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Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

By Rick Pender · August 5th, 2014 · Curtain Call
ac_cc_8-6 sweeney todd @ the carnegie - justin glaser (sweeney) & helen anneliesa raymond (mrs. lovett) - photo matt steffenSweeney Todd at The Carnegie - Photo: Matt Steffen
It was 35 years ago when I first heard about a new Broadway musical, the story of a Victorian serial murderer whose victims were ground up for meat pies. My first reaction to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was disbelief. Who would want to see a show like that? Who would create a show like that? What were they thinking?

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 stage.”

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 underscoring.”

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!”

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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