Hero Worship, Part 2

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, got his start in the 1800s. Most scholars see him as a fictional character, though a few think he’s based on an actual serial killer. He always uses a straight razor to slash the throats of his victims; in many versions of the tale, an accomplice, Margery (or Nellie or Charlotte) Lovett then bakes their corpses into meat pies. The cannibalistic trait of the story goes back as far as the myth of Pelops, while the moralistic symbolism of eating one’s fellow man appears in social satire such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” The myth’s imagery of meat pies made from people is almost certainly an allusion to the finale of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the original Roman tale on which it was based.

Sweeney Todd, the musical, is widely seen as Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork. It’s technically an opera. The original 1979 production, which won nine Tony Awards, starred Len Cariou and later George Hearn as Sweeney, and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett; a much-lauded 2006 revival featured Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris. And Tim Burton is directing the film adaptation with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, which is scheduled for a December release.

The story opens with Sweeney returning from the penal colonies in Australia, where he has spent fifteen years on false charges. When he learns from Mrs. Lovett that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by Judge Turpin, the man who imprisoned him, and that his daughter is now Judge Turpin’s ward, he vows revenge. The two become conspirators in a dark plot that results in mass murder, booming business for Lovett’s pie shop, and ultimately tragedy.

Sondheim’s score is one of his most complex to date. It relies heavily on counterpoint and rich, angular harmonies, and quotes the ancient Dies Irae Gregorian chant, both as part of the eponymous ballad that runs throughout the score, and in a musical inversion later on.

Rarely has any show had a more striking opening scene. Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd:

Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett sings about her reputation as purveyor of the worst meat pies in London:

Angela Lansbury and George Hearn doing my favorite song from the show, and perhaps any show, ever — “A Little Priest” (Adamus, there’s a line in here that’s especially for you):

And for pure lyrical beauty, here’s “Not While I’m Around,” sung by Mrs. Lovett’s developmentally challenged nephew Tobias, played here by Neil Patrick Harris:

A much lighter Sondheim musical, inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, is Into the Woods. It intertwines the plots of several Grimm Brothers fairy tales — Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, tied together by an original story involving a Baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family.

In Act I, each of the characters ventures into the woods on one quest or another. By the end of the act, each succeeds and lives happily ever after. Act II is about what happens when you get what you wish for, and when you have to live with the consequences of your actions.

This clip from the 1988 Tony Awards offers a nice overview:

Along the way, Little Red Riding Hood meets the overtly lascivious wolf, who wants to devour her in more ways than one:

You know the story: Wolf eats granny, deceives Little Red then eats her as well, after which a passing woodsman slices the wolf open and out pop granny and Red, safe and sound. Straight out of Bettelheim, it’s an allegory of sexual awakening. She sings about her experience in “I Know Things Now”:

And he showed me things,
many beautiful things,
That I hadn’t thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited—
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, “Come in!”
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really for scared—
Well, excited and scared—
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,
At the end of the path
Was Granny once again.
. . .

And I know things now,
Many valuable things
That I hadn’t known before:
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.

Dimwitted Jack sells his pet cow for magic beans, climbs the beanstalk, then discovers that there are “Giants in the Sky” — another clearly Freudian take on the old tale:

Into the Woods is just plain fun in so many ways. Take, for example, this duet between Cinderella’s prince, who has never had anyone run away from him, and Rapunzel’s prince, who complains of the difficulties of wooing a woman in a tower:

Sondheim intermixes sophisticated lyrics and complex tunes with songs that are simple, heartfelt, and lovely. I can think of no better song to end this month-long writing experiment than a piece from the second act of Into the Woods, after several of the characters have experienced tragic loss. It’s powerful and touching, and is my hero Sondheim at his finest:

It’s been a good month. Thanks for stopping by.


~ by Craig R. Smith on 30 September 2007.

5 Responses to “Hero Worship, Part 2”

  1. A triumph, this blog! One of the most impressive things ever. Congratulations!

    I saw Lansbury and Hearn on the national tour in 1980, at the Kennedy Center. The musical was no doubt the most disturbing musical I’d ever seen. I have vague memory of nearly passing out near the end from something incredibly graphic.

    And yet I look forward to the movie…

  2. I don’t know about “triumph,” but it’s been fun.

    I just hope Burton doesn’t cut too many of the songs, and that Depp and Bonham Carter can carry a tune. It also stars Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen, so it should be fun.

  3. It’s been a trip, a magical mystery tour, a smokey bar, a stage-show, a comedy, a film noir, and a whole wack of other things. Thanks for the musical ride.

  4. I have to admit ignorance to this production but I appreciate your in-depth report. I must see this now!

    I run a How I Met Your Mother blog and discovered this post on the basis of Neil Patrick Harris. I put that single clip up on my blog and linked back to you for people who want more details on Sweeney Todd. The post will be up Wednesday.

  5. I am a huge fan of NPH and enjoy him as Barney (more now than in the first part of season 1). I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    This particular production of Sweeney Todd was Sweeney Todd In Concert, which had the actors singing in front of an orchestra, not in costume, though in clothes that subtly suggested their characters. They acted a bit of the scenes they sang, with a few limited props but no sets.

    Tobias Ragg, the part NPH sang, plays a pivotal role in the development of the plot. (The embedded links have some great info on the production.)

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