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"Sweeney' odd

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THEY act, sing, dance, play all their own instruments - they even move the scenery. If you thought James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business, you haven't seen the new "Sweeney Todd."

Stephen Sondheim's macabre masterpiece, opening Thursday at the Eugene O'Neill, is getting a completely reinvented revival.

The tale of the vengeful barber and the pie maker who loves him has often been told before - rife as it is with passion, murder and buckets of blood - but never has the pie maker blown her own tuba.

That would be Patti LuPone, whose Mrs. Lovett benefits from LuPone's high-school band experience.

Joining the onetime Evita are Michael Cerveris (guitar, orchestra bells, percussion); former "Phantom of the Opera" star Mark Jacoby (trumpet, bells, percussion) and seven other skilled actor-musician-singers, all of whom were obliged to join Local 802, the musicians' union.

For John Doyle - who created the show and designed its props and costumes - the key was getting Sondheim's blessing. It was nice to get it from preview audiences, too.

"You hear people at interval saying, 'It's not as bad as I thought it would be,'" Doyle says. "And by the end, they're on their feet, cheering."

With his musical supervisor, Sarah Travis - who orchestrated Sondheim's score for whatever instruments the actors could play - Doyle created this "Sweeney Todd" for a 224-seat theater in the British boonies.

He seems astonished it's gone on from there, winning raves in London before coming to Broadway.

"I don't want it to be seen as a pretentious, arty thing," he tells The Post. "I'm simply trying to go back to something very basic - our ability to tell stories. When the Greeks told their stories, they made music. When Shakespeare told his stories, the actors made music."

Not only do the actors in this "Sweeney Todd" make their own music, but they do so without eyeballing a score (they've memorized it) or a conductor to lead them. The only sheet music on stage is at the keyboard, on which various cast members share duties.

Add to that the fact that they're playing and singing around a large coffin - the chief prop for a production set in a lunatic asylum - and you can appreciate why Doyle calls his work "one enormous jigsaw puzzle."

The Post spoke with several pieces of that puzzle. Here's what they say about juggling all those disciplines at once.


Role: Tobias, the simpleton who loves Mrs. Lovett - until he discovers what's really in her pies

Instruments: violin, clarinet, keyboard

Musical background: Violin lessons from age 4 through Yale ("I don't remember a time when I didn't play violin"); took piano at 12 - the same age he started "tootling around" on a clarinet he found at home

How he got the part: "I was originally called back for Anthony and knew they wanted a cellist. So I went in with a viola, close enough, and sang 'Johanna' to an accompaniment I'd written ... Then I found out I was Tobias, so I had to learn all this new stuff. They sent me the music and I just started practicing."

How his fiddle expresses his character: "It's haunting, poetic and lyrical but can also be a buzz in your head that someone who's committed to a mental institution could actually hear."

Most awkward stage moment: "Having one foot on a chair and another on a coffin while playing this devilishly difficult lick on the violin - and hoping I don't crash into the Demon Barber." n BEN MAGNUSON

Role: Anthony, the innocent young sailor who rescues Sweeney and unwittingly falls in love with his daughter

Instruments: cello and keyboard

Musical background: His parents are musicians; he started cello in fifth grade and "picked up piano along the way."

How he got the part: Classmates at Cincinnati's Conservatory of Music saw an ad in Backstage and urged him to audition. "But I couldn't get seen for the show - they wanted someone more physically attractive, leading-man material who could maybe learn the cello." Then the show changed producers, Magnuson went to an open call - and he nailed it.

Preparation: "I put the music on my iPod and listened to it on the train and while I was biking." He also took cello lessons over the summer.

Biggest challenge: "Being trapped behind this cello while expressing grand emotions - it's like I'm holding a body in front of me."

Most awkward onstage moment: "The piano swap right before Sweeney tries to kill the judge. I'm playing piano all through the song 'Pretty Women,' and then Mano takes off so I can rush out."

Advice to aspiring actor/cellists: "Don't hate your parents for making you practice!"


Role: Johanna, Sweeney's daughter, and the unhappy ward of the judge who ruined him

Instrument: Cello

Musical background: Dad is principal bassist with the Detroit Symphony; mom is a dancer; started taking cello lessons at age 8.

How she got the part: "At the audition, the director had me crawl under a table, and I sang there as if I were caged, had an eating disorder, had been abused and was self-destructive. That was fun!"

Preparation: "I started taking cello lessons again, to get my chops up. And voice lessons."

What her cello says about her character: "When Anthony is singing to me, I really feel it, emotionally and physically, with these long, passionate bow strokes."

Biggest challenge: Playing while standing up and walking around

Most awkward onstage moment: "I climb onto the coffin quite a bit with my cello and long skirt. Knock on wood, I haven't tripped yet!"


Role: Pirelli, the barber who is Sweeney's rival - and the first to have his throat slashed

Instruments: accordion, keyboard, flute

Musical background: 25-plus years of classical piano; 20-plus years of flute lessons at the Eastman School of Music and elsewhere

How she got the part: She played Brahms on the piano, Debussy on the flute - and, for the accordion, "Bella Notte" from Disney's canine romance "The Lady and the Tramp."

Biggest challenge: Rehearsing nine hours a day with a 12-pound accordion around her neck

Most awkward onstage moment: "Getting Patti [LuPone] up on the coffin. Her shoes are insane - they're about 4 inches high. The joke is, if anything happens to Patti on that coffin, I might as well turn in my Equity card and kiss my career goodbye."

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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