I already had owned the original PBS broadcast of Sweeney Todd, one of Sondheim’s best plays*, for a long time, and watched it numerous times, but I have been in a Sondheim mood lately, so I went out and bought the DVD of the recent concert, and it was absolutely amazing. I highly recommend it, particularly for fans of the show, although this production is so strong and the plot comes across so well that, unlike the Les Miz concert for PBS, even someone unfamiliar with the play could easily follow along. The direction is ingenious, because unlike some concert versions of musicals, the actors don’t have scripts in their hands, and there is even a barebones set, props, and costumes, making it come across more like a minimalist, but full, production of the play than actors merely singing the score into their microphones. I wonder whether this production inspired the current, minimalist West End one coming to Broadway later this year.
The orchestration by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is lush and beautiful, George Hearn is even better here as Sweeney than he was twenty years ago, and Neil Patrick Harris is an absolute revelation as Toby. He recently blew me away in Assassins on Broadway, as the Balladeer, completely erasing Doogie Howser from my memory once he took the stage, and here he creates a much fuller, more sympathetic, vulnerable version of Toby than I’ve seen before. And his final breakdown is completely breathtaking. Sondheim himself has given his performance the stamp of approval, saying that his was the definitive Tobias. He has an absolutely beautiful tenor, and I already have now placed the CD of him singing the songs from Evening Primrose (a musical Sondheim wrote for television in the 60s) on order. I think I’m his new biggest fan. The only downside to this DVD is, unfortunately, Patti LuPone, who goes way, way over the top as Mrs. Lovett. Angela Lansbury so effortlessly crafted a Mrs. Lovett who had both sweet qualities and the personality of a vulture, making her both lovable and repellent at once. LuPone’s Mrs. Lovett though is mostly just a broad, campy caricature, and although she has a beautiful voice and is particularly touching on her duet with Toby, “Not While I’m Around,” you can’t help but wish she had humanized her performance a bit more, as a bit of the play’s emotional resonance is lost due to her interpretation of the character. Had I not seen Angela Lansbury’s performance, I might not find much to fault here, but having that to compare it to, LuPone can’t help but not measure up. To her credit, though, she does give an interesting interpretation of some lines, different than Lansbury, which I enjoyed. So, overall, a different take on the character than I’m used to, and not one I like quite as much, but there is merit to her reading, too.
Despite that, though, this is probably the best overall sounding and acted Sweeney I’ve seen, and I highly recommend it to any Sondheim fan here, for Neil Patrick Harris if for nothing else (and there is much else to love here). It’s amazing how well this stripped-down version of such an epic work plays. Anyone who hasn’t seen the DVD of the actual play, though, I would recommend you do that first, because some moments, the violent ones in particular, aren’t quite as effective as in a “real” production, and only create impact in the concert version if you can picture in your mind’s eye what is supposed to be happening. Or, rather, you’ll know what is happening either way, as I said before, but without the blood, the moments aren’t quite as visceral. Also, seeing the murder victims stand up and walk away a moment after their throats are slit does ruin a bit of the suspension of disbelief. Some nice editing and some well-place blackout do lessen this problem for the most part, but in a number like the second act’s “Johanna,” where Sweeney offs a string of customers, the camera doesn’t cut away. Besides that, I don’t think any self-respecting Sondheim fan can stand to be without a copy of this production. The DVD even has a half-hour documentary with interviews from the cast and crew, including Sondheim himself, speaking about the work. Insightful would be an understatement. You guys know I get a lot of DVDs. This one was, without a doubt, the most worthwhile I’ve bought in months, if not ever. So, go out and buy it already!
And if I haven’t gushed enough about Neil Patrick Harris, go get a copy of the new Broadway cast recording of Assassins to hear his performance as the Balladeer. Man, I wish they’d filmed that for TV, as well. That might have been the best show I’ve ever seen on Broadway, and it really kind of stinks that it wasn’t preserved on video, with that amazing cast (including Becky Ann Baker, Mrs. Weir from Freaks and Geeks as the completely off-the-wall Sara Jane Moore, would-be President Ford assassin), as many of Sondheim’s other great plays have been.
And, as a tribute to the greatness of Sweeney Todd, here’s an essay I wrote on it, last year, but never got around to posting:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s darkest, most disturbing play, which deals with the macabre in a manner that is both grandly theatrical and melodramatic. In order to maintain the momentum and tension throughout the work, the music, as in an opera, rarely ceases, so that the underlying doom of the piece grows steadily from start to finish. I would like to examine the musical from two directions and discuss the intersection. Brecht believes that musicals should be, at least in part, alienating. In class, we also speak about how the book of a musical often drives the plot with interruptions by the numbers. I believe that Sweeney Todd disrupts the latter point (interrupted plot) by utilizing the first point (alienation). To explain: In Sweeney Todd, Sondheim has found a group of main characters who alienate all by themselves. The book alienates, and the songs provide the layers of the plot that expands upon these characters beyond just the facts.
In this way, Sweeney Todd is set on a sprawling canvas, full of Dickensian coincidences and twists, and to that end, Sondheim utilizes his music and lyrics to reveal the interconnectedness of the characters and plot elements. A number of songs and musical themes are repeated throughout the play, each time highlighting an added nuance or context. For example, Sweeney sings about his imprisonment and forced separation from his beloved wife in “The Barber and His Wife,” in which he, the barber, is described as “foolish” and his wife “beautiful…[and] virtuous.” Later, when Mrs. Lovett sings the same tune, the lyrics change to “There was a barber and his wife/And he was beautiful,/A proper artist with a knife…” and the adjectives used to describe the wife are “silly little nit…poor thing,” to subtly indicate her feelings for him (emphasis added).
In another example, Toby’s innocent song of love to Mrs. Lovett, “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” becomes a threatening call when she and Mr. Todd stalk him in the sewers of London, attempting to lure him back. The crazy beggar woman sings, “Don’t I know you, mister?” to Sweeney when she first meets him by the docks in the first act and then once again at the end of the second, right before he slashes her throat; this second time, however, the implication is more clear, since she has just repeated the window-opening pantomime of Sweeney’s presumed dead wife, Lucy, from earlier in the play. The more perceptive audience member will realize that she is indeed his wife, based on the marriage of book and lyric, before he discovers it himself.
Whereas the plot of the play—which involves revenge, murder, an indictment of the cruelty of the class system and even cannibalism—is potentially alienating, and the characters melodramatic archetypes from British folklore and nineteenth-century penny dreadful novels, Sondheim’s music and lyrics humanize and personalize the protagonists and their actions. Mrs. Lovett’s comedic opening number, “The Worst Pies in London,” for example, paints her in a forgiving light that highlights her desperation and her sweet-natured façade. When she sings, “Is that just revolting?/All greasy and gritty,/It looks like it’s molting,/And tastes like—/Well, pity/A woman alone/With limited wind…,” we do feel compassion for her that allows us to like her even when she suggests the grizzly plan of turning Mr. Todd’s human victims into an affordable, renewable source of meat. Likewise, the aforementioned “The Barber and His Wife” and Mrs. Lovett’s song, “Poor Thing,” which details the rape of his beloved Lucy, provide the audience with an emotional bond with Sweeney that make his vengeful acts not permissible but understandable.
More so than in Sondheim’s other plays, therefore, the book and music of Sweeney Todd are inextricably connected; neither can stand without the other, and the music in this play tends to dominate the work, which provides the aforementioned emotional through-line. Without the music, a brief description of the play would seem to indicate that it is a horror story or a dark comedy—a barber murders his customers, and his partner turns them into meat pies which are then served to other customers, each of whom may one day sit in his barber’s chair—and while an element of dark comedy certainly does play a role in the proceedings (never more strongly than in “A Little Priest,” a pun-filled number in which Mr. Todd and Mrs. Lovett imagine all the different types of people whom they will be serving, in both senses of the word), as do elements of a traditional horror tale, the music restores the sense of personal human tragedy to the mix which makes the denouement, particularly Sweeney’s discovery of Lucy, so emotionally charged and devastating.
When he earlier sang, “I had him!/His throat was bare/Beneath my hand…/I had him!/His throat was there,/And he’ll never come again!…/And my Lucy lies in ashes,/And I’ll never see my girl again…” we felt his overwhelming anger and pain in a manner impossible to convey without the tumultuous music, and so this final, chilling revelation stings like a blade to the throat. This final scene is devoid of humor, black or otherwise; Sweeney reverses what had earlier been a comedic number (a section of “A Little Priest”) into the set-up for his murder of the deceitful Mrs. Lovett.
With Sweeney Todd, Sondheim crafted what might be paradoxically both his most alienating and most emotionally driven creation; what allows the play to succeed is the interplay between its book and music, as the alienation of a one-dimensional description of the characters and plot are balanced and fleshed out by the humanity and passion of the music, which makes the characters more complex, more relatable, and less repugnant than they may otherwise seem.
*I would say “the best,” but it has stiff competition with Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George, and Assassins, all equally brilliant but incredibly different plays. Can they all share the top spot?