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.

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