Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller is raising as much as $14.5 million to revive Sweeney Todd on Broadway this spring, a test of whether a big-budget Stephen Sondheim revival can succeed in the post-Sondheim era.
Josh Groban (The Great Comet) will play the vengeful barber and Annaleigh Ashford (Sunday in the Park with George) will play the creative pie maker Mrs. Lovett, according to an operating agreement distributed to investors and reviewed by Broadway Journal. The musical, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, will be staged by Hamilton director Thomas Kail with a full orchestra playing the score, a person familiar with the revival said. (Two prior Broadway revivals, while critically acclaimed, were comparatively small-scale productions.)
Both Kail and Seller were acolytes of Harold Prince, who directed the original Sweeney, in 1979. It won eight Tony Awards, including best musical and original score. Seller didn’t return emails on Tuesday.
Presenting the Grand Guignol story in grand style won’t come cheap. Weekly running costs for the 2023 revival are projected to be about $840,000, not including royalties and percentage rent. If the revival averages weekly sales of $2.2 million, which is 100 percent of gross potential (and more than every show on Broadway today except for Hamilton, The Lion King and The Music Man), it’s projected to take six months to recoup the maximum capitalization of $14.5 million. At $1.43 million a week — 65 percent of gross potential — it would take 46 weeks to recoup. (Both projections are assuming amortization, an arrangement with royalty participants that speeds up repaying investors.)
The venue is rumored to be the Nederlander-owned Lunt-Fontanne, which has roughly 1500 seats. The recoupment chart is based on an unnamed theater with 1400 seats.
High expenses impede profitability and the ability of a musical to survive box office lulls. It’s no accident that Chicago, which at 26 years is the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history, has relatively low running costs. In the beginning of 2020, its weekly expenses totaled just under $600,000, according to a Chicago financial statement filed with the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Another issue facing Seller and his coproducers and investors: this season will test the audience’s appetite for Sondheim, with at least three revivals of the legendary composer-lyricist’s shows in the offing.
Last season’s production of Company, which was written by Sondheim and George Furth and opened two weeks after Sondheim’s death, had 265 regular performances and closed at a loss. Buffeted by the Broadway shutdown, Covid-19 variants, pricey pandemic protocols and some mixed reviews, it will return about a third of its $13 million capitalization, lead producer Chris Harper told investors. That’s despite winning five Tony Awards and securing $19 million in pandemic-related insurance proceeds and Small Business Administration reopening funds.
Set in 1849 London, about a barber who’d been unjustly imprisoned and is eager for revenge, Sweeney Todd features murder, cannibalism and music that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie thriller set in Edwardian England. In his memoir Finishing the Hat, Sondheim cited the influence of the 1945 melodrama Hangover Square, which is set in 1903 with music by Bernard Herrmann. (That score is online and worth a listen for the similarities to Sweeney.)
Sondheim called his bloody musical “a resounding commercial failure both on Broadway and in the West End,” while noting its enduring popularity in summer stock, schools and opera houses. Members of the original production team told me in 2005, when I reported about the show for Bloomberg News, that it did repay investors — in 1989, nine years after it closed on Broadway. Fees from subsidiary rights eventually helped it return about a 50 percent profit.
The show’s best-known songs include “Pretty Women,” “A Little Priest,” “Johanna” as well as “Not While I’m Around,” which Groban sang on his 2015 album, Stages, and during a 90th-birthday virtual tribute to Sondheim. “As a kid my musical awakening was hearing Sunday In The Park,” Groban wrote on Instagram after Sondheim died. “Then Sweeney Todd. Then Company. Then absolutely everything. Again and again. How did this man know my heart so well?”
A recording and concert star and well-regarded TV and stage actor, Groban starred in the off-beat extravaganza Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and helped it gross above $1 million most weeks during its 11-month run at the Imperial Theatre. (It ultimately failed commercially.)
The Sweeney role will require the boyish, self-deprecating 41-year-old to play against type. The effusive and diabolical Mrs. Lovett, by contrast, seems a natural fit for Ashford, a 37-year-old Broadway and TV star. She won a Tony for featured actress in the 2014 revival of the Kaufman & Hart farce You Can’t Take It With You. She surely would have been nominated for her performance as Dot in the celebrated Sunday in the Park with Jake Gyllenhaal had lead producer Ambassador Theatre Group made the revival Tony eligible.
The current Lear deBessonet-directed concert production of Into the Woods, which Sondheim and James Lapine wrote and Jordan Roth produced for $4 million, is doing SRO business at the St. James Theatre. (Sara Bareilles, who plays the Baker’s Wife, hosted the 2018 Tonys with Groban.) New York Theatre Workshop is presenting the perennially revised Merrily We Roll Along, another Furth-Sondheim collaboration, in November, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez and staged by Maria Friedman.
The director’s sister, producer Sonia Friedman — whose company is a subsidiary of ATG — signed investment papers with Chocolate Factory Productions and Patrick Catullo to raise $2 million to enhance the musical. The “current plan,” according to the papers filed with New York Attorney General Letitia James, is to present the first-ever Broadway revival of Merrily after the off-Broadway tryout.
A 2005 John Doyle-directed Sweeney, in which the actors doubled as musicians, recouped its $3.5 million after 19 weeks. (Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett played tuba, orchestra bells and percussion.) The running costs were less than $400,000 a week, or about $600,000 in today’s dollars, which producer Richard Frankel attributed at the time largely to the single set and the relatively few stagehands on the payroll.
The first Broadway revival, in 1989 at Circle in the Square, had an orchestra of just two keyboard players and ran 188 regular performances. Most recently, a 2017 off-Broadway production, set in a mock pie shop that served presumably non-human meat pies to theatergoers, announced that it recouped its $1.2 million in 24 weeks.