The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
by Hugh Wheeler. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
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|Theatre by Keith Garebian
Musical theatre is the special gift of America, and Sweeney Todd is one of the best gifts from that nation. The Todd legend concerns a barber who, in revenge for the wrongs committed against him and his family, turns into a serial killer in London. He slits the throats of his victims while they are in his tonsorial chair and shuttles their corpses through a trapdoor into the cellar of his shop, where his female accomplice turns the flesh into stuffing for her pies. The crimes are eventually discovered by accident, but though Todd is himself killed, his legend survives.
Besides broadsheet ballads, there was a melodrama by George Dibdin-Pitt in 1847 and then at least six subsequent stage versions of Sweeney Todd. But all these were the stuff of penny dreadful horror and shocks that encouraged actors to "ham" up the passions and to burlesque romance and pathos. The Todd legend received a more sophisticated treatment only in 1977, when English playwright Christopher Bond expanded its scope and turned Todd into more than just a homicidal maniac. Bond's criminal begins as a sympathetic character who is understandably jolted into seeking revenge. Bond's version illuminates Todd's maniacal fascination with his own sudden power in determining who lives or dies.
Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, however, show a much larger scope for such a thriller by adapting it into an opera that combines bloodiness and bawdry, horror and black farce in ways that are not simply intrusive bits of incongruous diversion but which are woven into the drama in such a way that they enrich its significance. In other words, Wheeler's libretto and Sondheim's score show how murder and madness can have an astounding scope in musical theatre. Their Sweeney Todd refuses to be what Eric Bentley calls "commodity theatre"¨theatre that appeals to the lowest common denominator in its audience by excluding the subtlety and depth of dramatic art. While Wheeler's libretto is a disciplined, streamlined adaptation of Christopher Bond's stage play, it is larger than life, as are many of its characters. It is thrilling melodrama in the best sense because its terrors are the demons within human beings, and Sondheim's score has a rich bravura.
Wheeler and Sondheim seize on two key images to set their tale in motion. One is of death; the other of machines. The script calls for organ music, but not just any music. The Dies Irae is what is sounded in funereal fashion, and the opening ballad is about violent death and the possible lack of salvation. Todd is represented as a ghost of a man, but as the story proceeds, he becomes an efficient killing machine. The machine image is linked, of course, to the essence of the 19th century Industrial Revolution¨a point best realized in the theatre where set, costuming, and lighting can build a metaphor of social oppression. The libretto allows Todd to express a dark, pessimistic vision: "There's a hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And the vermin of the world/Inhabit it/ And its morals ain't worth/What a pig could spit/And it goes by the name of London." Part of his hate has evidently grown out of the despicable English class system, for after all, it is the Judge who had raped Lucy Todd, Sweeney's pregnant wife, and who is able to take full advantage of his elevated social status to exploit young Johanna, the Todd daughter, whom he has made his ward.
Even the comedy of Mrs. Lovett and her disgusting meat pies, and of Tobias, her apprentice, owes a great deal to the social corruption of London. Mrs. Lovett's rancid humour about her culinary fare could only exist because of her desperate attempt to cope with squalid deprivation.
The social context is important, but the play is really about the genesis and deepening of Todd's psychosis. Once a nanve young man, he is evidently been dealt hard blows by life. He never forgets who or what have victimized him, and his hate and violence are chilling, especially when he fondles his razors like long-lost friends or when he turns into a Titus who exults with barbaric gaiety over "who gets eaten and who gets to eat." His is a hallucinatory rhapsody of murder.
Wheeler and Sondheim gamble dangerously with farce and satire. They pit a camp barber, Pirelli, against Todd in a tonsorial contest, and give this faux-Italian a rollicking, rhyming song. Their Mrs. Lovett is cheerfully deranged in her rapid patter songs, and they whip up a wickedly giddy duet in which she and Todd sing of the ideal cannibalistic fare for her meat pies ("Little Priest"). Such macabre comedy fits the story which is itself grotesque. There are flaws of course: the social layering is simplistic; Anthony Hope and Johanna are cardboard lovers from stereotypical romance; and true art sometimes seems to be hovering too close to cheap Grand Guignol. But the libretto allows room for Brechtian alienation as well as powerful emotion. Ultimately, Sweeney Todd reveals a sardonic nihilism that is eerie, wickedly funny, and savagely chilling. ˛