Published in The New York Times
During performances of the new pared-down Broadway revival of ''Sweeney Todd,'' the 10 members of the cast also double as the orchestra. But an even more pared-down version takes place in the dressing rooms on the sixth floor, where the standbys practice their instruments note for note in time with the performance.
In this production of the tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his fellow conspirator, Mrs. Lovett, the standbys have to learn not only multiple roles, but also a confusing array of musical parts that they -- unlike most orchestra musicians -- have to play from memory, with no conductor to guide them.
As of press time, no standby has taken the stage (and the production declined to make any available for interviews). But figuring out how they might is like assembling ''an enormous jigsaw puzzle'' said John Doyle, the director and designer.
For instance, at a typical performance, Donna Lynne Champlin, as the Italian barber Pirelli, handles the keyboard, flute and accordion. Patti LuPone, as Mrs. Lovett, performs on the tuba (see above), orchestra bells and other percussion instruments. So Dorothy Stanley, the standby for both roles, would seem to need superhuman talent: act, sing and play all those instruments, too.
In reality, Ms. Stanley doesn't have to know all those instruments. Should she go on as Pirelli, she would play Pirelli's keyboard part. She wouldn't play the flute, though; she would play a similar part on the viola. The accordion would fall to another standby, Elisa Winter, who would remain onstage throughout the show, in costume. If Ms. Stanley fills in as Mrs. Lovett, the tuba would be nixed: its part is already mimicked by the bass, which another actor already plays.
Should Ms. Winter play Johanna, the yellow-haired lover, though, the role would not change: Johanna plays the cello and so does Ms. Winter. ''Everything, on one level or another, gets covered,'' Mr. Doyle said. ''You never lose the honesty of the storytelling.''
Some of the standbys were discovered at the main cast auditions, to which Bernard Telsey, the casting director, invited ''any performer who says they can play,'' he said. The lobby became a band room: the performers hauled in their instruments -- one brought a shopping cart full of them -- and warmed up. Mr. Telsey also scouted music schools but said that didn't work out well.
Mr. Doyle explained, ''They have to be actors first and foremost.''
The production was planning to hire two more standbys -- for a total of seven -- which might make switches less complex.
Still, Mr. Telsey said, the standbys ''are more heroic in this show than most.''