The Trappings of a Musical Thriller

Andy Knight
 | Jan 11, 2019

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Artists on Stephen Sondheim:

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

“He has changed everything about the American musical theater, and given permission and inspiration to thousands of artists who didn’t realize the theater could matter so much. He is a brother, and father, to us all. Words really can’t convey how much we owe him”

— Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater

“It’s hard to overemphasize Sondheim’s influence on American musical theater. As a young man, he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songwriting duo who revolutionized musicals with Oklahoma! in 1943. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote fully integrated songs that advanced the plot and revealed hidden depths in their characters; in their hands, musical theater matured into a storytelling art form. Sondheim built on Hammerstein’s innovations by experimenting relentlessly with subject matter and form: from his early lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in the seminal West Side Story (1957) and for Jule Styne’s music in Gypsy (1959) to more than 50 years’ worth of scores that have pushed the boundaries and subject matter of musical theater in every conceivable direction. He is musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done: We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso—a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.”

— Lin​-Manuel Miranda, author of Hamilton: An American Musical

“His music is so complicated and luxurious, it must be sung as he wrote it. It’s hard but infinitely more rewarding for the singer to accomplish.”

— Patti LuPone, actor

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The demon barber of Fleet Street.

With these foreboding lyrics, the ensemble sets the stage for Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Jan. 19-Feb. 16, 2019). The story begins on the docks of 19th-century London, where a young sailor, Anthony Hope, and a brooding middle-aged man, Sweeney Todd, take in the city after a long journey at sea. For Todd, the return to London is an opportunity to seek answers. Fifteen years earlier, he was a successful barber in the city, with a young wife named Lucy and an infant daughter named Johanna. But Todd lost everything when the powerful and spiteful Judge Turpin, who coveted Lucy, exiled him. Now back home, Todd is determined to learn the fate of his wife and daughter.

On London’s Fleet Street, Todd enters a shop that sells savory pies. There, he meets the off-kilter owner, Mrs. Lovett, who, without bidding, laments over her failing business, which she attributes to a scarcity of fresh meat. When Todd asks about the room above the shop, Mrs. Lovett tells him the story of the previous tenants—the unfortunate barber Benjamin Barker, his wife and their little baby. When it becomes clear that the mysterious Sweeney Todd is, in fact, Benjamin Barker, Mrs. Lovett reveals the sad fate of his family: Lucy was raped by Judge Turpin and then poisoned herself, and the parentless Johanna became Turpin’s ward. Enraged, Todd vows to avenge the injustice done to his family by killing both Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, the Judge’s accomplice. Mrs. Lovett, who long carried a torch for Benjamin Barker, sees nothing wrong with helping out an old friend.

Anthony, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a beautiful young woman named Johanna. Without revealing that Johanna is his daughter, Todd agrees to help Anthony free her from Judge Turpin and offers them a place to hide—his newly established barbershop, located in the room above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Todd also plans to murder the Judge and Beadle there, by promising them the closest shave they’ll ever get.

But when Todd’s plan is nearly exposed, and the Judge escapes his barber’s chair intact, the murderous Todd and the resourceful Mrs. Lovett concoct a new plan to satisfy their needs. In Todd’s mind, all men deserve to die now and he vows to kill all his future customers. And Mrs. Lovett, desperately in need of fresh meat, knows just what she’ll do with the bodies. What happens next—“well, that’s the play, and he wouldn’t want us to give it away.”

Sweeney Todd took its first bow on Broadway in 1979 and has since cemented its place as a modern classic in the theatre canon. The musical is adapted from a 1973 play by British playwright Christopher Bond, although the story of the bloodthirsty barber and his pie-making accomplice dates all the way back to a penny dreadful (a cheap serial publication) from the mid-1800s. While the musical retains the sensational characteristics that made the demon barber of Fleet Street titillate readers and, later, theatregoers—the story, perfect for melodrama, received numerous stage adaptations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—it brings something else to the table: a score by Stephen Sondheim.

In his review of the original Broadway production for The New York Times, critic Richard Eder wrote, “[Sondheim’s] score is extraordinary. From the pounding ‘Sweeney Todd Ballad,’ to a lovely discovery theme given to Todd’s young friend, Anthony, in various appearances, to the most beautiful ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ sung by Johanna, Todd’s daughter, and through many others, Mr. Sondheim gives us all manner of musical strength.” It’s true that Sweeney Todds score feels undeniably diverse—at times, it’s almost operatic, with its use of recitative and sophisticated choral work; at other times, it lives comfortably in musical comedy (think “The Worst Pies in London,” sung by Mrs. Lovett). The lyrics, also by Sondheim, match the fluidity of the music. They’re dark and threatening in one moment, cunning and funny in the next, then heartbreakingly sincere in the next.

Sondheim’s score won the Tony Award in 1979. It was the composer’s fourth in that category (and he has since won two more). Sweeney Todd also won Best Musical, Best Book (by Hugh Wheeler) and Best Director of a Musical (Hal Prince). Its stars—Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury—took home Tonys, too. The production was a commercial success, with a Broadway run of 557 performances and a subsequent national tour.

It is no surprise then that, over the past 40 years, Sweeney Todd has been performed all over the world, in both amateur and professional houses. Directors are hungry to stage the outlandish story, and performers are equally hungry to sink their teeth into the meaty roles (pun intended) of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Notable revivals of the musical include a 2005 Broadway production, directed by John Doyle, which stripped away the stage spectacle and used a small cast that doubled as the show’s musicians. In 2007, Tim Burton directed a film adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. And in 2017, an off-Broadway revival transported audiences into Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop—literally—with a site-specific staging at the Barrow Street Theat​re (reinvented as a pie shop, complete with communal dining tables).

Now, it’s director Kent Nicholson’s turn to take on Sweeney Todd. For South Coast Repertory’s production, which​ starts Jan​. 19, Nicholson, who helmed last season’s hit production of Once, is looking at the story in the tradition of penny dreadfuls. “In that spirit,” Nicholson says, “we’re approaching the piece as if it’s being told by a troupe of performers in the 19th century, using theatrical techniques in the design which mimic those of that era. By combining these with more modern stage elements, we hope to weave a magical and fun version of the story.”

While Nicholson’s production will highlight the story’s theatricality and humor, he also hopes it will bring the musical’s commentary on class to the forefront. After all, Sweeney Todd is the tale of a man driven to insanity by the upper crust’s absolute power. The law—controlled by the corrupt Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford—not only fails to protect him, but it altogether ruins him. For Nicholson, this idea is captured perfectly in a line sung by Todd in “A Little Priest,” the cheeky and twisted act one finale: “The history of the world, my sweet—is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.”

With its wordplay and comedy, its lush score, its romance and its lurid story, Sweeney Todd promises to delight a range of audiences, from lovers of musical theatre to lovers of the macabre. Perhaps Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett—in another line from “A Little Priest”—sum it up best: “We’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone—and to anyone at all!”

Learn more about Sweeney Todd and buy tickets.