'SWEENEY TODD:' Laceration and Art
God, I love Sweeney Todd. What a brilliant weapon of a musical it is. To my blood-letting delight, the recently-opened revival, with Joshua Groban in the title role and Annaleigh Ashford as his besotted Mrs. Lovett, exceeds every Sweeney production that I’ve seen (too many to innumerate here), since the original with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury (which was perfect). To hear Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations in full thunder, assayed by a full complement of 26 players, is something I never expected to hear again in my lifetime, and feels even more breathtaking than it did the first time because who dreamed then that orchestral abundance on Broadway was about to disappear in a welter of shrunken orchestra pits? (I once asked Tunick, in an entirely different context, what he was working on, and he answered with a deep sigh: “Reductions.”)
Groban, whose pop work has never really spoken to me, turns out to be a really intense Sweeney, far more of an actor-singer than I imagined, with a voice that commands the role, and not — as sometimes happens with Sweeneys — the other way round. Even Len Cariou, who did indeed sing the hell out of the part, did not have Groban’s pipes. The music soaks up Groban’s vocal luster appreciatively.
I am also an Analeigh Ashford fan. The unexpected cadences of her line readings and the unpredictable physicality of her performances entrance me. Where Angela Lansbury delivered a dotty Mrs. Lovett with a subtle erotic undercurrent, Ashford is an overtly sexualized Mrs. L., whose ultimate insanity seems to derive from her insatiable physical desires.
Insatiability is the tortured essence that Stephen Sondheim gives voice to in Sweeney Todd. No one — not Sweeney or Mrs. Lovett, Judge Turpin, Johanna, Anthony, or poor Toby — can get satisfaction. The razor’s-edge of obsession unfulfilled is an incredibly intense negative energy that Sondheim, in Sweeney, taps into musically and simply soars with.
It is worth remembering that Sweeney Todd was the first of his musicals he initiated himself, after seeing Christopher Bond’s 1973 play Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, adapted from a 19th Century British “penny dreadful” novel. (It has been written recently that Sweeney Todd was the only musical Sondheim initiated among his many, but this is not accurate. I know the musical about the Mizner brothers that became Bounce was an idea Steve told me he’d wanted to write since his college days; and the concept for his final, uncompleted musical, was also his own — a mash-up of two Luis Buñuel films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. Now titled: Here We Are, it apparently will actually be performed this September.)
Sweeney Todd was the project that most fired the id of Steve’s imagination, I suspect, allowing him to vent vengeful urges in the most aesthetically constructive way. When I first met him in 1987 (as I’ve written here before), he was just completing Into the Woods, a musical of damaged childhoods, and forgiveness. Less than a decade removed from the original triumph of Sweeney Todd in 1979, plus the triumvirate of stunning Sondheim musicals that preceded it — Company, Follies and A Little Night Music (followed by the sui generis Pacific Overtures, the noble flop Merrily We Roll Along and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George) — he, nevertheless, still viewed himself as unappreciated, a resentful remnant of his early career disparagement by some critics as “uncommercial,” “un-melodic,” and, absurdly, a “cult” composer, or even worse, “only a good lyricist.”
In this light, I once delicately asked if Sweeney Todd wasn’t actually him? Steve pondered this for an instant, then shot back, “No, Sweeney Todd actually is Len Cariou.”
I think he happily found peace with it all, in the end. Sweeney Todd, however, is about eternal un-peace. And that, Mr. Sondheim put everything he had into.