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March 7, 2014

Attending the Tale of Sweeney Todd

I went to see Sweeney Todd last night (and it’s difficult to think of a play that’s more deserving of a Felony post than the tale of “the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”). This was in fact the fourth production I’ve seen of Sweeney, beginning with the staggering original starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. The indelible impression from that one, of course, was Lansbury: As Mrs. Lovett she was a bizarre and inspired combination of adorable and completely depraved.

For readers who might not be familiar with the play, Sweeney is a grief-maddened barber who is determined to exact vengeance on those who have wronged him – a group that soon grows, in his mind, to encompass…well, certainly the entire population of London, for starters.

“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit

And the vermin of the world inhabit it

And its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit

And it goes by the name of London.”

He sets up his barbering business above Mrs. Lovett’s failing pie shop –failing because the price of pork is so high and “them pussycats is quick.” She has distinct eyes for Mr. Todd, but his eyes are fixed resolutely on the “precious rubies” that he intends to release from his victims’ necks, courtesy of a fast slash with his straight razor. Nevertheless, the two establish a highly successful partnership: Todd’s renowned hair-cutting skills lure in the customers; his rather less salubrious skills dispatch them; and Mrs. Lovett’s handy meat-grinder in the basement turns the resulting carcasses into pie-filling. (Note to Americans: These are meat-pies we’re talking about. Stop thinking apples.) The new pies prove hideously popular with the punters, who turn nearly into pigs themselves, grunting and slobbering and demanding “More hot pies! More hot! More pies!” There’s quite a bit more to the story, but let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

There wasn’t a lot that was adorable in my favorite version of the play: John Doyle’s extraordinary Broadway revival in 2005. The production was widely known as “the one where the actors play all the instruments,” as indeed they did – and it was a pleasure to watch Patti LuPone (not a performer I love) schlepping a tuba. To my mind, though, what made the production so stunning was the extent to which it was made clear that every single person in it – every street urchin, the pretty young lovers, every innocently gobbling meat-pie fan – was mad as a zombified hatter. Blood clotted every word they sang, obsession whipping them on. It was a horror-show, of the most brilliantly imaginable kind, and it became clear that it was unfolding not just in a madhouse but in the madhouse of Sweeney’s mind: This was his fever-dream, his walking nightmare. I don’t know that I could watch it again, but while I was watching it, I could barely breathe.

Last night’s production, at the New York Philharmonic, was certainly the most musically magnificent version I’ve ever seen. Len Cariou, George Hearn, and Michael Cerveris, the Sweeneys I’ve been privileged to see in the past, all have splendid voices, but they’re musical-theater voices, sized and modulated and shaped to fit the needs of my best-beloved medium. But Bryn Terfel, last night’s Sweeney, is an opera star who specializes in Wagner. The weight and menace and nuanced agony in his bass-notes…stunning. Just stunning. Emma Thompson – and who knew she could sing so well? – made a charming Mrs. Lovett, but she – like La LuPone before her – struggled some in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s interpretation, and ultimately offered up a solid performance that was essentially a second-rate homage. She was funny, she was cute, she hit her notes…and she didn’t do anything that Lansbury hadn’t done better, 35 years ago.

If Lansbury’s productions belonged to Mrs. Lovett, and the 2005 production belonged to blood, the NY Phil’s – appropriately – belonged to music. It wasn’t just Terfel and the gorgeous chorus, but the orchestra as well. For the first time, I was keenly aware of what a powerful role is played in this play by shrillness – by screeching violins, by sopranos pushing just past their ranges till their top-notes turn to shrieks. And, most of all, by the scream of the factory whistle that several times punctuates the action. That shrillness is the sound of metal on metal, the clash and grind of impervious machinery. It is the soundtrack of the Industrial Revolution. And it’s a sharp reminder – a reminder like an ice-pick to the eyes – that if you treat people as less than human, they will eventually lose their humanity. And you will not like the way they treat you.

 

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