I have seen a number of stagings of musicals over the years, from Broadway tours to West End originals, to high school productions and amateur productions somewhere in between. Being able to enjoy a range I think is important, because the story and the music have to be engaging, and the rest can be added or removed as appropriate. Still, I have to say it was a great honor to be able to see Sweeney Todd in the West End, especially considering I’d gazed at the posters with longing for months, thinking, “Oh, I’d really like to go see that . . .”
Partly, this was because this version starred Michael Ball, who I loved from afar as a teenager in Albuquerque and who I first saw in the 10th Anniversary Les Miz concert from Royal Albert Hall. I was 13 or so when I fell in love with his dulcet tones as Marius, and it is well-known that he has since gone on in the intervening time to play Jean Valjean. He isn’t, though, known for his villainous roles, so it was a great pleasure to see him utterly relish the role of the murderous barber. My friend Aya managed to get us front row seats, and it sent chills down the spine to see Michael Ball’s eyes glittering malevolently in songs such as “Epiphany” and the final scenes.
Also, I admit I was intrigued by the costuming (and ultimately, set design) which put the production some time in the 1920s or 1930s—Mrs Lovett with a white butcher’s coat, a cloche hat, and bobbed hair; Pirelli with a van (this stretched incredulity a bit with the madhouse scenes). Most productions seem to favor some mid-Victorian pastiche period (amusingly the film’s costumes suggested the 1840s but featured Tower Bridge which was not built until the 1890s). Also, and in general, though Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed my favorite musical of all time, I do enjoy a bit of challenging Stephen Sondheim from time to time, and you can’t get much more challenging than Sweeney Todd, both musically and thematically.
Sweeney Todd has to hinge on his macabre humor, and a production, it seems to me, must succeed on how well it can do both sides of the coin: the horror and the humor. The horror, of course, is written into the plot from the moment go: people being murdered and turned into meat pies is grisly! But there is so much darkness in this play, sometimes it literally seems to stagger under the weight—and it can make the dispatching of people by razor almost comical or, worse, as in the stunning scene of Sweeney in “God, That’s Good” singing of the daughter he’ll never know while routinely slitting throats. The full-frontal attack on the hypocrisy of the law and society, with the chorus’ commentary, seem to suggest this whole business could have been prevented by Lucy Todd’s not having caught the eye of evil Judge Turpin. Todd seems a villain by circumstance, not necessarily by nature—but how do we know for sure? What will become of Anthony and Johanna after the play is over—will their cursed existence strike a second time in the second generation? And the juggernaut of Todd’s revenge, once set in motion, from the time Toby sings “Not While I’m Around,” to the bloody conclusion, seems struck through with awful destiny. So much death!
Yet there is a lot to laugh at in the play, too. Mrs Lovett makes at least as fascinating a character as Sweeney Todd, due to her cheerful and pragmatic nature balanced by her ruthless selfishness, not only reflected in her meat pie business, but in the way she goes into denial once she thinks she can earn Sweeney’s love. This is bitterly apparent and also extremely poignant in scenes where it’s clear all he can brood on is his revenge. In a serious context: the absolutely gorgeous “My Friends.” In a hilarious context: “By the Sea.” While it was the film that opened to my eyes that Mrs Lovett was actually slightly older than Sweeney and they would have been teenagers in the same neighborhood, Imelda Staunton’s delivery of “By the Sea” was easily the most scene-stealing set piece (though my favorite song from this musical, “A Little Priest,” was also absolutely fantastic). Acting on stage, as we know, has to be painted in broader strokes than other kinds of acting, but Imelda Staunton was so good in these scenes at conveying nuanced emotion that I almost hoped Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd would get away with it and have their seaside wedding. However, when Toby sang “Now While I’m Around,” and then when the Beadle played his parlor songs, the conflict of emotions was stupendous. It made really impressive theatre.
The cast overall, you’ll not be surprised to hear, was very strong and convincing, Anthony in particular stealing the show in a role that is very difficult to take seriously. Sweeney Todd actually had some quite funny moments due to the factory whistle squeaking at unexpected times and “mad-people” jumping out of the orchestra pit at us.
Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering what the moral is supposed to be. If the Judge and the Beadle get their comeuppance, how are we to reflect on the fate of Lucy? And Toby, made into a murderer by Sweeney’s hand? When Mrs Lovett and Sweeney appear at the end “out of Hell,” I can’t help feeling the musical has brought them back for more than musical symmetry.