27 January 2008

Review of "Sweeney Todd"


That statement deserved its own line. It's rare that a piece of art changes your life and yet I feel that way about Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. The last time anything made that kind impression on me was Tolstoy's Anna Karenina six years ago. Music has always been a big part of my life, but like most people, I just listen to whatever makes me happy, though on occasion I will want something moody like Rachmaninoff. I'm not very discriminating, but I do like interesting melodies (jazzy stuff like Gershwin). As I mentioned before, I started getting into Sondheim during the last two months. Into the Woods was my first foray into the thoughtful man's musical. However, the second act is flawed and some of the moralizing by the characters comes off flat (e.g. the Witch saying "Everyone is dying around us!" or something like that). Sweeney Todd is pretty much flawless and I'll explain why. This review will mainly refer to the 1982 stage production video starring Anglela Lansbury and George Hearn.

The setting of the story is as follows. Benjamin Barker was a London barber with a beautiful wife named Lucy and a one year old daughter named Johanna. A judge tried to seduce the wife without success, so he made up some charges and had poor Benjamin shipped off to Botany Bay for life. The judge then tricked the wife into going to his house and raped her, causing Lucy to poison herself. The musical begins with Benjamin coming back to London after fifteen years of imprisonment. He's an escaped convict with only one friend, Anthony Hope - a young sailor. Naturally, Benjamin can't afford to have anyone recognize him so he adopts the name Sweeney Todd. After he finds out what has happened to his wife, he plans revenge against the judge.

First, the music is gorgeous. As Sondheim explains in a documentary, he composed the music with a specific motif for each character, for instance the Dies Irae for Sweeney. Apparently, this is a sophisticated musical technique commonly used in opera. Two particularly beautiful pieces are the gushingly romantic "Pretty Women" and "My Friends" and chilling "Ballad of Sweeney Todd." The musical also contains many virtuoso songs that give the cast a chance to show off their talent (much like in opera). For "The Worst Pies in London," Mrs. Lovett has to pound dough and make pies in rhythm to the music while singing and acting. The number "God, That's Good" has an intricate choreography between Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney, Tobias, and the chorus. The number is written very tightly so that in the space of six minutes, we learn that Tobias is now working for Mrs. Lovett, that Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney are prosperous, and that Sweeney has a new barber chair. The simultaneous actions are frantically energetic and funny, and yet not hard for the audience to follow. In addition, there is a beautiful quartet "Kiss Me" involving Johanna, Anthony, the judge, and the beadle. Sondheim likes to push the limits of actors's voices for dramatic effect. There are instances where Sweeney (listed as a bass-baritone) has to sing as high as a tenor, giving the impression of anguish. In the final scene, Pirelli and the beadle sing in falsetto which is pretty disturbing because most of the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is sung in the low register.

Even more impressive is Sondheim's ability to use music and lyrics in unusual dramatic ways. One common device is to have multiple characters singing the same lyrics but with completely different intentions. In "My Friends", Sweeney is singing a love song to his razors (yes, he is insane) while Mrs. Lovett is singing about her crush on Sweeney. Their voices come together in a lyric like "warm in my hand". Sweeney is referring to his razor while Mrs. Lovett is referring to Sweeney. The same thing happens in "Pretty Women." The judge is thinking about marrying his ward, Johanna, whereas Sweeney is reminiscing about his wife.

Another technique is to have the characters sing in a way that completely contradicts their simultaneous actions. While the judge and Sweeney are singing rapturously about "Pretty Women", Sweeney is preparing to murder the judge and the audience is sitting at the edge of their seats. The Act II version of "Johanna" exhibits the most shocking use of this technique. Sweeney sings a beautiful song about his long-lost daughter Johanna while slitting the throats of his customers and dumping their bodies down a chute. The song evokes many conflicting, simultaneous emotions. At one level, it is funny and pathetic (particularly when Sweeney sings "a shooting star" and throws the dead man's hat down the chute.) At another level, it is really sad and disturbing; Sweeney is completely insane.

Yet another technique is to re-use the same lyrics for different characters or in different situations. Sweeney sings "There was a barber and his wife and she was beautiful" because he misses his wife. Where as Mrs. Lovett sings "There was a barber and his wife and he was beautiful" because she is infatuated with Sweeney. Another example is where the gallant verse from "A Little Priest" which begins "The history of the world..." re-appears in the final scene. Mrs. Lovett thinks that Sweeney is warming up to her just like in "A Little Priest," even though it's clear to the audience that he is leading her into a trap.

For such a dark story involving tragedy, lust, and revenge, there is a great deal of comedy in Sweeney Todd. In fact, "A Little Priest", a song where Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney discuss baking people into meat pies, is probably one of the funniest comic duets ever written. It would be a great song to perform at dinner parties, provided that your friends have a wicked sense of humor! "The Worst Pies in London" isn't quite as funny, but the idea of having a character sing about how bad her pies are is a riot in itself. It really says something about the careful construction of the musical when these numbers feel like an integral part of the work and not the usual slapstick comic relief stuck into common Broadway musicals. In fact, these songs are central to understanding Mrs. Lovett's character. The ensemble numbers involving Tobias are also charmingly humorous: "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" and "God, That's Good!"

Most importantly, Sweeney Todd is a musical with a deep story and complicated characters. Imagine Macbeth set to music. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett seems like monstrously evil characters at superficial glance, but that all depends on how the actors play them (as evidenced by the many internet debates on who is the "best" Sweeney or Mrs. Lovett). Sweeney can be played as cold and calculating or a raving lunatic or anything in between. At least, we can sympathize with him a little, knowing how he was wronged. However, Mrs. Lovett appears to be pure evil. It doesn't seem like anyone abused her and yet she wants to bake people into meat pies! That's a tricky issue to deal with acting-wise and some actors choose to bring some humanness into the role when Mrs. Lovett interacts with the boy Tobias. Of course the fact that there are many ways to play the main characters is the hallmark of a high-quality drama.

The best dramatic song is "Epiphany" in which Sweeney decides to visit revenge not just on the judge, but on everyone. In the hands of a great actor, Sweeney becomes absolutely terrifying when he threatens the audience with his razor. We see a man who has fallen in love with death because his taste for blood provides him with an escape from sorrow. During the song, he flips between many moods - violent and threatening, being in love with death, and mourning for his wife and daughter. By the end of the piece, we see that he has completely confused his love for his family with his love for death and they've all become one massive, coagulated feeling. Personally, "Epiphany" is my favorite song in the entire musical -- where else can you find a song worthy of Shakespeare! It's also a somewhat personal song for me (I guess that's kind of bad when you see Sweeney in yourself). I know what it's like to be lonely and frustrated, to have your feelings bottled up inside of you, and to want to lash out.

Much credit should also go to Hugh Wheeler, the author of the book. There is no fat at all in the plot; every single word and lyric in Sweeney Todd serves a purpose (with the exception of "A Little Priest" which runs a little long, but that's understandable since it's the showstopper song). There is constant action; in particular, in the last half of Act II, there is no chance for the audience to catch its breath. Just when you think you'll get a break, there's yet another chorus of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." The music is relentless and builds to a thrilling conclusion. It's hard to imagine anyone falling asleep (in fact, you may become insane and not be able to sleep for days). All in all, Sweeney Todd clocks in under 2.5 hours, an impressive achievement. Being a struggling writer myself, I recognize and admire terse, tight plotlines.

The only complaint I have is with the last verse of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." The chorus sings about Sweeneys being everywhere and how everyone desires revenge ("To seek revenge may lead to hell/But everyone does it and seldom as well/As Sweeney"), as if the audience is a bunch of mass murderers waiting to emerge. That strikes me as callous and far-fetched (see the original New York Times review which had a similar criticism). Apparently an earlier version ended with "To kill for love is such a thrill/You don't even notice you lose what you kill", which seems more appropriate for a Shakespearean style tragedy.

Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, for showing me the true potency of music and words. From now on, I will demand and expect more.

18 January 2008

Thirdly review 2008, Part 1

I feel like I'm ready to do my first quarterly review. Actually, it's not really quarterly but thirdly. It seems more convenient to break the year into fall, spring, and summer since I'm on an academic schedule. Fall semester ended and spring semester started this week, so it's time.

Since this is my first quarterly review, it will be exploratory. First, I will review my progress from last fall (September - December). This was the first semester in a long time where I was serious about my work. I wanted to be challenged, so I took two classes (atomic physics and mesoscopic physics) while doing research. Unfortunately, I wasn't mentally prepared for such a huge workload. Atomic physics took up a lot of time, I ended up dropping mesoscopic physics, and hardly doing any research. I should have realized that two classes would be too much. I've hardly done any research in the past two years, so continuing the trend was very bad. By the end of the semester, I was frustrated and somedays, even on the verge of tears (I guess I don't take failure very well). On the positive side, going to class helped me develop some discipline and there were times that I actually felt excited about science again. I also tried making time cards and it was pretty effective at keeping me from procrastinating. I'll have to start doing them again. Another idea that worked well for me was blocking administrative tasks. If I know that there is a day where I can do non-academic work, I'm less likely to procrastinate.

Now I'll talk about my non-work life. Just like in the previous year, I didn't have much social contact except for a few work-related parties. I was really interested in hockey and did a lot of research about hockey equipment. I'm pretty happy now that I found a stick and gloves that I like. I'm still working on skates, though. Unfortunately, changing equipment has thrown off my game a bit (particularly the skates), but I can live with that. I've been eating better and getting more fruit in my diet. I noticed that I gained some weight at the end of the semester due to lack of exercise (besides hockey) and eating too much at the dining hall. I still read blogs and news feeds, but I think I did a good job of cutting it down. Most days I only need an hour to cover the feeds which I think is about right. At the end of the semester, I discovered Sondheim (a life-changing cultural event for me) and it made me realize how much I miss art (broadly defined as literature, music, fine art, etc). In the last few years, I've focused a lot on very practical things like lifehacking.

Some changes that I propose:
  • Spending less time reading about hockey. It's a great diversion, but I just don't have time to read the hockey forums and follow all the details of the San Jose Sharks. I don't think I get much out of it either.
  • Going to the gym at 6 am. Last fall, I wanted to go in the afternoon so that I could start work earlier. In reality, I would feel tired and talk myself out of going to the gym or have to attend some talk/meeting. So I just ended up never going.
  • Eating smaller portions at the dining hall. This one shouldn't be too hard; I just have to pay attention. Also, if I lift weights, I'll put on more muscle and burn more calories. So the combination of eating right and going to the gym should keep my weight stable.
  • I'd like to experience more of the New York theater scene. I might never live close enough to Manhattan to see live shows, so I should make good use of the opportunity. However, I have to be careful and not let my interests run out of control. I propose planning one trip to New York a month (I could go a little more often, but then I'd be bankrupt).
  • I need to come up with an academic gameplan. I should be attending more seminars, but which ones? Should I take the advanced mesoscopic physics class?
  • I need to get more people invested in my academic progress besides my advisor. How do I do that?

The last two items were questions, so I need to work on them. Stay tuned for a later post.

15 January 2008

Review of "Into the Woods"

About six weeks ago, I watched a taped production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. It happened to be on my Netflix queue because I was curious about Sondheim's work. What a delightful surprise to discover this piece of work (which is not even considered Sondheim's best.)

The story melds several traditional fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella) into one with the addition of three new characters: the Baker, the Baker's wife, and the witch. One aspect I really enjoyed was the ensemble nature of the work. No one character dominates and pretty much every major player has at least one great song. The casting was terrific; everyone acted superbly (the standout being Joanna Gleason as the Baker's wife). I also really liked the fact that each character had a unique voice (not chosen just to be beautiful and melodic, but to fit the character). The book by James Lapine was also very funny and witty, matching Sondheim's clever lyrics.

None of the songs are really show-stopping with the exception of "Children Will Listen" in the Act II finale. But that's fine because "Into the Woods" is an ensemble work and you really have to watch the whole thing to appreciate it. Unlike the other musicals I've seen (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, etc), the acting was more important than the singing. Not that the singing was bad, but I really enjoyed the fact that the actors and actresses put so much effort into being the characters. The most amazing song is Joanna Gleason's performance of "Moments in the Woods." It was wonderful to see her express different moods with slight movements of her head and facial expressions and even do little things like fix up her hair while singing.

What I really like about the songs in Into the Woods is that they're tied to a character's thinking and slightly ambiguous. Little Red wonders whether she did the right thing "straying off the path." Cinderella debates whether she should tell the Prince who she really is. Perhaps that is why some people find Sondheim unusually cerebral for a songwriter. The ambiguous nature of Into the Woods is fitting since the woods are a metaphor for our journey through life.

Bernadette Peters is the main attraction and she does a wonderful job with the witch, but I find the character of the witch to be a little shallow compared to the Baker and the Baker's wife. As an example, I really loved the song "It Takes Two" where the Baker and Baker's wife sing about how they need each other.

To sum up, Into the Woods was a wonderful introduction to Sondheim's work and I look forward to more!

Additional note: I just read a Sondheim interview where Sondheim summarized "Into the Woods" as a Bronx couple (the Baker and his wife) living in a world of fairytale characters. What an apt and succinct characterization! It makes the show seem even funnier.

Link of the day: Three rules for making resolutions that stick

I really enjoyed this post by Cal Newport called "Three rules for making resolutions that stick." His rules are
  1. Resolve to follow a system, not achieve a goal.
  2. Establish an exception policy.
  3. Respect the rule of three.

You need Rule 1 because goals are not enough. However, goals will guide you in setting up your system. As Cal says, it's much easier to do something (e.g. eat one piece of fruit a day), then resolve to achieve something (e.g. eat healthier).

I really like Rule 2. I always get thrown off by long vacations. It's easy to slack off on things like exercise and eating well when you feel like you have less control than usual over your surroundings. I should figure out a good exercise and stretch routine for being on the road. Good idea, Cal!

I'm pretty bad at respecting Rule 3. If you've been reading my blog, you see that I've had a whole bunch of ideas and have been (perhaps foolishly) trying to implement them all at once. I think I would have achieved the same results in the same amount of time if I had just focused on implementing one new part of my system at a time. I guess I don't have the patience. I still achieved what I wanted, but it was an emotionally taxing to have one part of my system fall apart while trying to get another part started.

Why GTD and lifehacking?

This is going to be a short post. I was just thinking today that there are many good reasons to setup a GTD system. Two obvious reasons are efficiency and the peace of mind that comes from knowing that everything is capture. However, one reason, that I think is overlooked, is that having a system allows you to run on auto-pilot. In particular, if you work in a creative field like art, music, theater, science, etc, there will be long stretches where inspiration is dry. Having a system will keep you going until you find your inspiration again. And since GTD encourages you to constantly re-evaluate yourself (provided that you do your weekly reviews), you can make changes to (perhaps) find inspiration again. The postdoc I work with has a wonderful quote on his Facebook page:
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don't give up.
- Anne Lamott

As we get older, we learn to be disciplined, so that we are ready when that moment of inspiration comes. Having a good system makes discipline easier, though discipline is never easy.

New alarm clock setup

The most important part of my routine is to wake up on time (usually anywhere between 5 am and 6 am). I've tried various setups and each one failed for different reasons.

First, I setup Winamp as an alarm clock (using the WinAlarm plugin), left my computer on overnight with the speakers plugged in, and woke up to the Winamp playlist. Nothing more wonderful than waking to energetic music. Unfortunately, I would sometimes forget to plug in the speakers. Also, leaving your computer on overnight puts unnecessary wear-and-tear on your hard drive.

Second, I tried getting an iHome iPod alarm clock (something similar to this model but older). That was pretty expensive as I had to buy both the iHome system and an iPod. The iHome worked fine but it had terrible sound quality.

Then I went back to a conventional alarm clock. Unfortunately, I just can't get up to the sound of beeping. I get up, shut it off, and jump back into bed.

Finally, I did some research on better iPod sound systems. I found the Altec Lansing iM600. Altec Lansing has a reputation for making good speakers and this particular product had very good reviews on Amazon. So I coughed up some more cash , got the iM600 and plugged in my iPod Nano. It works perfectly and I can even setup multiple alarms using the built-in "extras" software on the Nano. I have one alarm that plays the Barenaked Ladies's song "Who Needs Sleep?" at 9 pm as a reminder to get to bed. Then I have an alarm at 5:30 am which launches a playlist of rousing country, bluegrass, and alternative songs. It works.

12 January 2008

"My friends" by Stephen Sondheim

The melody to this song is so gorgeous that I always forget how creepy it is to watch a man sing a love song to his razors.

From the musical Sweeney Todd
These are my friends.
See how they glisten.

See this one shine,
How he smiles in the light.
My friend, my faithful friend.

Speak to me, friend.
Whisper, I'll listen.

I know, I know —
You've been locked out of sight
All these years —
Like me, my friend.
Well, I've come home
To find you waiting.
And we're together,
And we'll do wonders,
Won't we?

You there, my friend.
Come, let me hold you.
Now, with a sigh
You grow warm
In my hand,
My friend,
My clever friend.

Rest now, my friends.
Soon I'll unfold you.
Soon you'll know splendors
You never have dreamed
All your days,
My lucky friends.
Till now your shine
Was merely silver.
You shall drip rubies,
You'll soon drip precious

At last, my right arm is complete again!

10 January 2008

"Epiphany" by Stephen Sondheim

This is one of my favorite Sondheim songs. It is very difficult to portray a man whose mind is breaking and I think Sondheim really succeeds here. This is also one of the angriest songs ever written for Broadway. If you need to vent, sing "Epiphany."

From the musical Sweeney Todd
Why did I wait?
You told me to wait!
Now he'll never come again!

There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And it's filled with people
Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it —
But not for long!
They all deserve to die!
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett,
Tell you why:
Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,
There are two kinds of men and only two.
There's the one staying put
In his proper place
And the one with his foot
In the other one's face —
Look at me, Mrs. Lovett,
Look at you!
No, we all deserve to die!
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett,
Tell you why:
Because the lives of the wicked should be —
(Slashes at the air)
Made brief.
For the rest of us, death
Will be a relief—
We all deserve to die!

And I'll never see Johanna,
No, I'll never hug my girl to me —

All right! You, sir,
How about a shave?
(Slashes twice)
Come and visit
Your good friend Sweeney — !
You, sir, too, sir —
Welcome to the grave!
I will have vengeance,
I will have salvation!
Who, sir? You, sir?
No one's in the chair —
Come on, come on,
Sweeney's waiting!
I want you bleeders!
You, sir — anybody!
Gentlemen, now don't be shy!
Not one man, no,
Nor ten men,
Nor a hundred
Can assuage me —
I will have you!

And I will get him back
Even as he gloats.
In the meantime I'll practice
On less honorable throats.

And my Lucy lies in ashes
And I'll never see my girl again,
But the work waits,
I'm alive at last

And I'm full of joy!

"Pretty Women" by Stephen Sondheim

This song was the only one I liked after watching the movie version of Sweeney Todd. I just didn't appreciate Helena Bonham Carter's singing. The melody of this piece stuck in my head because it's so romantic. I love singing it.

From the musical Sweeney Todd
You see, sir, a man infatuate with love,
Her ardent and eager slave.
So fetch the pomade and pumice stone
And lend me a more seductive tone,
A sprinkling perhaps of French cologne,
But first, sir, I think — a shave.

The closest I ever gave.

You are in a merry mood today, Mr. TODD.

'Tis your delight, sir, catching fire
From one man to the next.

'Tis true, sir, love can still inspire
The blood to pound, the heart leap higher.

What more, what more can man require —

Than love, sir?

More than love, sir.

What, sir?


Ah yes, women.

Pretty women.

Now then, my friend.
Now to your purpose.
Patience, enjoy it.
Revenge can't be taken in haste.

Make haste, and if we wed,
You'll be commended, sir.

My lord... And who, may it be said,
Is your intended, sir?

My ward.
And pretty as a rosebud.

TODD: As pretty as her mother?

What? What was that?

Pretty women...
Sipping coffee,
Pretty women
Are a wonder.
Pretty women.
Sitting in the window or
Standing on the stair,
Something in them
Cheers the air.
Pretty women ...


Stay within you...


Stay forever...

Breathing lightly...

Pretty women...

Pretty women!
Blowing out their candles or
Combing out their hair ...

JUDGE (simultaneous):
Then they leave ...
Even when they leave you
And vanish, they somehow
Can still remain
There with you,
There with you.

TODD (simultaneous):
Even when they leave,
They still
They're there.

Pretty women...

At their mirrors...

In their gardens...




How they make a man sing!
Proof of heaven
As you're living —
Pretty women, sir!

JUDGE (simultaneous):
Pretty women, here's to
Pretty women, all the
Pretty women ...

Pretty women, yes!
Pretty women, sir!
Pretty women!
Pretty women, sir!