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Broadway cast: Angela Lansbury, George Hearn
achieved his first big successes in the 1950's as a lyricist (West Side Story, Gypsy). He wrote both the music and the lyrics for
the 1962 smash hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The list
of some two dozen literate, creative, innovative shows continues over the following four
decades--an astounding body of work by any standard.
Sweeney Todd premiered in 1979 and was a major success, capturing eight Tony Awards. It has been revived repeatedly ever since and has entered the repertory of the world's opera houses. The original production was extraordinary, involving structural changes to the Uris Theater to accommodate Eugene Lee's design, a bleak evocation of Victorian industrial London. As eye-filling as the original was, the power of Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's score and songs is so great that audiences are readily engaged even in a "semi-staged" version, such as the one presented for three sold-out performances by the San Francisco Symphony.
An English folk tale, drawn on some ghoulish events of the day that captured the public imagination, the Sweeney Todd character and legend is in a long tradition; a classic bogeyman, he could be the grandfather of Hannibal Lecter. As in many fairy tales (another interest of Sondheim's) as well as in horror thrillers, the themes touch on universal fears and taboos, people's feelings of vulnerability touched by the horrific fascination of madness, murder and cannibalism, all safely explored in the confines of a theater.
The tone is set from the very first lines:
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.
Todd returns to London after fifteen years away,
having been unjustly transported (i.e., exiled to Australia, the prison camp for 19th
century England) by Judge Turpin. Mrs. Lovett, his onetime landlady, relates what happened
while he was away: The judge raped Todd's wife (who then poisoned herself) and adopted
Todd's daughter, Johanna. Todd reopens his barber shop, waiting for an opportunity for
The judge has decided to marry Johanna, who is kept a virtual captive in his house, but Johanna plans to escape with a young admirer, Anthony Hope. When Pirelli, another barber, recognizes Todd and tries to blackmail him, Todd's grisly escapades begin--Pirelli becomes the filling for Mrs. Lovett's pies, the first in a series of victims. Deceptions, twists and turns lead to enough slit throats to make Hamlet look like a comedy. Each murder is accompanied by the score's shrill scream of a factory whistle. It's a very dark look at the underside of human nature--self-serving greed, lust, corruption--but it's cast in irony and black humor, and delivered in edgy, often dissonant, but always melodic music.
One line, "The history of the world is who gets eaten and who gets to eat," relating to the wry metaphor of human-filled pies, captures the cynicism of Todd, the victim of injustice. And when the chorus eggs him on ("Lift your razor high, Sweeney...Sink it in the rosy skin of righteousness."), his craving for revenge is expressed for all who are powerless. Todd's acts may be horrific, but they are solidly motivated and the audience easily identifies with his rage, even as it is shocked by his acting it out. At the same time, the blackness of Todd's misanthropy is tempered somewhat by the sweetness of the Johanna/Anthony love story, providing the contrasts of naive innocence and bitter experience, youth and age, idealism and disillusionment.
The "semi-staged" concert version at Davies Hall split the stage space with a runway from left to right and another projecting from the back wall, allowing for an imaginative flow of entrances, exits, and movement of the chorus under the skilled stage direction of Lonny Price. Greg Brunton's creative lighting and Gail Brassard's mostly black costumes, combined with the intensity of the performance, made for a totally absorbing theatrical experience, though memories of the Broadway original stirred a wish for a completely staged production.
George Hearn, who replaced Len Cariou in the 1979 production and also toured with the show, remains in splendid voice these two decades later and captured both the humanity and the madness of Todd. Patti Lupone is a wonderfully comic Mrs. Lovett and brings a more powerful singing voice to the role than did Angela Lansbury in the original. Her occasional strain on the top notes is indicative of the operatic range of this hybrid opera/musical work; it demands more than most Broadway voices can meet.
David Gaines, of Phantom fame, was a handsome Anthony, his rich baritone conveying all the yearning of lovesick youth. Lisa Vroman, who co-starred in Phantom with Gaines, was a charming and full-voiced Johanna. Timothy Nolen was notable as Judge Turpin, a fine acting-singer whose intense Johanna, expressing his profound and perverse lust for his ward as he flagellates himself, offers a brilliant contrast to Anthony's earlier Johanna, in which his love is all idealized romanticism.
This Sweeney Todd earned unusually enthusiastic and thoroughly deserved ovations, particularly for Sondheim himself who was present and took a curtain call.
San Francisco, July 19, 2001 - Arthur Lazere