Life has been hectic and exciting for Landless Theatre Company‘s Producing Artistic Director of Landless Theatre Andrew L. Baughman and Associate Producing Director and Resident Director Melissa Baughman since DCMetroTheaterArts announced to the world that Broadway legend and composer Stephen Sondheim has given Landless the ‘go-ahead’ to produce a Prog-Metal version of his musical Sweeney Todd. Andrew and Melissa fill us in on their exciting and hectic week.
Joel: Tell us about Landless Theatre Company and the kind of work you have done and plan to do this season?
Andrew: Landless is a 501(c)3 non-profit theatre company dedicated to making live theatre vital and accessible for new and diverse audiences. Our eclectic mix of DC premiere productions have included Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, Evil Dead The Musical, Gutenberg! The Musical!, and High Fidelity A Musical. In 2004, we were given the opportunity to develop the rock musical Diamond Dead (with music by Emmy winner Richard Hartley), which won the 2008 Best Musical Pick of the Capital Fringe, and was a selected participant in the 2009 NY International Fringe Festival. We have also created an annual “Mash-Up Play Festival,” which gave birth to our original parody musical Gleeam (selected participant in the 2011 NY International Fringe Festival).
This year we present a “Summer of Rock,” including a revised production of our original rock musical Rock Bottom [A Rock Opus] (based on the novel by Michael Shilling) in July at CapFringe, and a new Prog-Metal version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in August at Undercroft Theatre.
What is Prog-Metal? What experience does Landless have with it?
Melissa: Prog-Metal is a genre of Heavy Metal that is incredibly experimental in its composition. It tends to be complex in its structure and extremely technical in almost a classical sense, and the time signatures are definitely unusual. It is all about precision. Bands like Opeth, Dream Theater, Fates Warning, and Queensryche are some of the more well-known Prog-Metal bands out there.
Landless’ producing experience with Prog-Metal officially started with Richard Campbell’s Frankenstein, though we have been developing rock and metal musicals for a long time.
When did you first think that Sweeney Todd would make a great Prog-Metal Musical? Why do you think it will make a great Prog-Metal musical?
Andrew: I’ve always thought that Sweeney Todd would make interesting rock theatre of some sort, ever since I was 12 years-old and had memorized every lyric. I frankly never give much consideration to producing Sondheim in DC because I think Signature Theatre does it best, and we try to give audiences an experience they won’t find anywhere else in town. As we rehearsed the mixed-meter score of Frankenstein, it reminded me of learning Sondheim (I had the good fortune to play John Wilkes Booth in Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s 2004 production of Assassins, among other projects), and it occurred to me that Sondheim is essentially “prog” music of Musical Theatre. And Sweeney is by far the most “metal” of all musicals. And Landless is the only company in town developing prog-metal musicals. So a Prog-Metal Sweeney made sense for us.
How did you get in contact with Stephen Sondheim about trying to get his permission and how long did it take before you received a response? Where were you when you got the OK? What was your immediate reaction, and who was the first person you called to tell the great news?Take us through the journey.
Andrew: The more interesting story is perhaps why I contacted Mr. Sondheim with the request, or how I found the nerve to do such a crazy thing. After banging my head against the wall for nearly a year trying to secure rights to any material that wasn’t restricted by a local union production – not to mention 10+ years of feeling like our offbeat successes have been somewhat invisible in DC – I found myself at home one night watching the excellent HBO documentary Six by Sondheim. Out of the blue, a revelation: my artistic generation and I grew up revering Mr. Sondheim as the Alpha and Omega of musical theatre, but it turns out it was never easy for him to transform the artistic landscape. He faced the same critics and obstacles that we all do. It filled me with hope and inspiration to persevere, and more specifically, to write that snowball’s-chance inquiry about producing the prog metal cover concert that had been in the back of my head forever. I suspected that if anyone would take such a bold and generous risk on a company of virtually unknown artists, it would be Mr. Sondheim.
But to address your question – I wrote an email to Mr. Sondheim’s agent on December 11th, and received an affirmative response from his representative 24 hours later. I forwarded the news to Melissa and our Board Chairman Terry Heubert. Inside I was screaming like a giddy fanboy/girl.
You have been bombarded by the press in NYC? How have you handled it and what has been the most stressful and gratifying things for you since DCMTA broke the news on Monday?
Andrew: I guess I realized that I need to get my plans all figured out, because the press doesn’t want to take “we’re working on it” as an answer when it comes to Sondheim. It’s mostly just cool, though, for a humble company like ours to get so much attention. It’s a gift.
Melissa: I didn’t realize how big this all was until the press blew up. It hit me and then I started to feel excited. Suddenly, out of the woodwork, all these extremely talented musicians, actors, composers, designers contacted us and expressed their love of Prog-Metal. For me, I didn’t feel so alone anymore. I mean, being a Prog-Metal fan isn’t exactly the most popular thing, so finding other artists out there who love what I love is incredibly gratifying. I feel like this could be an artistic union of Prog-Metal fans.
What has surprised you and shocked you about the media response to the announcement?
Andrew: Very shortly after the DCMTA announcement I saw an article on Playbill and was contacted by NY Times. Twitter is buzzing. I’m most surprised that we haven’t had many inquiries yet from the DC media outlets. I’m not sure if it’s because theatre news is less relevant in DC, or if a small theatre making artistic waves threatens the status quo of our theatre community.
What has happened regarding casting and hiring since the news broke?
Andrew: My inbox is filling with the most incredible resumes and letters of interest from Broadway designers and arrangers (even a Grammy nominee). I keep expecting them to walk away when I tell them our pay scale, but most just desperately want to work on the project. It feels like the world is upside down.
Have you received any negative responses from Sondheim purists?
Andrew: The buzz so far seems overwhelmingly positive and supportive of a small experimental company that is getting a big opportunity. Some of my musical theatre friends think Sweeney Todd is perfect and should not be tampered with. They might be right. We’ll see. There’s definitely no improving Sweeney, but I hope the Prog Metal Version will introduce a new audience to a great work, and maybe show aspects of the work in a new light.
Melissa: I stay in my bubble. Right now, my focus has to be on doing work that is genuine and good. I’m not about to let negativity distract me from living my dream of putting Metal on a theatre stage.
Have you heard directly from Stephen Sondheim? Have you talked to him? Will you allow him to attend rehearsals and opening night?
Andrew: We have not yet spoken to Mr. Sondheim directly, but I sincerely hope we will get to meet him. We welcome him to visit any time, and would treasure his input… but we’ll need to find a better rehearsal space than our living room that day. (laughs).
What was the agreement you made with Mr. Sondheim-what did he tell you you could do with the show and what did he forbid you to do with the score?
Andrew: Without disclosing all details, Mr. Sondheim would seem to be giving us creative freedom to experiment with the score right now under the condition that he approves any cuts or changes to the order of things before we go into rehearsal. I initially approached Mr. Sondheim with the intent to perform a 1-1.5 hour cover concert of songs from Sweeney Todd – not that the complete work isn’t brilliant as written, but because 2+ hours is a long time for prog metal musicians to play (and perhaps for ears to listen).
Melissa: I’m encouraging my team to go ahead and prepare the entire score in two acts. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, might as well see it through to completion. If Mr. Sondheim wants the Prog-Metal version to live on after August, he will will know best if any cuts or changes should be made.
Andrew: Otherwise, it’s basically a standard nonunion licensing contract with Music Theatre International. I’ve seen sarcastic tweets asserting that Sondheim is “cashing in” on this project, but the truth should be known that he is being incredibly generous with his work.
Which is/are your favorite song(s) in Sweeney Todd? And which ones do you think will be the most challenging to Prog-Metalize?
Andrew: “Epiphany” is my favorite song in all musical theatre, and I think it’s already practically written as Prog-Metal. Judge Turpin’s “Johanna” should also take on new life in Prog.
Melissa: It’s more difficult to imagine songs like “Johanna” and “By The Sea” as Prog-Metal, but once we have an arranger on board, I’ll be excited to hear what he or she comes up with.
What are you most excited about, most proud about, and what are you most nervous about?
Melissa: I am most excited about presenting Prog-Metal to the theatre community. I have been listening to Metal since I was a kid and, for me, this is a chance for me to share my passion with other people. I am really proud of the work we’ve done as Landless and how all our hardships, our learning experiences, and achievements have brought us to this project. The time is right and we are ready. I am most nervous about how Sondheim will receive it. His work has been such a big part of my life, that knowing he may see my work makes me nervous. That said, that is also something that makes me super-excited as well.
Andrew: Agreed. Sondheim is my hero. If he likes the work we do, no one else’s opinion will matter to me. In the immortal words of Wayne and Garth: “We’re not worthy!”
How many actors will appear in the show, how many musicians, and will the Landless regulars appear?
Andrew: We’re still finalizing our creative team, so it’s a little early to talk casting without everyone’s input. From a producer standpoint, there’s a temptation to want to ship in “name” actors from NYC – especially when some are eager to toss their Equity cards out the window for a month just to be part of the project – but at the end of the day we’re not about selling tickets and maximizing pr angles – our goal is solely to develop the best Prog-Metal version of the work we can for Mr. Sondheim and our target audience. We have offered a role or position to nearly everyone who was involved in Richard Campbell’s Frankenstein (including Richard himself), because that production prepared us for this opportunity. Roughly half of our Frankenstein team were company artists, and half were seasoned musicians from the DC/MD/VA metal scene – we all learned from each other and cultivated an artistic synergy that developed over our time working together, culminating in our final and best performance last November at Black Cat. Sweeney will be built on that chemistry, momentum, and foundation of learned experience.
That said, we are also scouting and auditioning for additional performers to work with us. There are a lot of incredible musical actors out there, especially locally, but we need artists who have distinguished themselves in the genre of Prog-Metal.
What other Sondheim musical would make a great Prog-Metal musical?
Melissa: Offhand, I can’t imagine his other works as Prog-Metal. Sweeney Todd just speaks to me in that way. It’s not about placing a musical into a genre for genre-bending sake, it’s about feeling the soul of the work and knowing that it could make a great match.
If you could hire anyone to appear in the show, who would you cast?
Andrew: Melissa and I have been joking that it would be amazing if Alice Cooper would agree to play Judge Turpin. Of course, just a few weeks ago we were joking that it would be amazing if Stephen Sondheim would give us permission to develop a prog metal Sweeney… so maybe we should send Mr. Cooper a letter.
Joel: I’d be glad to write it for you.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Andrew: Just that in light of this special production, Landless is planning to launch a fundraising initiative, and we hope we can attract donors and sponsors to make our production sparkle. LTC has survived for over 10 years nearly exclusively on ticket revenue (we have not raised admission above $25, and have no plans to do so at this time). We need to generate some funding to present this show with the best possible sound system, and give our designers the budget to do their best work. Please show your support of this small “indie” theatre and help us give a production that truly rocks!
Sweeney Todd is part of Landless Theatre’s “Summer of Rock,” including the CapFringe production of Rock Bottom [A Rock Opus], based on the novel by Michael Shilling, which will also involve popular artists of the local music scene. Landless is currently accepting resume submissions from new actors, musicians, designers and technicians for both productions. Visit our website for details.
Sweeney artwork by Brenna St. Ours.
For those unfamiliar with the Prog Metal, a brief but diverse survey of music compiled by Melissa Baughman and LTC musicians Ray Shaw, and Lance LaRue.
Landless Theatre Company’s website.
Part One: “Richard Campbell’s Frankenstein: Making a Monster Rock Opera”: Meet Robert Bradley.
Part Two: “Richard Campbell’s Frankenstein: Landless Making a Monster Rock Opera:” Meet Andrew Baughman.
Part Three: “Richard Campbell’s Frankenstein: Landless Making a Monster Rock Opera:” Meet Irene Jericho.