the murderer sweeney todd -- 11/12/21

Today's selection -- from Broadway: The American Musical by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon. Stephen Sondheim turned the grisly tale of Sweeney Todd -- who murders his customers with a razor and turns their bodies over to his partner to bake their flesh into meat pies -- into a Broadway smash that won eight Tony Awards:

"The legend of Sweeney Todd means very little in [America], but in his native England, Todd is the fictional boogey­man par excellence, a cross between the Headless Horseman and Lizzie Borden. When [legendary Broadway composer Stephen] Sondheim was in London in 1973 for Angela Lansbury's Gypsy, he attended a new stage version of the Victorian tale, produced in a small black-box theater. Since his debut in the nineteenth century, Sweeney Todd had been rendered on stage and page as a homi­cidal barber who slit his victims' throats, with his landlady and accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, baking the remains into meat pies for hungry Londoners. In the 1973 version, playwright Christopher Bond had given the old boy a new lease on life. Todd was no longer an obtuse monster, but a pathetic cog in the Victorian class system; sent to a prison colony by a venal judge who uses the barber's absence to rape his wife and adopt his daughter, Todd returns to London incognito to begin a reign of terror and revenge on the man who wronged him. Bond's version was a highly theatrical, gory mix of farce and melodrama -- two of Sondheim's favorite genres. He explained why the story appealed to him:

The piece is about being done an injustice and getting your revenge. And I think that's in everybody, from the day they're born -- literally. Yanked out of the womb, slapped, and made to face this world, not to mention all of the vicissitudes we have in the next fifty, sixty years of our life, particularly when you're growing up. I think everybody has feelings of revenge. Sweeney acted on them and the audience senses that, and they identify with him.

"It took several attempts for Sondheim to persuade [Hal] Prince, who disliked old horror movies and dark farce as much as Sondheim enjoyed them, to direct the musical version. What eventually grabbed Prince was the inequity of Victorian society: 'I needed to know that these people -- chopping up humans and turning them into mincemeat pies, eating them -- were the result of a soullessness brought on by the Industrial Age, by taking people off the farms and sticking them in the factories, by making them work sixteen hours a day and breathe filthy, soot-filled air, and so on.'

"Writing the piece took surprisingly little time even though it would be the most musically complicated score Sondheim ever attempted. It was operatic, almost entirely through -- composed with quotes from the Dies Irae in the Mass for the Dead mixed in with the throbbing tension of a Bernard Herrmann film score. Sondheim also routinely juxta­poses moments of surpassing beauty with bloody chunks of terror, only to clear the palate with hilarious patter songs that Gilbert and Sullivan might have written for the Addams Family. The three songs that end the first act may constitute the most outrageous and finely crafted dramatic writing in the American musical theater. The soaring erotic reverie 'Pretty Women' allows Sweeney and the corrupt judge to rhapsodize over female beauty before the Judge escapes Sweeney's murderous grasp. Then, in the bone-chilling existential aria called 'Epiphany,' Todd comes to the conclusion that he has been put on this earth to become its freelance executioner. It is the dark-mirror image of Hammerstein's 'Soliloquy' (which also appears at the penultimate moment of the first act); while Billy Bigelow realizes he must raise his daughter or die, Sweeney Todd realizes he must release his daughter and kill. His homicidal broodings are then interrupted by Mrs. Lovett, who enterprisingly suggests how they might dispose of all the corpses that Todd will grimly reap:

"With Eugene Lee's huge foreboding set (made from parts of actual nineteenth­ century foundries shipped from Rhode Island), and the gleefully macabre performances of its leads, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Sweeney Todd was one of the most delectably rich theatrical offerings ever seen on Broadway. To Sondheim's own amazement, the critics and audiences ate up the bizarre mixture of butchery and buffoonery onstage, and the show, which opened in March 1979, walked away with eight Tony Awards, including prizes for Prince, Sondheim, bookwriter Hugh Wheeler, Cariou, and Lansbury. Prince contended that you could not persuade someone to see a musical about cannibalism if they didn't want to see a musical about cannibalism, no matter how good it was, and therefore the show would always have a limited audience; it finished its Broadway run in the red (fittingly) at 558 performances. But Sweeney Todd has gone on to be revived in theaters large and small, opera houses and black boxes, around the world.

"Although it was not the object of the exercise, Sondheim and Prince showed that there was nothing you couldn't put into a musical if you did it artfully and with integrity. You could gain the audience's sympathy for a serial killer; you could even get a couple of really boffo laughs out of his deranged accomplice. Sondheim and Prince were only the most daring of the Broadway practitioners who sought, throughout the last hundred years, to push the envelope. With Sweeney Todd, they slashed it wide open."



Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon


Broadway: The American Musical


Applause Theatre & Cinema Books


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