DeVotchKa Takes on the Challenge of Cutting Up Sweeney Todd

The origins of the tale of Sweeney Todd can be traced back all the way to the 1840s. It was then that the character first made an appearance in the serial short story The String of Pearls. After going through several different amalgamations, the murderous barber finally reached wide acclaim in the 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

The play became a cultural phenomenon, in large part because of the music written by longtime Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, whose lyrics about Londoners eating other Londoners were both silly and sickening but certainly catchy and well-crafted. 

The play won several Tonys and was later adapted into a movie starring Johnny Depp. The film's music was altered slightly for the big screen, and some songs were cut (no pun intended), but most of Sondheim's original compositions were maintained. 

Beginning April 8, at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, Sondheim's music will receive a new treatment — this time from Denver band DeVotchKa. Percussionist Shawn King, along with bandmates Tom Hagerman and Jeanie Schroder, have been given the rather large task of dissecting and rearranging Sondheim's work, then performing it live for the play's run at the DCPA though May 15. 

We sat down with King and asked him how he prepared for this massive undertaking and how it will inform the rest of his musical career. 

Westword: Tell us how this whole thing came about. 

King: The way it began was, initially Tom [Hagerman] was working at DCPA for a bit, and then [Sweeney Todd director] Kent Thompson’s assistant, Emily Tarquin, saw what he was capable of and what he was composing and arranging. I think she was a DeVotchKa fan, and she told Kent that he just needed to hire us to be the band for Sweeney Todd. At the time, of course, I had heard of Sweeney Todd but I hadn't even seen the Johnny Depp movie. 

We’ve had really insane offers before — we’ve been invited to score silent pictures live, people have asked us to do all sorts of covers records, and there was even a family circus that asked us to be the house band on a nine-week circus run. This time, we thought about how this could fit into our lives and allow us to stay in Denver, so this sounded exciting. It came down to one day on a conference call with twelve people when we knew we had to make a decision for something that was going to happen fourteen months later. It was a little much to understand, but we said yes, and we just started plugging away after that.

Is this a reimagining, of the original score? How much creative freedom do you have?

They said we could do a lot of what we wanted, but we are still playing the Stephen Sondheim score. Sondheim’s version was the most successful because of how he took that story and used his music to move it along in such a powerful way — I think that was the driving  factor. We knew that we were doing Sondheim’s score, and we weren't about to rewrite the tale. Creatively it’s been wild; there are moments when you have all of this opportunity and then times when you have to do this specific thing. Back when we started arranging and looking at this monster score — which was like a 300-page piano reduction and like 1,000-page orchestral score — we just started picking it apart.  

You have to make some decisions along the way and think, ‘How would we do this?' You have to keep the integrity of the actual music, because all scores get sent to Sondheim, and someone has to approve it.

There's definitely a lot of pressure. There was one moment when I thought we could add this whistle melody from [DeVotchKa's] “The Enemy Guns." I thought it would work perfect for the character Pirelli, but it got rejected, because they didn’t want us adding new melodies to the score. Creatively, we are strictly arranging; we can add embellishments and improvisations, but to add new melodies isn't being true to the score.

This is a dark and twisted tale with music to match, but DeVotchKa's music always comes across as uplifting and inspiring . How do you change the way you’ve always approached music to get in another space and play and arrange music like this?

Before I met [DeVotchKa frontman] Nick [Uralta], they had done a cover of "Dark Eyes," and he was using accordion that gave it an Eastern European type of feel. From there, he had done some dark waltzes that are from the same place as this type of music. Over the years, we started doing more pop and more uplifting stuff and started saving the dark waltzes for only our Halloween shows. This really feels like a hyped-up 200-person version of what we’ve done at Halloween shows.

Since Nick informed a lot of this stuff to begin with, is it weird doing it without him?

It's a weird opportunity when we can work with other singers. When we did our Sitzprobe, we were nervous because it was six months of arranging, talking to our music director Greg [Coffin] and devouring and dissecting the score. Next, we were getting in front of these new singers that we’d never met before. After we played the first song  with them, they all did this cathartic scream. Even though it wasn't polished, they were all so excited. That’s when I knew this could actually work.

Everyone involved seems to be playing multiple instruments. Did you learn any new  instruments for this?

I’m on vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, and it's the first time I’ve had a gong to play. 

I’m totally out of my element, but this is why we took the job. We've done all of these records and studio work and we really wanted to try something different. I think I underestimated what really happens in a pit. It’s insanely busy and you have to be incredibly focused.

I’m writing things like ‘pick up the purple mallets,’ because in three bars I have one vibraphone hit. I guess I could imagine all of that, but actually doing it physically is blowing my mind.

Will this change the way you approach music moving forward with DeVotchKa?

I’m so in the thick of it right now, and I’m constantly thinking about how songs will end and what time I walk out of the pit to get on stage. I’m having these wild dreams about coordinating everything. So, I would love to think about how to add this to a DeVotchKa setup, but right now it’s just too much to think about. 

DeVotchKa has always seemed to focus on doing big things that can be looked at as career benchmarks. This is part of that, right?

We’re no spring chickens, and we are at this stage where we want to do things that are challenging and interesting. Being able to work with new people from all over the country and to have this romantic idea of going down to the theater to play our gig is something we don't take for granted. This is all new to me. It’s really amazing; I’ve never done anything like this before.

DeVotchKa's adaptation of Sweeney Todd opens at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, April 8, 2016, and runs through May 15. 
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Andy Thomas is a music journalist who hopes other music journalists write nice things about the music he performs. He lives in Denver with his wife, their two cats and a massive pile of unfinished projects.
Contact: Andy Thomas