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Sweeney Todd

April 10, 2015

imagesI saw the recent production of Sweeney Todd at the ENO the other day. I know the musical well, from the televised Len Cariou/Angela Lansbury of the original 1979 production, and the 1993 Alun Armstrong/Julia McKenzie, not forgetting, of course, the Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham-Carter 2007 movie. (I thought I’d see the Dennis Quilley/Sheila Hancock performance, but that was in 1980 at a time when my knowledge of musicals was limited to The Sound of Music and West Side Story.) Despite my familiarity with the material and my inability to forget the various plot twists, I was delighted to find myself as emotionally battered as the first time I saw it, all of which is testament ultimately to Sondheim’s genius.

I’ve never, though, felt Sondheim always cracked the structural challenge of second acts, that the exploration of the first half always promised more than the second half delivered. Take Into The Woods, for example, which really should work. The first half’s narrative complexities are all resolved by the interval, but the second half immediately question that. 240px-Into_the_Woods_posterDeliberately of course, because, as the argument goes, desire is never satisfied and the happy ending is a myth. But unravelling something and then putting it together again is as problematic as the unconscious itself, the very subject of the musical, so it’s perhaps no accident that it can’t be contained. Sunday in the Park with George suffers, it seems to me, from the first half being so perfect – both love story and an exploration of creativity, and satisfying in itself. The second half, set in the present day, demands of the audience an acceptance that the work of multi-media art created by the descendant of George and Dot is worth seeing, which it often isn’t. I could go on, but note that Assassins dispenses entirely with the second act, as if Sondheim himself is uncomfortable with the theatrical form.

Sweeney, though, is the exception. The first half ends with the joyous, macabre waltz that describes the various flavours of pies made from different practitioners of various professions (priest, poet, etc) and the second half absolutely delivers. It begins with the roaring success of a business premised on murder and the recycling of corpses as food. London really is a place filled with shit, as Sweeney comments so harshly. Is it, though, possible that the balance between the two halves comes because Sondheim has, on this occasion, a successful play on which the piece is based, Christopher Bond’s original 1973 Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street?

Still, drama was not the essential point of this production. It was, after all, semi-staged which, in case anyone took it to mean half-arsed, was immediately dismissed by the participants extravagantly dispensing with their scores in the first few minutes. It worked, then, as a dramatic performance, though clearly one of the draws here was to see and hear Bryn Terfel. Here was a heavyweight opera star on the stage of the ENO, with Emma Thompson there to offer dramatic credibility and dramatic flair. In the event Terfel opted for gravitas and brooding anger rather than any more subtle displays of interpretation, which was a wise move, or at least it seemed so after seeing his rather limp effort at despair when he learns whom he has killed towards the end of the play. He was the still centre around which Emma Thompson and other thesps revolved.

But when it came to singing, there was no doubting his ability. There was no need for amplification at all. Indeed amplification had rather the opposite effect than that intended: it restrained him and contained his vocal power. His loudest notes were matched by Emma Thompson’s, which was physically impossible were it not for the technical intervention. ‘Gated’ is the phrase that sound engineers use for this effect and it aptly describes the limitations placed on him. To experience the physical presence of his voice was one of my reasons for going to see the show, to ‘feel’ his voice, or at least to be within reach of what Barthes calls the ‘grain of the voice’, the corporal trace of vocal production. It was a dimension of which I felt robbed.

Having said that, I’m not sure what the solution would be. It’s standard practice to amplify voices in musicals given that such singers aren’t trained to sing over the sound of a full orchestra. And having Terfel sing without amplification, while clearly able to project over such forces, would undoubtedly have caused the listener difficulties, forever made to shift their mode of listening from one source to another. In the final analysis, though, it was unfair on the baritone. Consider, for example, if some similar technical limitation were place on Thompson’s dramatic expressivity, if her acting talents were reduced to those of the supporting cast. Effectively that’s the fate that Terfel suffered, his emotional range dampened in the interests of acoustic egalitarianism.

One other thought occurred to me as I watched the show (and if you don’t know the musical then I suggest you look away now as it contains a plot spoiler). Sondheim describes it as a musical thriller, but it’s a more complicated beast than that. The obvious model for it is the Jacobean revenge tragedy, Sweeney being the wronged man who is out for repayment with Mrs Lovett as his accomplice. It also has the two young lovers, though whereas Jacobean drama had a separate and sometimuntitledes comic subplot, the humour here is warped and distorted and placed dead centre. Mrs Lovett is given the funniest songs and the funniest lines, light relief to Sweeney’s earnestness. At worst she’s an entrepreneur, or so it seems, simply making use of something – dead meat – that would otherwise go to waste. She, after all, has no investment in the murders. As such we identify with her more than with Sweeney, or the vapid young lovers come to that. She’s entertaining and her desire of a place ‘by the sea’ seems genuine. Additionally she’s the missing mother in the play, guardian to the ever-trusting, ever simple Tobias, who himself gets to express our darkest fears – that Sweeney might ultimately murder her. The truth, as it turns out, is much worse. All along she knows that Sweeney’s wife still lives and the entrepreneurial spirit is but part of a darker plan. She’s as capable of killing as Sweeney is, though for no motive other than self interest.

275px-Veronica_Lake_and_Joel_McCrea_in_Sullivan's_Travels_trailerI’ve been wracking my brains for a similar character in any other dramatic forms, one that makes us entirely rethink what has happened before to quite such a degree. Sand I can’t come up with anything. The only thing that springs to mind is a quite unlikely comparison, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a 1942 film that starts out as a comedy and that abruptly lurches towards darkness. The title refers to Gulliver’s Travels and it’s perhaps that Swiftian ethos that envelopes Sondheim’s musical as much as anything. Swift, after all, wrote (satirically) of the Irish eating babies as the solution to famine, and his poem ‘City Showers’, with its obvious spoonerised pun, is close to Sweeney’s view of London.

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