Brief Encounter with Sweeney Todd Choreographer Nick Winston

A revamped version of the Stephen Sondheim classic musical thriller, Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street bursts on to the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this autumn, before transferring to Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Choreographer and movement director, Nick Winston, takes a break from rehearsals to discuss the challenges of staging the same show in two different venues, working on James Brining‘s first production as the Playhouse’s new artistic director, and the genius of Sondheim…

How are you feeling ahead of opening night?
I think you get nervous just before opening night, but right now it’s just concentrating on the technical side. It’s complex because the show’s quite big, technically, with shoots and traps and flying pieces.

You’ve had a great run at the Playhouse with Loserville, Annie, A Christmas Carol, Crash and Death of Salesman, so you must be excited to be back?
Yes, I love being here. I moved to Northampton (from London) last year, so I’m even closer! It’s got a great reputation and the productions here have been really high standard. Plus, the show itself is like a big tragedy and the theatre feels like an amphitheatre; so it does serve the show really well. Emotions are high, so it’s good to deliver it in this space.

Are there any particular challenges in putting on a show of this scale?
The real challenge is that Stephen Sondheim didn’t want the chorus to all have the same thought at the same time. So in a number like Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir, the chorus is all singing five different lines at the same time, all with different intentions; so it’s just trying to place the focus of all those different intentions within the number. That’s the hardest challenge.

What about ensuring the musical numbers are integrated into the story?
I think that’s why Sondheim’s brilliant because the show doesn’t stop when a number starts. It’s telling the story, but it’s not just telling one point of view.

Has the cast adapted well to the challenges?
They’ve been great. It was a slow process putting a few of the numbers on because there’s so much detail; you want to make sure you’re serving all that detail.

Nick Winston in rehearsal with Gillian Bevan (Mrs. Lovett).
Nick Winston in rehearsal with Gillian Bevan (Mrs. Lovett).
Manuel Harlan

On a show like this, are you involved from day one?
I’ve been involved from the beginning because (director) James Brining has put a framing device on the show, which is to set it in an asylum. The movement of the ensemble is all related to their characters within the asylum, so we’ve been working on each individual person having a different reason for being there; whether it’s a megalomaniac or someone with obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s just making sure their physical language is telling that story as well, so it’s been quite intense.

Conversely, is your job done once you get to opening night, or will you still be involved?
Normally (opening night) would be the end of my role, but because we’re transferring to The Royal Exchange in Manchester afterwards, we actually go back into rehearsals the week after we open and do three more weeks’ of rehearsals to restage the whole show in-the-round. So that will be interesting because the cast will be playing the show in the evening and rehearsing a different production during the day. Actually, it will be interesting for me to be around and see how the show develops over the weeks.

Talking of James Brining, have you enjoyed being a part of his first show as the Playhouse’s new artistic director?
I felt honoured when James asked me to be involved with his first show here. For his first piece, the team he chooses to have around him is quite an important decision, so I was really privileged to be asked to do the show. And it’s a show I’ve always wanted to do, as well.
Having previously worked on Follies and the revue show Side by Side by Sondheim, would you say you have an affinity for Sondheim’s work?
I love Sondheim and I find that when you work on the piece you get so much more from it as well because you get all the complexities. You pick everything up; all the detail. And it’s such a brilliant piece of writing; you hear things constantly that make you go: “Wow, he’s a genius!”.

Do you also enjoy working on different types of productions?
I’ve been lucky that every production I’ve done has been quite diverse. I love that. After this, I’m doing an opera and just before this I did a musical, To Sir with Love, in Northampton. I do love the diversity of that.

Is it daunting putting on a show of the pedigree of Sweeney Todd?
It’s easier than doing a new musical because you don’t know if it works and you still don’t know whether it works until it’s in front of an audience. But with this, we know we’ve got a great piece of writing to work from. But there’s no point just re-doing the show; we have to put our own stamp on it and have it be our version of it.

Finally, why do you think Sweeney Todd has such an enduring appeal?
Obviously, it’s a great piece of writing and a tragedy can be entertaining, with moments of black comedy. It’s such a tragic story of a man returning to London after 15 years and thinking he’s going to find his wife and daughter only to discover his wife has been raped and, he thinks, murdered, and his daughter’s been taken away. It’s a heart-breaking journey he goes on…but I don’t want to give away the end!

Sweeney Todd is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse between 26 September and 26 October 2013 before transferring to The Royal Exchange in Manchester. For tickets, contact the Playhouse box office on 0113 213 7700, or visit

– By Hannah Giles