|Photo by Bob Seary|
This New Theatre production of SWEENEY TODD is worth catching.
This is the fifth live production of SWEENEY TODD, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, A Musical Thriller, that I have seen. It is the fourth production of it that I have seen in Sydney. I first saw it In New York with the original cast, in 1979, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Directed by Harold Prince. And, of course, I have watched the George Hearn, Angela Lansbury PBS television recording (1982) many, many times, and the Movie version, with Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter (2007).
Says the composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, in his 2010 book titled: FINISHING THE HAT:
The music that dominated my childhood was neither show music nor classical repertoire, ... I liked theatre but I loved movies. ... My particular favourites were romantic melodramas and suspense pieces like CASABLANCA and the Hitchcock movies of the period, movies in which the music was as important to the storytelling as the actors were. For me, the apotheosis of these melodramas was HANGOVER SQUARE, an Edwardian thriller (1945. Director, John Brahm) ... The music was by Bernard Herrman and it was (and is) an astonishing score ...
At this same time I was falling under the influence of Oscar Hammerstein and becoming increasingly interested in theatre songs, but it wasn't until thirty years later that these two passions coincided. It happened in 1973, when in London I chanced to see Christopher Bond's version of the nineteenth-century potboiler, SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (at Joan Littlewood's Stratford East Theatre). Although it was played primarily as a comedy , with pub songs interspersed between scenes, it immediately struck me as material for a musical horror story, one which would be sung-through but which would be held together by ceaseless underscoring that would keep an audience in suspense and maybe even scare the hell out of them. It would, in fact, be my tribute to Bernard Herrman and HANGOVER SQUARE. Given my antipathy toward opera - impatience with it, really - I was determined that the piece would be constructed mainly of song forms: something between a musical and a ballad opera, like CARMEN, only with less recitative, if any. ...
SWEENEY TODD has been called by people who care about categories, everything from an opera to a song cycle. When pressed, I have referred to it as a dark operetta, but just as all baggage comes with labels, so all labels come with baggage. 'Opera' implies endless stentorian singing; 'operetta' implies gleeful choirs of peasants dancing in the town squares; 'opera-bouffe' implies hilarious (in intent, at least) complications of mistaken identity; 'musical comedy' implies showbiz pizazz and blindingly bright energy; 'musical play' implies musical comedy that isn't funny. So where does that leave SWEENEY?
'Dark operetta' is the closest I can come, but that's as much a misnomer as any of the others. What SWEENEY TODD really is is a movie for the stage.
Most of the musicals I've been connected with have been received at first with extreme reactions, both good and bad, the barometer leaning towards the negative ... None, however, elicited the extravagant accolades and contemptuous rage that SWEENEY TODD did ... (it) was a resounding commercial failure both on Broadway and in the West End, the latter reception a particularly disheartening one to me, since I had written the show as my love letter to London, a city I treasure above all except New York. But over the years, considering the number of performances it's had in stock, schools and opera houses, it has turned out to be one of the most popular shows in my canon of collaborations alongside WEST SIDE STORY, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and INTO THE WOODS - four shows which prove that if you give an audience a good story, especially an extravagant one, they'll accept it with pleasure, no matter how bizarre and idiosyncratic it may be. SWEENEY TOOD opened, on Broadway, in the Uris Theatre (2,000 seats) on March 1, 1979. Closed, June 29, 1980. Total performances, 557.
Meryle Secrest in her book, Stephen Sondheim: A Life (1998):
'A triumph of audacious theatricalism',' one critic wrote after the show opened. 'In sheer ambition and size, there's never been a bigger show on Broadway', said another. 'Total theatre, a brilliant concept and a shattering experience,' said a third.'There has been no musical as dark, savage and shocking as Stephen Soundheim's SWEENEY TODD in sixty years.' ... Richard Eder, writing for the New York Times, found the work's musical and dramatic achievements so multifaceted that they almost defied adequate praise: 'There is more of artistic energy, creative personality and plain excitement in SWEENEY TODD than in a dozen average musicals,' he wrote. He admired the way Sondheim and Prince had taken 'this set of rattletrap fireworks' and turned it into 'a glittering, dangerous weapon.' ... If the Prince-Sondheim collaboration had seemed on occasion to venture further into the realm of experimentation than Broadway reviewers wanted to go, this was not the case with SWEENEY TODD. They almost vied to find superlatives for the daring involved in the choice of subject matter, the effectiveness of Prince's direction, the admirable qualities of the acting, the wit of Sondheim's lyrics and the brilliance of his music.
... and, although it still lost money, (it) did repay more than half the investment. More important, by general agreement, it was the crowning achievement of the Sondheim-Prince collaboration. SWEENEY TODD won eleven Drama Desk Awards, The Drama Critics' Circle Award for best musical and eight Tony Awards, including that of best musical. There was one more encomium that Sondheim particularly valued, however, and it came from Jule Styne (GYPSY, FUNNY GIRL). He remarked, 'I think the most unbelievable job of music writing, and I say this with deep reverence and envy ... is SWEENEY TODD 
So, now, what of this New Theatre production?
This Sweeney Todd was an unexpected musical thrill. Its unexpectedness, may be, part of its success. The fact that this modest fringe theatre organisation, The New Theatre, has proven that 'a mouse can roar' with some great accomplishment, with one of the most famously difficult and revered works in the Musical Theatre canon, and was a rewarding and unexpected surprise, is a wonder. It engendered, on Opening Night, a level of hushed concentration and a growing pleasure from an entranced audience throughout the performance. Collectively, the audience took a deep breath when the Musical Director, Liam Kemp, began, on his electric organ, the famous musical thematics of the Sondheim score, and we seemed to hold that breath for the length of the long first act of SWEENEY, willing, and then simply relishing success. The blast of the piercing factory whistle sound propelled the audience, imaginatively, into the world of the work, and kept us there.
The Director, Giles Gartrell-Mills, has gathered around him a committed and talented company of artists and then led with a firmly disciplined and clear vision to wrest this complicated and challenging piece, onto the New Theatre stage. It is more than a creditable rendition of this great work.
The original production by Harold Prince was frame-worked by an enormous set, resembling an Industrial Victorian factory (it was, in fact, parts of some old foundries found in Rhode Island). Mr Prince, attempted to contextualise the melodrama of the text - which he found a little "hard to live with"- into the real world of the Industrial Revolution which he believed had dehumanised British Society.That choice did, in my estimation, overwhelm the work with unnecessary scale. I thought then, this work could succeed just as comfortably as a Chamber operetta with its focus more scaled to the human drama. (Much as I thought the recent musical psychological drama, NEXT TO NORMAL was given an overblown, over-produced production on Broadway.)
Using the modest resources of the New Theatre, Mr Gartrell-Mills, strips the space of the performing area and utilises the 'geography' of the largish black box stage, even to the backstage entrance door, for intelligent dramatic effect. Three, wheeled, architectural stage pieces - not unlike some of the original production 'machines' - (no Set Designer credited) are utilised around the space, pushed and pulled by an ever present chorus of "Londoners", to create the diverse environments of the book requirements,stipulated by Hugh Wheeler. The technical difficulties, that some of the scenes demand (the barber chair and equipment to the pie making basement, for instance), have been modestly, and unapologetically, solved, with a simplicity that demands the audience to endow, with an imaginative complicity of wishful want for a successful telling of the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. That we obey, and do so, is a credit to Mr Gartrell-Mills, but also to his company of performers who gave, unstintingly, an honouring to their Director's conception, and to their faith in the genius of Mr Sondheim. The New Theatre's design concept places the emphasis clearly on the people of the story - the setting, merely a backdrop, to the consuming passions of Sweeney. The Lighting Design, dark and suitably gloomy, given the resources of the venue, is splendidly achieved, by Liam O'Keefe. The Costume Design, by Brodie Simpson, is believeable, if not always accurate (e.g. the Beadle).
Fundamental, absolutely fundamental, to the success of this production, is the musical accompaniment and preparation by the Musical Director, Liam Kemp. Considering the musical purpose and influences that Mr Sondheim tells us of (above), that he saw the Christopher Bond source material " as a musical horror story ... held together by (a) ceaseless underscoring", one was startled to see an "orchestra" of only three players, situated in a back corner of the stage area: Anastasya Lonergan, on violin; Laura MacKinnon, on Bass; and the Musical Director, Mr Kemp, on piano and organ. In my experience of this performance I cannot remember hearing anything but a full orchestration - weird, I know, but, never, not ever, was I conscious of any inadequacy in the musical support (perhaps, I was supplying it from my memory of the recorded score?) Mr Kemp should have bloodied fingers after each of the performances, for, his tireless contribution to the production is astounding. His arrangement of the score, simply mind-boggling, for its seeming completeness, and undoubted success. On top of that, his preparation of the cast, and the selection of his voices for this ensemble is impeccable. In the full throated sung opening to SWEENEY: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, this chorus of voices created a thrilling security and glorious sound, that, like the trumpets of Joshua that felled the walls of Jericho, felled any doubts that this production of SWEENEY TODD might be worth attending to. Beside some of the Principals' voices within the ensemble, the amazing sound from individuals within that ensemble that I could distinguish, e.g. Daisy Cousins, Joel Paszkowski, was, musically, 'angelic'.
(The voices are not assisted with electronic microphones - they are 'unplugged' - oh, wonder of wonders. Is that why there is an intimacy of contact/contract between these performers and the audience I sat with? We both leant into each other in a subtle empathy of creation? Rather than the relative physical 'abuse' of broadcasted sound/noise which we have sometimes experienced elsewhere, causing us to withhold ourselves subjectively to the storytelling, because of a conscious/unconscious concern of injury?)
Outstanding vocal work came from Byron Watson as Judge Turpin (which included, the sometimes excised JOHANNA, the flagellation song); Courtney Glass as the Beggar Woman; and marvellously, Josh Anderson, as Anthony Hope - whose acting skill was also a definite advantage to help us to enter his character's journey. Aimee Timmins, cross-gendered as Tobias Ragg (not always intelligible), Jamie Leigh Johnson, as Johanna; Simon Ward, as Beadle Bamford; and Michael Jones, as Adolfo Pirelli, give dedicated and 'joyful' support.
Justin Cotta, as Sweeney Todd (Benjamin Barker), is a glowering and frightening presence, who draws a creditable dramatic journey of a man in tremendous grief at the injustice that his family has suffered, plunging into the frustration, despair and ultimate madness of the need, hunger, for revenge:
There's a hole in the worldAnd despite the bloody serial killing with the silver shine of his friends, the barber's razors, sparking ruby glints in the dark, and the Jacobean pile-up of corpses, in the basement, and the reddened glow of the smoking pie-oven, Mr Cotta draws some compassionate understanding from the audience as he cradles the dead Lucy in his arms, near the story's end. No small feat. Mr Cotta's acting skill compensates enough for a sometimes underpowered vocal sound (the range not always comfortable?) that sometimes buries the clarity of his lyrics.
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it ...
Lucy Miller, is truly comfortable in the presentational skills of a choreographed and sung character, as Mrs Lovett, and has all the energy and comic sense of the potentials of the role's opportunity. She seizes them with relish and accuracy.
That the Act One closing song, and famous comic, A LITTLE PRIEST, does not really achieve its full comedy and dramaturgical function is a minor flaw in the overall scheme of this production. It felt over choreographed (Trent Kidd) and distracting to the real focus of the song: the famous lyrics. Critically, Mr Gartrell-Mills could spend, now, some more time in soliciting a more realistic style to some of the 'acting' interludes in his production. They occasionally jar with a superficial sense of representational choice rather than true experiencing. Spoken, recited, rather than motivated.
In Sydney, what with the brilliant work of the Squabbalogic musical productions: CARRIE, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE and SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, and the contribution of the Hayes Theatre in Darlinghurst, we have had a stellar year of musical offers, beyond the usually tired full scale work of our commercial gatekeepers in the big theatres. This SWEENEY TODD, at the New Theatre, continues the pleasure of this very difficult and expensive genre, this year.
The SWEENEY company are an outstanding ensembe much to the credit of Mr Gartrell-Mills, and most especially to Liam Kemp, who serves the genius of Stephen Sondheim, well. Hearing this work again, experiencing this work again, solidifies further, for me, why I regard Mr Sondheim as the greatest living writer in this genre, today.
- Stephen Sondheim, 2010, Finishing the Hat, Virgin Books
- Meryle Secrest, 1998, Stephen Sondheim - A Life, Alfred A. Knof, New York
- Larry Stempel, 2010, Showtime, W.W. Norton and Co. New York, London