DeVotchka translates Sondheim

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Sweeney Todd sings a heartfelt ballad to his razors in “My Friends,” a song which King says is tense, scary and beautiful.
Adams Visual Communications

Denver-based, indie rock band, DeVotchKa is no stranger to unconventional projects. With multiple original albums, the band has also scored movies including Little Miss Sunshine and I Love You Phillip Morris, and has frequently shared the Red Rocks stage with the Colorado Symphony. But when given their most recent project of adapting the musical score of Sweeney Todd for the Denver Center of Performing Arts (DCPA), they were warned that this was no simple task.

“[Music Director Gregg Coffin] read us the riot act and said, ‘You guys are about to take on a monster score that everyone in musical theater is insanely attached to and hopes to do someday in some professional way,’” says Shawn King of DeVotchka.

DeVotchKa embers Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King get a chance to play violin, tuba and drums, respectively, alongside the actors on stage.
DeVotchKa embers Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King get a chance to play violin, tuba and drums, respectively, alongside the actors on stage. Adams Visual Communications

Instead of deterring the band, this warning inspired them to do their homework and dissect the music written by theater legend Stephen Sondheim. Members King, Jeanie Schroder and Tom Hagerman studied multiple productions of the musical, combing through notes and lyrics to fully encapsulate the feeling of the show in order to put their own unique spin on it.

“I can’t lie, there was a steep learning curve,” King says.

The final product can now be seen at the DCPA through May 15.

DeVotchKa is not the first to remix Sondheim’s 1979 musical. In 2004, the 10-person Broadway production had each character play their own instrument on stage. In 2015, there was a prog-metal version in Washington and earlier this year an all-male production in California by gay and lesbian company Theater Out.

Sweeney Todd tells the story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street who seeks revenge on those who’ve wronged him — plus, a side plot of capitalistic cannibalism, but that’s beside the point. The musical tells a macabre tale and does so with a twisted sense of humor. Combined with their gypsy punk vibe and theatrical stage shows, DeVotchKa and Sweeney are an ideal pairing.

“As far as stories go, I don’t know if DeVotchKa would be good with any kind of sweet musical, like Brigadoon or Oklahoma,” member Jeanie Schroder says with a laugh.

With the musical set in 1800 London, King says there were a lot of instruments and tones that matched the band’s style. In addition to the typical orchestral instruments, the DeVotchKa rendition relies on the mandolin, French horn, trumpet, electric guitar, tuba and the bandoneon (which Schroder calls the whorehouse accordion).

But it was also the band’s sensitivity that made them a good fit to adapt Sweeney.

“The score goes from insanely cacophonous, fast, noisy to incredibly delicate and emotional,” King says. “It has to do with not just our style but with our palette. They went hand in hand.”

Sweeney Todd sings a heartfelt ballad to his razors in “My Friends,” a song which King says is tense, scary and beautiful.
Sweeney Todd sings a heartfelt ballad to his razors in “My Friends,” a song which King says is tense, scary and beautiful. Adams Visual Communications

There are various differences when composing a record versus a musical — for instance a musical is driven by story and character. Throughout the process, King says he’s pondered questions including, “Why are we so invested in this psychopath?” Or “Why is the music bringing us to tears?” The answers to those questions were then translated in the music, making sound choices more pointed.

“There are these devices that happen in musical theater that might not happen in indie rock,” King says. “You might have a long passage of a glockenspiel in a rock song that we would do and that would become part of the flavor of the song. But in musical theater, it may have this real punctuation of surprise or an ‘a ha’ moment.”

Along with composing, the band members also play in the pit with the rest of the orchestra. And the three nabbed some stage time playing the tuba, drums and violin right alongside the cast in various numbers.

After their stint at the DCPA, the band will be heading to the recording studio and influences from their Sweeney experience might pop up on their new record, Schroder says. In a similar way, playing with the Colorado Symphony impacted their last album 100 Lovers.

“The arrangements have been a lot more lush,” she says. “We have new ideas like, ‘Oh we could put chimes there, or we could bring in someone on a bass clarinet, and that would be a neat texture to the sound.’”

For King, the overall goal of the Sweeney production was to take something unfamiliar to them and pull it off with integrity. It’s in pursuing these uncustomary projects that justifies calling DeVotchKa “a different kind of band,” he says.

“There’s always been a desire to keep doing things that are fresh. We don’t plan on going anywhere. We always wanna be making records as DeVotcKa but we want to be challenged in new ways too.”

In June, DeVotchKa heads back to Red Rocks to share the stage with the Colorado Symphony for the fifth time. And if it all bodes well, the band would be happy to have a similar reoccurring relationship with adapting Sondheim in the future.

“I’d love to,” King says. “That’s a goal right there.”

  

On the Bill: Sweeney Todd. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1345 Champa St., Denver, 720-865-4239. Through May 15.