Czech actress Veronika Bellová just two of many in the cast & crew involved in a new English-language production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The show which lasts through July and has already gotten great reviews.

'Sweeney Todd',  photo: Gunther Doe/Prague Playhouse
I began by asking Brian Caspe why he chose to produce this particular musical:

“Well it’s a play I have always loved: I have been in other two productions of it. When I was in high school I was in a community production and I was in it again when I was at university. It’s the kind of show that gets under your skin and doesn’t let you go. So I always wanted to do it and I wanted to do something of that calibre for our production here. Because of the uniqueness of the writing and the beauty of the music, we got a fantastic response and all kinds of people got on board, from technical positions to acting. Looking from the outside, you’d think that putting together this kind of big production in English in Prague was impossible. But that’s what we’ve managed to do. Everything has fallen into place, one after another, and it has been a fantastic experience.”

So this is the biggest or most demanding project you guys have done in Prague to date?

“Yes. The budget is four-times bigger than usual, the cast is three times bigger and by definition putting together any musical is a huge undertaking. We challenged ourselves, certainly.”

Sweeney Todd was written by Stephen Sondheim... I’ve read that the last Sondheim production here was performed something like 44 years ago, is that right?

'Sweeney Todd',  photo: Gunther Doe/Prague Playhouse
“Yes. Jan Werich did a translation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. From what I know there are some reviews, some notes, but nothing else remains. With Sondheim, though it’s almost like the fictional Jára Cimrman: it’s something that is almost impossible to translate because the words are so intertwined and set and specific to the music. The two are fused and it is very difficult to translate while keeping the original sense and meaning. The Prague Playhouse, though, was in an ideal position to bring his work to the Czech Republic, relying on the talents of both Czech and native-English speakers. The Czechs are insanely talented but we worked very hard on the language.”

That gives me the opportunity to bring in Veronika: as a professional actress and singer how have you enjoyed the experience?

VB: “I have. It’s not the first time I have sung or acted in English but it is a great opportunity to be able to work in my second language and I kind of prefer it. It gives me a lot of opportunity to explore, which I enjoy.”

You play ‘Johanna’ – the stolen daughter of Sweeney Todd and the ward of the evil judge – what are your thoughts on the part?

VB: “I think it is a little more difficult to play a positive character than an evil one. It is a little tougher.”

In character you have to walk a ‘fine line’ between two love interests: the young sailor and the evil judge who stole her away...

'Sweeney Todd',  photo: Gunther Doe/Prague Playhouse
VB: “That true, and compared for example, to the film there is more room in the part of Johanna to act and sing. The of course another aspect I like is the almost spiritual aspect and you uncover more and more layers of meaning through how the characters interact and the impact they have on the audience. I think Sondheim had a definite message for audiences about facing obstacles in the wrong way, showing the audience that if you face a similar challenge in your own life, you should be careful how you approach it. Johanna ends up ok but most of the other characters do not.”

Next question: is your version based on the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp or the original 1970s Broadway musical?

“It’s interesting: style-wise it kind of evokes a Tim Burton kind of feeling. The style and makeup are very different from the original. And it is set in a grave yard – not exactly zombies – but basically the framing of the musical is that these are Sweeney’s victims who have come back to life on this night to tell the story before they can be released. The story stars and ends with a kind of ‘bookend’ of the ensemble or company saying ‘Listen to this story, we are going to tell you about these people who did stuff, who made choices and the choices were bad’ and, you know, the last line or moral of the story is that to seek revenge may lead to Hell. Everyone does it but not as well as these people. So these ghosts come back to say ‘Watch out! You’re on this path too!’. You think that you are watching a story about these people but you’re just as bad. In that sense, it’s kind of reminiscent of the Tim Burton style but otherwise our staging is much closer to the original.”

This story has its roots in Victorian London but it seems to me that the main protagonist has been overshadowed by other great fictional or non-fictional characters of the period: Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Dickens’ characters... What is your feeling?

“That’s a good question and I think that is generally true. The Sweeney Todd story has a definite ‘end’ unlike the serialized stories of Conan Doyle or Dickens, though, so that could be part of the reason. Conan Doyle and Dickens successfully serialized their work that helped make them very popular and well-known.”

There are elements though that anyone would recognize: the kind of gloom-and-doom overlooking the city, child labour and of course the gruesome meat pies!...

“The pies are of course central to the story; but bits of that gloom-and-doom are there.”

It is also a very violent story, given that the barber cuts the throats of his customers; how did you guys handle that?

“Lots of stage blood, special lighting! You just do it! That’s part of the fun of the show. Especially there’s the song Johanna in Act II, where Sweeney sings sweetly about his love for his daughter, how he is with her, and at the same time he is cutting peoples’ throats! I think the juxtaposition of beautiful haunting music and the gruesomeness of the action, that dissonance, is what really ‘gets’ people!”

The Czech subtitles have also worked out really well, haven’t they? There has been a very positive response and really there’s no ‘going back’!

“Various companies here do English-language theatre and we are all striving to work on a bigger scale. If you look at other cities like Vienna, Berlin or Frankfurt, they all have established professional English-language theatres. What we are doing is opening up productions to a broader audience and we really want to share this work with the Czech Republic.”

For more information about the production, tickets and the Prague Playhouse visit