When I heard it was by Stephen
Sondheim, I was even more surprised. He’d written memorable lyrics for West Side Story when he was 26 and music
and lyrics for other shows I’d enjoyed — A
Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1964 and Company in 1970. A Little Night Music, his melodic 1974 waltz-time show about
mismatched lovers, charmed me. But a musical about a maniac who slits people’s
throats then offers their remains to the hungry customers of a sleazy pie shop
run by a manipulative, deranged woman? Hard to imagine.
I didn’t get to New York City to see
the original production of Sweeney Todd,
but when it won eight Tony Awards, including the season’s best musical, I
decided to pay closer attention. I acquired the original cast recording, and I
was blown away by unexpected music, full of power, fear, vengeance and dark
humor. It felt operatic in its scope and its tragic depth, revolving around a
central character driven to mad depravity by injustice.
I’ve listened to that recording countless times and I’ve seen numerous productions — Broadway revivals and tours, regional theaters (including the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 1997) and a chilling cinematic version in 2007 by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp — and I’ll soon be seeing another, this time at Covington’s Carnegie Center in a co-production with Northern Kentucky University’s Commonwealth Theatre Company.
(Directed by NKU’s Ken Jones, it opens on Friday and continues through Aug. 23.)
The New York Philharmonic staged a
star-studded concert version earlier this year featuring movie actress Emma
Thompson as Mrs. Lovett and opera singer Bryn Terfel as Sweeney. (It airs on
PBS in a Great Performances broadcast
on Sept. 26.) There’s ongoing debate about how to categorize Sweeney Todd: An opera? A song cycle?
Sondheim says it’s an opera in an opera house, a musical drama in a theater. He
prefers to call Sweeney Todd a “dark
operetta,” but what he says most succinctly is that it’s “a movie for the
All his life (he’s now 84) Sondheim
has been enamored of movies, but especially movies with scores that enhance the
mood. Composer Bernard Herrmann produced the spooky atmosphere for many Alfred
Hitchcock movies (think Psycho or Vertigo), and the young Sondheim paid
attention. When he created Sweeney Todd,
he composed background music for more than three-quarters of the action: Even
when characters are not singing, their actions are framed and accented by
themes and melodies that recur, twist and turn; Sondheim calls it “ceaseless
The show opens with a chorus of
19th-century Londoners ominously singing straight out to the audience, “Attend
the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd.” Sweeney rises
from a grave and repeats, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” adding “He served
a dark and a vengeful god.” Although I’d heard this number repeatedly on the
recording, I was not fully prepared to experience it live onstage.
A hair-raising and creepy live
performance is the best medium for Sondheim’s masterpiece. He set out to create
a musical to scare people, entertaining them in the manner of a great horror
film. He completely succeeded.
To support his story, Sondheim
composed some of the greatest melodies ever to disconcert audiences:
“Epiphany,” when Sweeney, returned to London after an unjust exile to
Australia, finds his glistening razors ready and waiting; “A Little Priest,”
the darkly comic paean to the flavors of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies according to
the victims’ professions; and “Not While I’m Around,” which sounds like a
lovingly reassuring lullaby until it’s heard it in context, sung by the
murderous Mrs. Lovett to Toby, a boy she intends to dispatch as soon as
possible. But listen too for a shrieking factory whistle that symbolizes the
horrifying actions and repeatedly jars our ragged nerves.
If you care to see a musical masterpiece that fires on every possible cylinder, find your way to the Carnegie in Covington for one of Sweeney Todd’s nine performances this month. As another of the show’s memorable numbers reminds us, “God, That’s Good!”
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