Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1982)
There are certain moments in every life that remain strong throughout the years. For me one of them is seeing ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ on Broadway in 1980. Thanks to a medical school ticket discount the cost was less than that of a movie and it was a night to remember. There was a lot of buzz about this play and from the very first minutes of the production it exceeded all expectations. From the opening discordant organ note to the finale this operetta was one of the best ever to grace the Broadway stage. Back in 1982 while on a national tour a film crew was brought in to capture this work for posterity and the result is now available on DVD thanks to Warner Brothers. As DVD releases go this one is perfectly timed. The Tim Burton re-imagining of the musical will proceed this by a couple of weeks so you can compare and contrast the two variations for your self. Because of the sentimental value of this presentation I do readily admit a certain bias towards the stage production but do greatly anticipate the newer one. Thanks to DVD you don’t have to choose but do yourself a big favor and make sure you get this version and watch it first. You will definitely not be disappointed.
As it the case with many truly great stories this one has been around for ages, almost a century at this point. It was the subject of numerous ‘penny dreadfuls’ popular in the mid nineteenth century. From there it was the subject of several films from the early days of cinema. It was not until the end of the 1970’s that someone had the bizarre idea to make a musical about a serial killer, pedophile and cannibalism. It certainly wasn’t intended to be the feel good musical of the season. In 1973 British playwright Christopher Bond wrote the basic play used in this version. It was the first time that a deeper, darker motivation was provided to the characters. This was then taken up by Hugh Wheeler who wrote the musical play with music and lyrics by one of the giants of Broadway, Stephen Sondheim. The production here was directed by Terry Hughes, noted television direct and another luminary of the stage Harold Prince. Prince had previously worked with Sondheim on the film version of ‘A Little Night Music’ as well has being in the production of such great musicals as ‘West Side Story’ and ‘The Pajama Game’. The amount of talent involved in this work is simply staggering.
With a foundation like this it might appear that any group of reasonably competent actors could make the play work. While this may be true the cast here is one of the absolute best possible. Now when my wife and I saw this on Broadway the title character was played by Len Cariou. Here the part was excellently taken over by George Hearn. In both versions the part of Mrs. Lovett was played by Angela Lansbury, an American treasure of stage, screen and television. The way their voices blend together; the rich baritone of Hern and the steadfast contralto of Lansbury is forever a delight to hear. Besides their considerable musical abilities both are accomplished actors and do justice to the emotional impact of the story.
This has one of the most memorable openings ever presented in a musical. The people of London wander around the stage; they begin to sing about Sweeny Todd. They mill about frantically the voices reaching a fevered pitch; the men with a strong, resonating tone, the women’s voices becoming as shrill as a warning whistle. Out of nowhere Sweeny (George Hern) literary rises up from the stage as his voice over powers the rest. He is an avenging angel of death dominating the others in the company. The sets are built on scaffolds allowing the company to roll them on and off the stage or simply turn them around for a new scene. This frugal approach works very well in setting the mood of a lower class neighborhood in 1846 London. It also provides a flurry of activity as the sets spin and roll occasionally with an actor or two hanging on. Punctuating the scene changes is the shrill blast of The Beadle’s (Calvin Remsberg) whistle. He is an imposing, large man who runs errands for the nefarious Judge Turpin (Edmund Lyndeck. The judge is a lusty, even perverted old man. He sent Benjamin Barker, Todd’s real name, off to a penal colony so he could have his wife Lucy and their young daughter for himself. Upon his return Todd vows revenge against the man who ruined his life. Todd was rescued at sea by a young sailor, aptly named Anthony Hope (Cris Groenendaal). The juxtaposition of youthful gratitude in returning home and the bitter memories of Todd are played out in the song ‘No Place like London’. Anthony is happy to have finished his tour and be back home but Todd sees London only as the place where every chance for happiness died long ago. There is magic in the way the two voices weave together, the dark deep voice of Hern playing against the lilting clear voice of Groenendaal.
Once Todd meets up with Mrs. Lovett the fun really starts. She has always had a crush on Barker and now that he is back home in the guise of Todd she sees her chance to finally be with him. She also runs a shop that sells what she herself calls the ‘Worse Pies in London’. Other shops may pop stray cats into the mix but she finds that disgusting and besides the cats are too quick for her. Once Todd has slit his first throat the ever frugal Lovett realizes that this could be the means for both of them to get what they want. He will kill victims that won’t be missed and she will have plenty of the ‘secret ingredient’ that will make a shop a success. Since all sorts of men need to have a shave there are plenty pf flavors as gruesomely detailed in the delightfully and darkly funny ‘Have a Little Priest’.
Stephen Sondheim is a genius. His operettas are among the most loved in the history of the American stage. He also has a beautifully twisted view of the world. He has taken childhood fairy tales and come up with ‘Into the Woods’ or a classic painting and gave the world ‘Sunday in the Park with George’. This is by far his darkest and funniest work ever. By the end of the play you will find yourself humming songs about slitting throats and baking the victims into meat pies, they are that catchy. The DVD is the way I remember the show and the best way to view it. Thanks to Warner Brothers you always have front row tickets to a musical that garnered eight Tony awards and an armful of Emmys. This is a plain vanilla DVD with no extras. With something like this the play stands firmly on its own. The Dolby 5.1 sound track has been re-mastered from the original television production and sounds very good. Now you can have a night at the theater without the high ticket prices, parking and diner out; just pop the disc in and be transported.