American musical, music by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Unique among Broadway shows for pushing the boundaries of musical theatre, both for its lurid content (it's got the highest body count of any Broadway show, and the savagery and glee of the main character echo those of the Théâtre du Grand Guignol) and its psychologically complex music (a homage to film composer Bernard Hermann). The show would be called a modern American opera, were it not for its Broadway roots and Sondheim's distaste for such categorization.

Sondheim's and Wheeler's adaptation of the Sweeney Todd story opened on Broadway March 1, 1979, and ran for 558 performances. Sondheim had seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney Todd onstage in the early 1970's in London, and found it fascinating. He read every version of the play he could find going back to 1840, but it was Bond's version that gave the characters enough depth to make the story interesting. Sondheim had in mind a simple production, but with Harold Prince directing, a full blown Broadway production was underway. Len Cariou played the barber Todd, Angela Lansbury was Mrs. Lovett, and Victor Garber was Anthony Hope. Prince, Cariou, and Lansbury won Tony Awards that year, as did the the scenic and costume designers (Eugene and Franne Lee, respectively). In addition to the period costumes, the set featured Todd's diabolic barber chair: after slitting his victim's throat, with the pull of a lever the chair would drop the body through a trap door in the floor down a chute to end up in Mrs. Lovett's kitchen ready for the oven.

The show also won the Tony for Best Musical, for a total of 8. (John Doyle's chamber staging of the musical for the Watermill Theatre, moved to Broadway in 2005 (see Jack's writeup, below), where it won Doyle a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, and Sarah Travis a Tony for Best Orchestrations. Doyle and Travis also won Drama Desk Awards, and the play won in the Outstanding Revival of a Musical.)

Sondheim's score features leitmotifs for each of the characters and a playful inverse relationship between theme and music: as the action of the play gets more evil, the music gets prettier. Only a few songs work out of the context of the melodrama: "Pretty Women" and "Not While I'm Around" have become cabaret standards; "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which adapts the opening notes of the Dies Irae (and Debussy's La Mer and Nuages) allows for stunning choral work, and Sondheim's lyrics are at the top of their form in the patter song "A Little Priest."

Sources:
Richard Eder. "Stage: Introducing 'Sweeney Todd' " New York Times. March 2, 1979. (Accessed April 8, 2003)
Terry Teachout, "Sondheim's Operas." Commentary. May 2003. <http://www.commentarymagazine.com/teachout.html> (Accessed May 15, 2003)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (VHS). RKO/Nederlander and The Entertainment Channel, 1982.
"Sweeney Todd," The Internet Broadway Database. <http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=400379> (Accessed August 7, 2009)

Sweeney Todd was revived (odd word considering the number of corpses in the play once the curtain goes down, ain't it?) on Broadway in 2005, adapting a small English production from earlier in that year. And boy, the times done changed.

the original production of Sweeney was HUGE, with a large cast, a full orchestra and a complicated set with slides and levers and diabolical machinery everywhere. The contemporary version is almost impossibly small, so small in fact that the actors, apart from fulfilling their roles as characters, also fill in as the production's musicians and the never leave the stage, even when their characters are killed off - the staging is so intricate that you almost forget that there's a musical going on and get sucked into watching, say, the piano player / Beadle play his instrument while singing backing vocals before jumping up in a break to move bits of the set around. It must be exhausting for the cast, but the energy they exude is infectious.

Doing it this way also allowed the production designers to do some interesting things with their casting - the two young lovers both play cello, and watching them sing a duet while cradling their instruments is the most delicately conceived love scene I've ever seen in theater - it isn't much of a stretch to imagine them, well, playing each other. Likewise the two symbols of authority, the Judge and the Beadle, both play trumpets, highlighting their rigid and militaristic natures. The symbolism involved in the whole thing is enrapturing. And then there's Patti LuPone, strutting around the stage and honking on a tuba. It sounds ridiculous but it's more disturbing than anything else.

One other change was made that flips the whole thing on its head - instead of a straightforward telling of the story by people standing over Todd's grave, the play was re-envisioned as a play put on by the inhabitants of a mental institution, kinda like Man of La Mancha with straight razors. Putting the obvious symbolism of that aside (Johanna, the young and slightly absent-minded love interest, ends up being committed to an institution in the play proper) staging it this way allows for a bit of whimsy as a necessary break from all the killing - characters who're killed off are dressed in blood-stained doctor's coats before retaking their seats at the sides of the stage, instruments in hand, and the piece of the set that gets repurposed the most is Sweeney's black coffin.

It's dense and, to the uninitiated, probably incomprehensible, but it's one of the best.

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