DeVotchKa Gives Denver Center’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ A Musical Makeover

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Photo: DeVotchKa Denver Center Sweeney Todd
DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King dressed for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' production of "Sweeney Todd."

The demon barber of Fleet Street has arrived at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. But this version of "Sweeney Todd" will sound a little different because DeVotchKa did new musical arrangements for the Tony Award-winning musical about revenge and murder. True to the Denver band's style, it's a little old world, a little indie rock, all while honoring Stephen Sondheim's diabolical score -- the band was, in fact, obligated to stay true to the music's original melodies and structure.

DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman and Shawn King spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about their foray into musical theater. Read highlights from the conversation below. Click the audio above to listen to the full interview.

On why the musical's dark content appealed to the band artistically:

King: "I think there's an attraction to the revenge story and I think it's coming into modern culture a lot more right now. ... We're kind of straying away from this hero's journey, 'Star Wars' type of plot, that we're gonna see this wrap up all nice and pretty. And moving towards, especially with series TV... where things are just a mess and it's less of what's the journey and it's more of well what would I do in this situation."

Hagerman: "You also don't know who the true protagonist is. ... You're kind of rooting for Sweeney [Todd] in a way, even though he's this serial killer, because [he's an underdog trying] to find some sense of justice in the world."

On how much they could veer from Sondheim's music:

Hagerman: "There's this giant company of actors-singers that... are going to be rehearsing to a rehearsal accompanist with a book, [so] you can't change the form so dramatically that they're going to not recognize the song. And then, on top of that, there's a lot of cues and melodic motifs [the performers] need in order to be able to sing and act the role, and know when to come in. These things have to be there. ... They wanted us to explore it, but they reigned us in here and there to make it really work."

King: "We still have our DIY attitudes of like, 'Well, let's just do this.' And we realize that there are other things to think about in this process, like sending our version of the score to Sondheim. ... Even as it is, we're still trying to stretch a bit. ... I think it's cool to use as much of our flavor [as we can]. And we are doing that with our instrumentation. I mean it's not that much of a stretch when you look at all the instruments that are played on our records. You look at what we've played and it essentially plugs right into the pit and what you're hearing when you're watching this production."

On their previous exposure to "Sweeney Todd":

Hagerman: "I've seen the Tim Burton [2007 film adaptation] version of 'Sweeney Todd,' which was cool. That was sort of my first reference to 'Sweeney Todd' really. But I've played some Sondheim stuff. I had a gig at Disney World for three months, where we had these melodies of various musicals and there was some Sondheim stuff in there. It was the Disney Grammy All Collegiate Orchestra, or something. It was a college program."

King: "I was completely new to the musical and I still haven't seen the Johnny Depp [Tim Burton] version. And our music director... was really happy to hear that because they feel like... that's just a different thing."