Saving the best for last

With Sweeney Todd artistic director leaves on a high note

Eight years ago Mark Bellamy grabbed the reins at Vertigo Theatre as the new artistic director and even then he knew he would eventually conclude his tenure at the company by directing one of his favourite musicals: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street . With the final production of Vertigo’s season Bellamy’s dream turns into reality — Sweeney Todd hits the boards this week.

Though he’s ending his time at Vertigo Theatre on a high note his stint at the helm began with numerous challenges: the company faced just under $250000 of debt; ticket sales trended downward; the company had lost touch with the community. Bellamy knew the situation was unsustainable and he sought solutions.

“We needed to reconnect with our audience and become relevant to the city” he says. “We needed to make high-quality shows that audiences wanted to see. And we needed to increase our ability to fundraise and increase ticket sales and sponsorships. The main way you overcome these kinds of challenges is to make sure you’re connecting with your stakeholders — your audience. If you’re not connecting with your audience you can’t do anything. You need to be able to say to granters and sponsors ‘Look how valued we are by the people we serve.’”

Bellamy looks back on his time at Vertigo with pride. Under his tenure he says the company expanded in many ways. Company revenue jumped by 90 per cent and audiences turned out in greater numbers. More than that Bellamy is impressed with the way the company has pushed the envelope with how audiences see mystery theatre.

“We’ve enjoyed a lot of artistic success” he says. “There have been a lot of highlights.”

Eight years ago the company was in no condition to mount a production like Sweeney Todd .

Set in 19th century England the musical tells the story of Benjamin Barker (also known as Sweeney Todd) who spent years in exile for a crime he didn’t commit. Now returning to London he learns his wife and daughter died at the hands of the malicious Judge Turpin. Barker vows revenge on Turpin and the London populace. Collaborating with the baker Mrs. Lovett he charms clueless customers into his barbershop and with his razor slits their throats. Mrs. Lovett then bakes the victims into pies. The original production opened on Broadway at the Uris Theatre in 1979 and ran for over 500 performances. Stephen Sondheim penned the music and lyrics; Hugh Wheeler wrote the libretto.

Everyone who knows Bellamy knew he wanted to close his tenure at Vertigo by directing the well-known musical. When asked if he was saving the best for last he says “Absolutely.” He goes on to say “I love everything about the play. The music is extraordinary; it serves the story so beautifully. Thematically it is so deep and so rich. But I love the story the most. People look at it as a very dark story. And it is. But buried in all the blood and darkness is a very touching story.”

Directing a play like this is not for the faint of heart.

“It’s hellishly hard. The entire show is underscored for two hours and everything is timed; the precision of the show is just incredible” says Bellamy. “As a director you have to understand why the music is where it is and what it does to the story. I’ve been obsessing over the show for 20 years and I’m still discovering things. This is one of the most exhausting plays I’ve discovered in my career.”

Bellamy insists that opportunities to see Sweeney Todd are rare making it all the more special for Vertigo to stage it. He says it’s unlikely the play will appear in Calgary again any time soon.

“You need the right resources and the right people to do it” he explains. “This is going to be a very unique production and this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.”

When he moves on from Vertigo Bellamy plans to direct productions with various companies in Calgary. Happy as he feels about his time with Vertigo he says he looks forward to directing and creating without the added worry of running a company.