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“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd /
His skin was pale and his eye was odd /
He shaved the faces of gentlemen /
Who never thereafter were heard of again /
He trod a path that few have trod /
Did Sweeney Todd /
The demon barber of Fleet Street /
He kept a shop in London town /
Of fancy clients and good renown /
And what if none of their souls were saved? /
They went to their maker impeccably shaved /
By Sweeney /
By Sweeney Todd /
The demon barber of Fleet Street /
Swing your razor wide, Sweeney! /
Hold it to the skies! /
Freely flows the blood of those who moralise…”
What better introduction than the one the show itself uses?
Hey hey, it’s my birthday(ish)! As a treat to myself, I’m tackling my favourite Victorian cannibalism hairdressing slasher musical. Sweeney Todd is Stephen Sondheim’s finest and grimmest work, a misanthropic black comedy that delves deep into the subterranean levels to which the befoxholed will stoop when pushed to their wits’ end. They spin an increasingly mad tangle of mistakes, desperately hoping to avoid the inevitable consequences of their actions. Everyone ends up dead, but even that’s a relief compared to the prospect of living in the world of Sweeney Todd.
Last week while penning a largely negative overview of La La Land, I found myself repeatedly comparing its failings to the successes of this week’s subject. It felt so Baby’s First Musical, taking the subject of jazz and failing to say anything new or interesting about it, allowing form to dictate content. It was a predictable, if passingly lovely film. I counted just two leitmotifs compared to over a dozen the feature in Sondheim’s elaborate macramé of a score, a luxurious, angular thing that almost lives a life of its own. Sweeney Todd takes its time expanding, inflating like a lungful of air, where La La Land blows its creative load in the first five minutes. In Los Angeles, we meet a pair of attractive young rising stars flung together because it’s a movie and it needs a romance; in London two eccentrics are brought together by a mutually beneficial business arrangement, later muddied on one side by growing resentment and on the other by unreciprocated affection.
This is the image that sticks. Sweeney Todd strikes a deal with the opportunistic Mrs Lovett: he, a barber, cuts the throats of his patrons while she, a baker, cooks them into pies.
But there’s much more than this going on beneath the surface. Forgive me this one synopsis. It’s well worth understanding.
Sweeney thirsts for revenge against the corrupt Judge Turpin who had him deported on trumped-up charges years ago so, as to force himself onto Sweeney’s wife, Lucy, who thereafter poisoned herself. Johanna, daughter to Sweeney and Lucy and unwilling fiancée to the judge, kindles a sweet little romantic subplot with Antony, the chipper young sailor who saved Sweeney from drowning at sea and ferried him back to London.
As their business flourishes and an uncertain future sharpens into focus, Mrs Lovett urges Sweeney to abandon his crusade and settle into content domesticity with their surrogate son, Toby. The two effectively adopt the littlest street urchin after accidentally brutally murdering Signor Pirelli, a charlatan using the boy to peddle snake-oil scams to unsuspecting Londoners. But Sweeney cannot bring himself to let go of his past, nor can Mrs Lovett muster the wherewithal to jilt the man she knows will never love her, even in light of Toby’s growing suspicions.
A comedy of errors, a drama of retribution, a tragedy of inevitability and death.
(Not to mention a fine example of how to break that fourth wall effectively. During the prologue the cast appears out of character, inviting the audience to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, who threatens the audience with his razors when he reaches the end of his rope. The cast returns to comment on proceedings during the ballad’s several reprises, the final reprise serving as an epilogue.)
Content should and must dictate form, and from the moment the curtain rises it is clear which is the better-crafted musical. ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ roughly follows, of course, a ballad meter, but tripping and skipping, keying the audience in that all is not right.
The first time we meet Mrs Lovett, the excitement of a customer patronising her failing shop sets off her scatterbrained chatterboxy tendencies. ‘The Worst Pies In London’ is correspondingly elliptical:
“And no wonder with the price of meat /
What it is /
When you get it /
Never though I’d live to see the day /
Men would think it was a treat /
Finding poor animals /
What are dying in the street / […]
No denying times is hard, sir /
Even harder than the worst pies in London”
With ‘Greenfinch and Linnet Bird’ we meet the pretty young Johanna, the ebb of the ostinato pulling her between obligations and desires. Locked away in Judge Turpin’s care, she struggles to diplomatically turn away his unwanted affection and yearns to break free. She sees kindred spirits as a birdseller passes by her window.
“Ringdove and robinet, is it for wages? /
Singing to be sold? /
Have you decided it’s safer in cages /
Singing when you’re told? /
My cage has many rooms, damask and dark /
Nothing there sings, not even my lark /
Larks never will, you know, when they’re captive /
Teach me to be more adaptive /
Greenfinch and linnet bird, nightingale, blackbird /
Teach me how to sing /
If I cannot fly /
Let me sing”
Them there’s that brilliant fakeout at the end of act one. The judge slips through Sweeney’s fingers and his rage bursts. This is the epiphany: everyone deserves to die, and he will make it happen. It has all the trappings of a big finish, all the sawing slasher strings and that huge major-third resolution at the climax. But then that idea pops into Mrs Lovett’s head, and the two giggle their way through a cascade of cannibalism puns as they imagine a far jollier way to implement Sweeney’s new commission. From the window of the shop they spot potential investors in their new business venture: “beadle isn’t bad ‘til you smell it / and notice how well it’s been greased / stick to priest” and a highlight, “shepherd’s pie peppered / with actual shepherd on top.” It’s a vital moment of connection, a moment when their future together suddenly snaps into focus
Later on, a montage of life going on makes for deceptively simple comedy. Sweeney sings a wistful, placid tune about how much he misses his daughter, while violently slitting throat after throat after throat. Toby gets his own song of devotion to Mrs Lovett, another simple eye in turbulent waters, which she reprises back at him, but with a dissonant violin descant. Her pantaloons are smoking.
And of course, after the grande finale Sweeney Todd comes full circle, with the final reprise of the ballad, to eulogise:
“Sweeney wishes the world away /
Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday /
Hugging the blade /
Waiting the years /
Hearing the music that nobody hears”
And to summarise:
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd /
He served a dark and a hungry god /
To seek revenge may lead to hell /
But everyone does it, if seldom as well /
As Sweeney /
As Sweeney Todd /
The demon barber of Fleet Street”
Different pairings, of course, bring different flavours to the weird inverted romance between the miserable, maudlin Sweeney Todd and the peppy, practical Mrs Lovett. The two are avatars of their respective genders, exaggerated and weaponised. Look no further than the caricature on the pamphlets for the original 1979 Broadway production: he wields a cleaver, she brandishes a rolling pin, both splattered with blood.
The honour of originating the roles went to Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, (who brought warm, grandmotherly affection to a certain teapot in Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast) who bulldoze their way through a beautiful score with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop. Even at the highest levels, it seems the most seasoned professionals don’t always get it right the first time. Unfortunately, some productions have continued not getting it right. 2014 saw the show presented live in concert with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson (who brought warm, motherly affection to the same teapot in Disney’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast) who similarly stampede through setpiece after setpiece. Thompson livens things up a bit with her flair for physical comedy, but nothing can disguise the fact that Terfel is an actor gifted with the delicacy God gave the Chicxulub asteroid. He plunges through his scenes like a cannonball through a windshield, leaving in his wake a ruin of charred flesh and shattered bone, its delicate insides ripped open and embedded with shards of glass. Without Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd collapses in on its own empty core.
(Credit where it is due: this production is imaginatively staged. The whole thing is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.)
Our ostensible subject of the week is specifically the 2005 Broadway revival soundtrack, with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, by far my favourite production of the show. It is streamlined and simplified, set on a tiny dim stage with a small musical ensemble played by whatever cast are not on the stage. It feels like an impromptu street show, the kind at which you would, if sufficiently impressed, throw a pocket of spare change. The mundanity does a great deal to foreshorten the distance between actor and audience. When you settle into your comfortable seat in a huge auditorium, when you feel the gravity of a full orchestra, when you admire lavish period clothing and sets, it all takes you out of the experience. You’re aware you’re watching a show. Here, when the players are but feet away and the main instrument is a dusty old piano, it’s like you’re part of the action, from the punnery to the murdery. You know these people. So, when Sweeney turns his razor on the audience in a fit of epiphanous rage, he shatters what was already a thin illusion. The demon barber of Fleet Street is summoned into our world, and it is terrifying.
I must confess I’m not a fan of the dotty old lady approach to Mrs Lovett. Angela Lansbury and Emma Thompson just seem to bumble along as events unfurl around them. It is only Patti LuPone who takes charge. She is smart. She is in control. She has a glint in her eye and a spring in her step. This Mrs Lovett is a dry, practical woman who knows exactly what she is and what she wants — she steps onto the stage for the first time and immediately disparages her own terrible pies, and it is she who proposes their business arrangement to Sweeney — but softens as the musical wears on. She grows to care for Sweeney and for Toby, and for the first time gains something to lose, which of course eventually she does. This is not a world where dreams come true. There are no happy endings. Life goes on, in one way or another.
Tim Burton helmed a very different adaptation for film, which, as per his modus operandi, is populated not with characters but with wisps and wraiths, disconsolate ghosts of people who once were. The cold, colourless world leans a little too hard into the black and suffocates much of the comedy. There is such a thing as too many bleak, haunted stares. ‘A Little Priest’ in particular falls flat, the broadest jokes of the musical chilled, the spark of joy snuffed. But by the same token, ‘By the Sea’ becomes a second-act highlight, milking considerable mileage out of Sweeney’s deadpan nonreactions to Mrs Lovett’s modest dreams of a simple life.
Johnny Depp’s dour take on the title character fits quite well, as, surprisingly, does his untrained voice. Sweeney himself is coming apart at the seams, crushed under the weight of his own obsessions, and Depp’s reedy sigh suits the shadow of a man Sweeney has become. The second act proves far meatier fare for Mrs Lovett. (The sun rises in the east, gravity pulls things downwards and Tim Burton cast Helena Bonham Carter as the female lead.) In a film of repressive understatement, HBC’s shades of grey get to shine. She brings a certain poignancy to her delusions of romance, which are fooling no-one, least of all herself, and wrings real pathos out of her growing affection for Toby, tragically and ironically reflecting the latter’s growing awareness of her business arrangement.
This ghost world begins to fray at the edges in scenes set in public, nowhere more so than during ‘Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,’ which features a crowd of regular randos. When there are people onscreen other than our main cast, the illusion splinters. The stage show handles things quite differently: the general public consists of faceless nobodies, their mechanical witterings played for laughs.
Burton has brought to life a world of literal greys, partly to underscore its emotional ambiguity, but partly to emphasise its emotional highlights. When Sweeney spills blood, he is also spilling his resentment and hatred, catharsis spurting bright and red and hot, vivid crimson against the desaturated world he so deeply wishes to destroy. Seven seasons of Game of Thrones have not yet dulled the shock of the slit throat, and I found myself squirming through those graphic moments.
It’s a mixed bag. Musical movies always suffer from a mismatch of verisimilitude between concept and execution, but there’s a lot to like. The beta couple, Antony and Johanna, are helplessly sympathetic, bright and young and idealistic and naïve to contrast against the much more cynical Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett. The late Alan Rickman is perfectly cast, turning in a delightfully disgusting performance as the lecherous Judge Turpin.
The musical’s greatest strength is that it paints a world in which we can shift effortlessly between half a dozen different genres, slipping from horrific murder to budding romance to bloodthirsty vengeance to histrionic wordplay without missing a beat, a world where a sweet, simple romance can coexist with some of the bitterest irony ever committed to page.
Each character brings about their own death through refusing to change, be it through cowardice, through malice, through blindness or through sheer pigheadedness.
In the final scene of the musical, Judge Turpin gloats at Sweeney’s barbershop — the escaped Johanna will shortly be arriving at what Antony, her escort, believes to be a safehouse — long enough for Sweeney to finally seize the moment and take his revenge, and long enough for the crazed beggar woman who has been harassing the cast the whole musical to witness the whole thing and find herself summarily dispatched likewise.
As the corpses arrive in Mrs Lovett’s bakehouse, she is uncharacteristically alarmed, and attempts to immediately dispatch the beggar woman into the oven. Sweeney recognises the corpse: it is his beloved Lucy. Recall that he is not a man to cross. He turns on Mrs Lovett, who makes her excuses, arguing on technicality that she never lied — Lucy did indeed poison herself, after all, but only to madness, not to the grave as Mrs Lovett implied by omission — arguing that she acted in his best interests to keep the truth from him, and finally admits that she lied because she loves him and would be twice the wife Lucy was. Sweeney takes this in stride, comforts Mrs Lovett and apologises for scaring her, pacifies her with a dance and waltzes her straight into the oven.
Sweeney cradles Lucy’s body. He held himself together through thick and thin, but finally breaks down completely, crushed by the bitter, bitter irony. Toby emerges from hiding. Toby, whom Sweeney belittled, ignored and intimidated; to whom Mrs Lovett came to be a sort of mother. Toby witnessed everything. He takes Sweeney’s discarded razor, cuts his throat, and leaves.
We close on a tableau: in the dancing firelight, Sweeney clutches Lucy for the last time, finally reunited, if only in death. A crimson pool slowly spreads beneath them.
“Freely flows the blood of those who moralise,” we heard not minutes in. They were warned. But they took it upon themselves to judge, to avoid judging, to avoid judgement.
Sweeney Todd has everything you could possibly want from a show. Drama, bloodshed, puns, baked goods, and my goodness, what a score. Sondheim sewed this beautiful interwoven tapestry so cleverly. Pull any thread and the whole thing unravels. Each element leans on so many others that none can be removed without the whole thing collapsing. Suppress your urge to tug, and witness Sweeney Todd for what it is. The murderiest musical.
"His needs are few, his room is bare /
He hardly uses his fancy chair /
The more he bleeds, the more he lives /
He never forgets and he never forgives /
Perhaps today you gave a nod /
To Sweeney Todd /
The demon barber of Fleet Street"