Thursday, September 13, 2007

My Sweeney Story: My Personal History with the Greatest Musical of All Time

My sheer, unadulterated love for Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is well-documented here. But, as I very, very impatiently await a trailer for the upcoming film (a trailer which I pessimistically suspect will hedge away from giving us any actual singing), I thought it might be fun to lay out my history with the musical - how I first encountered it, my thoughts on the various incarnations I've seen or heard, etc. So -

(for the Sweeney uninitiated, be warned - spoilers will flow, and Sweeney is not a show that should be spoiled)

My first memories of what would become a lifelong love affair with musical theater are of, as a toddler, being extremely taken with those "operetta" episodes (or maybe it was one episode repeated) they did of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I remember being very excited by them, and by the very basic notion, intrinsic to all musical theater, of people singing to each other instead of talking. (Oddly enough, I also have dim memories of a field trip to see a touring production of Oklahoma, during which I fell asleep, so bored was I.)

Then, in the fourth grade, my family moved. The new school I was in went to the fourth grade at the time, and every year the fourth grade class did a shortened version of a musical, replete with sets, costumes, and the works. That year's show was Hello, Dolly. I was a shy, quiet, introspective kid, so I imagine it must have come as some surprise to my parents that I wanted to audition. That fascination with the form was still there, and the intensely cool idea of getting to be in a musical was more than enough to overcome my shyness. So, I auditioned, and was cast as Ambrose Kemper - no solos, but a real, speaking role, with singing. And I loved it.

Fifth grade was Best Foot Forward, sixth Lil' Abner (I was Abner, which was kind of funny given that as a sixth grader I was a skinny beanpole. I still remember the delicious irony in the scene where one character magically becomes muscled, having taken the potion Abner's grandma makes for Abner. The kid who played him was pretty built and solid for a sixth grader, and I was scrawny. The line "Look at him - he's as big as Abner!" always got a laugh).

My small town had the seventh and eight graders in the high school, and I was too cowed by all of the big kids in the seventh grade to try out for Pippin. But in the eight grade the musical director/band and chorus teacher convinced me to try out for You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, boys being typically in short supply in high school musical audition pools. I was in the chorus for that one and never looked back.

Then came tenth grade. (Ninth grade was Mame - I was the older Patrick.) The band teacher had left and the assistant who took over his role, who had never directed a musical in her life, chose Sweeney Todd for the musical that year. Why did she choose such a musically complex, long, and difficult show for her virgin outing? I do not know. And why did she decide to double-cast it, (one set of kids played the leads Friday and Sunday and another set Saturday) making the rehearsal process much more complex? I do not know. In any case, I was cast as Saturday's Pirelli, the rival barber who threatens to reveal Sweeney's true identity.

(Now is probably a good time for a quick Sweeney plot synopsis. Act 1 - Sweeney Todd arrives in England, having been banished to Australia many years ago on trumped-up charges by the corrupt Judge Turpin. The lecherous Turpin was in love with Todd's (whose real name is Benjamin Barker; Todd is the alias he takes in London to avoid being discovered) wife, Lucy, and sent Todd away so that he could get at her. When Todd returns to London (with Anthony, a young sailor who saved his life at sea), he is harassed by a crazy beggar woman begging for money. He soon finds out from Mrs. Lovett, whose pie shop on Fleet Street was where he had his barbershop (on the second floor) before being banished, that Lucy took pills and died after being molested by Turpin, and that Turpin took Todd's and Lucy's baby daughter, Johanna, as his ward. Todd swears revenge on Turpin, and sets up his barbershop again, in the hopes of luring the Judge in for a shave and slitting his throat. Todd announces the opening of his shop after defeating a traveling barber, Pirelli, in a shaving contest. Later, Pirelli arrives at the shop, revealing himself to be Todd's old boy apprentice, now all grown up. He threatens to expose Todd for who he really is and blackmails him. Todd slits Pirelli's throat instead and stuffs him in a trunk. Lovett takes on Pirelli's apprentice, a young, dim boy named Tobias, in the pie shop. Meanwhile, Anthony has met and fallen in love with Johanna, and arranges with Todd to steal her away from Turpin and hide her in the barbershop while Anthony arranges transportation for their escape. Later that day, the Judge arrives for a shave, but just as Todd is about to kill him Anthony bursts in, not only ruining Todd's moment for revenge but revealing the plan to the Judge. Todd explodes, his sanity cracking as he announces vengeance on the human race, and his plan to start murdering his customers. Practical Mrs' Lovett sets upon the idea to use Todd's victims as meat for her meat pie shop.

Act 2 - Lovett's business is booming. Anthony finds Johanna locked away in an asylum, where the Judge has placed her to "protect" her. Anthony comes to Todd for help. Todd devises a plan - Anthony will pose as a wigmaker (wigmakers get their hair from the lunatics in the asylum), demand hair the exact color of Johanna's, and when she is produced make their escape. Todd will arrange for their transportation. Todd sends a letter to the Judge revealing the plot, in order to lure the Judge to his barber chair again. Meanwhile, the Judge's crony, The Beadle, has been nosing around the pie shop, neighbors having complained to him about the smell. Todd, pressed for time, kills the Beadle. Tobias discovers the Beadle's body and freaks out. Anthony escapes with Johanna, disguises her as a sailor, and, not finding Todd at the shop (he's dealing with the Beadle) hides her in the trunk and leaves to find transportation. The beggar woman (who has been hanging around the shop, harassing Todd, sinc ethe beginning of the play), drawn by the smell, enters the shop. Todd arrives, discovers her, and worried about the arrival of the Judge, kills her. He then discovers Johanna, and, mistaking her for a sailor, and still panicked that the Judge will arrive any minute, kills her too. The judge arrives and Todd exacts his revenge, slitting his throat. Down in the basement, where the bodies are piled (Todd having installed a special barber chair that tilts back, dumping the bodies of his victims into a hidden chute and down into the basement to be turned into meat) Todd and Lovett start to toss the victims into the fire. Todd goes to grab the beggar woman and, for the first time, gets a good look at her face. The beggar woman is in fact his beloved Lucy - Lovett had lied to him; the pills hadn't killed her, and she'd become a raving, disturbed beggar. Todd, enraged, tosses Mrs. Lovett into the furnace. Shattered, he cradles his Lucy in his arms, singing to her. The driven-insane Tobias enters, sees Todd, picks up Todd's razor, and slits Todd's throat. The now-mad Toby returns to the meat grinder, and grinds away.)

OK. Maybe not so short.

Anyway, the director, as per protocol, had submitted the script to the principal, who had approved it. But not, it would seem read it. Because when we were a few weeks into rehearsal, and only a few weeks away from opening night, he threatened to shut us down over some profanities in the script. After much drama a compromise was reached, and we were forced to muck about with Sondheim's genius lyrics, changing "There's a whole in the world like a great black pit, and it's filled with people who are filled with shit" to " . . . are full of it" and "this tastes like piss" to "this tastes like spit").

As for my reaction to the musical, I was initially unmoved by the dark, complex music, but as we rehearsed I started to fall in love with the score, and especially the story. Pirelli is written as a mock operatic tenor, and his one song is filled with high Italisn opera-esque notes, with a big high b-flat near the end. I was a tenor, but not that great a one, and my falsetto got quite a workout. Pirelli starts out with a bad Italian accent, and then when her reveals himself as Sweeney's old apprentice, his real Irish brogue comes out. So I also had to do two accents, which I did passably if certainly not well.

Our first-time director was in way over her head, and as we grew nearer to opening night we grew more and more nervous. We just weren't ready, and a lot of the staging was just bad and static. The director, who at least had the foresight to realize this, called in a pro to help out - James Brennan, a Broadway actor who lived in town and who had just finished a run as the lead in Me and My Girl on Broadway. Brennan did wonders to punch up the opening (he completely restaged it) and to help along other problem areas.

We opened and did well enough, if not great. But the seed had been planted, and I was officially in love with Sweeney Todd.

During rehearsals I became familiar with the original Broadway cast recording, which we all used to help us learn the complicated songs. And it, of course, remains my favorite recording of the score. Len Cariou makes for a raggedly dark, angry Todd, and he sounds glorious in the big arias (it is said that he ruined his voice doing Todd eight times a week, and indeed he never did another musical again). But the real career-defining performance is given by Angela Lansbury, who is revelatory as Mrs. Lovett - by turns ingratiating, batty, shrewd, and lovelorn. Her singing is glorious in a very character-based way, and her tour-de force in "The Worst Pies in London," an up-tempo, tongue-twisting, very choreographed character song, is the stuff of legend.

The original cast also features a young Victor Garber as Anthony, now known as Sydney's dad on Alias and as the ship's designer in Titanic. He has a strong tenor voice and soars nicely on Anthony's big love song, "Johanna." But what I fell in love with more than anything is Sondheim''s music and lyrics, from the dark and brooding love ballad (to his razors), "My Friends," to the comic Act I finale "A Little Priest," in which Lovett and Todd sing uproariously of their plans to turn his customers into pies,

to the greatest musical theater song ever, "Epiphany" - in which we hear Sweeney Todd lose his mind in song.

Around that time, I also became familiar with the video version - a taping of a live performance of the original touring cast, with George Hearn playing Sweeney and Angela Lansbury still playing Mrs. Lovett (that's what you see above). From this video certain aspects of Hal Prince's original, big production, became embedded in my mind with the piece - the big centerpiece two-story rotating pie shop, with barber shop on top; the use of scaffolding and bridges; the huge beehive drop that falls to start the show.

In 1992, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey put the musical on, with Eugene Lee repeating (in slightly smalled fashion) his original Broadway sets. and with George Hearn returning to a role he would return to throughout his career. This was the first live Sweeney for me, and it was amazing to see the scenes, and songs, and characters I knew so well performed live.

For the next several years I listened to the score obsessively, hoping to have another chance to do the show in college (never happened), and enjoying the Sweeney parody on one of the Forbidden Broadway CDs. (The parody is entitled "Teeny Todd," a commentary on a small off-Broadway production of the show that had garnered much acclaim in the late 80s.)

In the late 90s a benefit concert version was announced for Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic, with operatic baritone Byrn Terfel slated to play Sweeney. I was hugely excited by this, always having wanted to hear a real opera singer sing those songs. Alas, Terfel had to drop out, and George Hearn filled in, unbalancing what was supposed to be a well-balanced cast of opera and musical theater singers, with Patti LuPone taking on the Mrs. Lovett role. The concert was recorded and is well-worth getting - while we don't get the operatic Sweeney we were promised, LuPone is very good as Mrs. Lovett, harder-edged than Lansbury, and we also get a real operatic bass as Turpin; the sublime Audra McDonald as the Beggar Woman; and Neil Patrick Harris of all people surprising the world with a spot-on portrayal of Tobias.

(The concert was repeated in San Francisco with much of the same cast; here is the opening of that version, which is available on DVD)

Another concert was done around that time in California with Kelsey Grammar as Sweeney--from all accounts Grammar was in over his head, and was horrible as Sweeney; off-key and unable to hit the big notes.

Soon after, Covent Garden in London did Sweeney as their first musical theater piece ever, with a cast of all opera singers. The debut performance was broadcast, and I was able to record it off of the radio. The show works very well as opera, and sounds great, although baritone Thomas Allen, as Sweeney, seems to be trying to sublimate his operatic sound a little and mimic a musical theater performer - which kind of negates the whole point of doing Sweeney as an opera, no? Terfel did eventually do Sweeney, in Chicago, but no recording was made.

A few years ago, a Broadway revival was mounted. The director, John Doyle, who had done the show in London, elected for a very stripped down version, distinguished by the novel approach of having the cast double as the orchestra. This gambit necessitated very reduced orchestrations, and the resulting piano-heavy version of the score, while in no way equaling Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, is extremely interesting, revealing new textures in the score that were buried before. I, alas, never got to see this production, but do have the cast recording.

Here is the Tony Awards performance by the revival cast, which included LuPone as Lovett again and Michael Cerveris as Sweeney.

And now we will get a film. As I said before, I'm excited and perhaps excessively optimistic about this. regardless of how the film turns out, though, Sweeney will remain my favorite musical, and one I hope to be in again, one day.

Until Whenever


bill said...

If Mr. T were cast in Sweeney Todd

Roger Owen Green said...

A wonderful post!

I'm wary of the movie: I'm afraid that either it'll be too "real", which is to say, gross, or it'll be too stagey.

Roger Owen Green said...

Having nothing to do with post, but did you know you can get the transcripts of the Tony speeches on the Tony site? Just read Julie
White's again. Whatta hoot!