I was with Stephen in his apartment, and he played "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." He said, "Do you know the 'Mass of the Dead' in the Catholic Church?"
  I said, "Yes, I'm Catholic."
  He played the first line of the mass, and then the melody to "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd..."
  It was the notes of the mass in reverse. That was a little conceit of Stephen's. I'm sure nobody knows half of them. He has his own private humor.
--Len Cariou, in It Happened on Broadway. (Frommer, 1998)

If Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be compared to Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, or to Brecht’s epic theater at all, it is due to this one song, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The song comments on the action of the play from the very first moment of the show, the prologue. Only in this song does Sondheim invoke anything akin to Brecht's Verfremdung, calling us back to the fact we are watching a play.

It also has the advantage of covering several scenery changes.

I saw the show once, on video, some twenty years ago. But the song's orchestration and haunting melody, as well no doubt its repetition throughout the show, imprinted itself on my brain--along with visual images from the production--visual images which, now that I have recently seen the video again, I realize do not appear in the show. My mind had created its own staging for the song. What follows then, has only the slightest relation to what actually happens in the show.

The scene: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The event: Hal Prince's Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, a new musical by Stephen Sondheim has come to Los Angeles to be taped for television. The lights dim, and the susurration of the audience falls away.

There is no overture.

The curtain opens. We see a cityscape: 18th century London. Smoke. The silhouettes of industrial buildings. We can hear in the distance the sound of machinery. A street. Storefronts. People shuffle across the stage. Some are well dressed, some are ragged. London in all its glory, all its misery. Downstage center, a gravedigger, shoveling dirt. A crowd begins to gather around the grave.

The furious blast of an factory whistle pierces the air. Even on video, goddamn that's annoying.

A pipe organ begins to play. A sweet voiced man from the crowd, solo:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale, and his eye was odd.
Another man, older:
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.
Together, they sing:
He trod a path that few had trod,
did Sweeney Todd,
the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Other townspeople separate themselves from the crowd, and turn to face the audience:
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.
Heh. "Impeccably shaved." Now that's clever. That’s Sondheim.

A corpse, wrapped in a sheet, is brought in, and tossed into the grave. The music changes: this is the bridge. The melody now is eerily reminiscent, note for note, of the Dies Irae.

Swing your razor wide, Sweeney, hold it to the skies!
Freely flows the blood of those who moralize.
Back to the melody.
His needs were few, his room was bare:
a lavabo and a fancy chair,
a mug of suds and a leather strop,
an apron, a towel, a pail and a mop.
For neatness he deserved a nod,
did Sweeney Todd,
the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The music changes again. A second bridge? The words come quicker now, double time:
Inconspicuous, Sweeney was,
quick and quiet and clean, he was.
Back of his smile, under his word,
Sweeney heard music that nobody heard.
The rest of the chorus starts to chant: "Sweeney, Sweeney...", softly at first, but growing louder and more frenetic.
Sweeney pondered, and Sweeney planned,
like a perfect machine, he planned.
Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle
Sweeney would blink, and rats would scuttle.
By now the chorus is drowning out the soloists in a terrifying trance:
Sweeney, Sweeney, Sweeney, SWEENEY, SWEENEY!
With a blast of horns, a man effortlessly and startlingly rises from out of the grave. His face is a living mask of hell: pain, suffering, madness, keen intelligence, fury— and yet complete and utter serenity: this is Todd.

The string section explodes into a Bernard Herrmannesque frenzy. Every eye in the audience is locked upon this man, who then simultaneously gazes directly into the eyes of everyone assembled in the theatre. He calls out firmly, and directly, and in his voice we understand that the torment we see in his face is a mask, a trick of makeup, and light. This is the actor addressing us now, echoed by the chorus:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. (Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!)
He served a dark and hungry god. (He served a dark and hungry god!)
What happens then, well that's the play
and he wouldn't want us to give it away,
not Sweeney, not Sweeney Todd
the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The strings continue their fury tripping over themselves to resolve the melody until finally a crescendo

The lights go black.

—silence—

Holy mother of god.

For a brief moment, the audience forgets to applaud. Slowly, they unclench their hands from their armrests. And the play begins.

Sources:
Eder, Richard. "Stage: Introducing 'Sweeney Todd' " New York Times. 2 March, 1979. <http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/07/19/specials/sondheim-todd.html> (8 April 2003)
Kimball, Robert. "Synopsis - Sweeney Todd." Musical Heaven. <http://www.musicalheaven.com/s/sweeney_todd.shtml> (5 December 2002)
"Sweeney Todd." Sondheim.com. <http://www.sondheim.com/shows/sweeney_todd> (5 December 2002)
Review of It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way by Harvey and Myrna Katz Frommer. Sondheim.com. 1998. <http://www.sondheim.com/features/it_happened_on_broadway.html> (16 July 2004)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (VHS). RKO/Nederlander and The Entertainment Channel, 1982.

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