Sweeney Todd is by no means a conventional musical; it takes several forms of music and theater and artfully places them together. Especially brilliant is its use of the ancient Dies Irae funeral procession as part of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Sondheim very effectively transports the audience back to Victorian England for a mad waltz with murder, mayhem. . . and meat pies. The show is composed very much like an opera, with little dialogue and several recitative and aria-type numbers, including "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and "Epiphany." Sondheim also utilizes his skill as a choral composer to write some truly fascinating ensemble pieces, one of the most notable being "God, That's Good," the second act opening number. Sweeney Todd has a very intricate plot with several minute details and many elements are carefully layered.
The musical begins with two gravediggers and organ music. Suddenly, a shrill factory whistle blows and the rollicking "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," a leitmotif throughout the play begins. Through this vehicle, we are introduced to the "hero," Sweeney Todd, and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" also serves to provide limited narration during the show. Sondheim uses the Dies Irae here, a Catholic funeral procession, in order to accent the strange tale of this evening's performance. We are to hear this song a number of times throughout the show, and each time it is heard it accents a key plot point. We also hear the shrill factory whistle several times, most noticeably when Sweeney is about to commit murder.
The story begins when Sweeney Todd appears in London along with a sailor, Anthony Hope. We discover soon enough that Sweeney is not really Mr. Todd, but rather Benjamin Barker, a man wrongfully imprisoned for life on a trumped-up-charge. A beggar woman approaches Todd and Hope, asking for money and hoping to exchange sexual favors. Todd and Anthony shoo her off, then Sweeney excuses himself and runs off to do an errand. Sweeney finds Mrs. Lovett, an old friend of his who has fallen upon hard times, and discovers that she has kept his razors safely all these years. Sweeney vows revenge upon Judge Turpin, for Mrs. Lovett told him that his wife had taken poison after being raped at a ball and Turpin now holds his daughter, Johanna, captive. Here is where Sondheim's genius starts to show through in his talent for irony: Through use of flashback, Lucy is raped to a cheerful minuet while the onlookers laugh hysterically. The only piece truly resembling a conventional love song occurs here, the strangely eerie "My Friends," sung by Sweeney to his razors. While Sweeney pours out his love to his silver, Mrs. Lovett pours out her heart to Sweeney, making romantic advances and begging for his attention. Sweeney remains focused on the task at hand, crying out "At last! My arm is complete again!" The dark citizens of London proclaim "Lift your razor high, Sweeney!" signifying the completed arc of Todd's arm, now realized after his long imprisonment. Todd is free now to enact revenge against the villainous Turpin, and he makes careful, calculated, mechanical plans to slay the Judge.
We then see Johanna at her window, a Juliet locked in her tower. She sings "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," a song that represents her own captivity as she ponders, "How is it you sing? How can you jubilate, Sitting in cages, Never taking wing?" Anthony wanders down the street and spies Johanna from afar. He is struck by her beauty ("Ah, Miss") and the Beggar Woman informs him of the girl's identity. . . and the Judge's. Anthony pays no heed, but determines to win the girl's hand in "Johanna." Anthony and Johanna are the show's two archetypal star-crossed lovers, yet the love that exists between them is determined to succeed. Anthony and Johanna both represent innocence in captivity. Johanna is the unfortunate victim of both her mother's "sins" and the Judge's forbidden yearnings, while Anthony is to become an unwitting pawn in Sweeney's plot to destroy the Judge and have his revenge.
In the marketplace at St. Dunstan's Square, a crowd gathers to hear the sales pitch for "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," an ointment reputed to grow hair on anything. It is relentlessly hawked by a young lad, Tobias Ragg, in a complicated ensemble piece. Tobias represents corrupted youth and an early fall from grace, as he shamelessly lies to sell the worthless liquid. Sweeney smells a bottle of the elixir and declares it to be nothing more than "piss with ink" in an attempt to goad the one-time barber Pirelli into a contest of skills. Pirelli agrees almost automatically; the two face off to determine who can deliver the closer, quicker shave and pull a tooth with more dexterity and swiftness. Beadle Bamford, one of the Judge's cronies, is the judge of the contest and Sweeney wins each event after Pirelli takes time to show off, holding out elaborate high notes. Todd then invites the Beadle for a shave at his barber shop, located above Mrs. Lovett's pie shop.
At Mrs. Lovett's, Sweeney waits anxiously for the Beadle, for it is his goal to win the Beadle over and therefore get the Judge into his shop. Mrs. Lovett tells Sweeney to "Wait," using the first word of her entrance song, "The Worst Pies in London," in an effort to persuade Sweeney into allowing more time to pass before he panics. Not long thereafter, an angry Pirelli bursts into Sweeney's shop, upset at losing. Pirelli recognized Sweeney's distinctive razors during the contest and now Sweeney is faced with a dilemma: what to do about Pirelli without spoiling his master plan against Judge Turpin. Pirelli proposes a blackmail and Sweeney, instead of giving Pirelli half his earnings, kills him and stuffs him into a trunk. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett is downstairs charming Tobias.
The Judge realizes that Johanna is no longer a young girl and recognizes that he lusts after her. He strips to the waist and begins whipping himself, all the while masturbating and spying on Johanna through a keyhole. Ironically, he is holding a Bible and wearing his judicialgarments, crying out "Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima maxima culpa." Desperate to keep her, he makes plans to marry her. Anthony and Johanna meet in secret and make plans for her escape during the duet "Kiss Me." Johanna would rather take poison than marry Judge Turpin and Anthony instead proposes marriage. . . to him. Johanna happily agrees and they make plans for marriage. The two innocents are now plotting against their mutual aggressor and the scene ends in a happy kiss.
The Beadle and Turpin walk home, discussing Johanna's reluctance in wanting to marry the Judge. The Beadle makes the suggestion that "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" might be unwilling to marry the Judge as he is "overhasty with ... (his) morning ablutions." Beadle suggests that Turpin visit Sweeney to make himself more appealing to Johanna, and the Judge happily agrees.
With the Judge in his shop, Sweeney now has the chance to enact his revenge. Unfortunately, while extolling the virtues of "Pretty Women," Sweeney waits a moment too long and Anthony bursts up the stairs, informing Todd of his wedding plans. The Judge flies into a rage and storms out. Todd, realizing that he has now spoilt what was probably his only chance, is quietly furious and orders Anthony out. Mrs. Lovett flies up the stairs and attempts to calm Todd, but he will have none of it.
The song "Epiphany," which Todd sings here, combines all of Sweeney's pent-up frustrations against himself and the Judge and spills them out upon all mankind:
There's a hole in the world
Mrs. Lovett recalls Pirelli and thinks about the bodies that will be building up as Sweeney kills, and then innocently asks "That's all very well, but what do we do about the Eyetalian?" Sweeney suggests that they wait until dark and then bury him, but Mrs. Lovett has a better suggestion. Remembering her hard fortune and thinking of a Mrs. Mooney, who has been killing cats and baking them into pies, suggests that she and Todd use Pirelli's plump frame to bake into their own pies. Todd quickly agrees and they both sing with riotous black humor about the flavors of different classes of people. ("A Little Priest.") After singing about lawyers, shepherds, and the flavors of priests, Sweeney brings the song to a point, declaring "I'll come again when you have Judge on the menu." Lovett and Todd both end Act I by proclaiming, "We'll not discriminate great from small, No, we'll serve anyone, meaning anyone, and to anyone at all!"
At the beginning of Act II, Tobias is hawking Mrs. Lovett's meat pies to the same cheerfully inane tune he sold Pirelli's Elixir. Mrs. Lovett's business is prospering now, and Todd now has a magnificent Tonsorial Parlor, complete with a special chair that allows him to pull a lever and send his victim directly into the bakehouse. Mrs. Lovett continually shoos the Beggar Woman away, who is hanging around, and prattling to her customers a banal babble of nothingness: "Nice to see you dearie, how have you been keeping, Cor, me bones is weary, Toby -- One for the gentleman... Hear the birdies cheeping -- helps to keep it cheery..."
The next scene is a complexly constructed montage of vignettes throughout the city: Todd kills in his Barber shop and sends them down the chute to Mrs. Lovett, who is making pies. Anthony seeks Johanna, who has been hidden away by Judge Turpin, and hears her voice, guiding him to her. The Beggar Woman stumbles about, coughing and cursing the bakehouse: "Smoke! Smoke! Sign of the Devil! City on Fire!" Todd and Anthony continue to sing of Johanna, Sweeney despairing he will ever see his daughter Johanna and Anthony fearful he will never marry her. Anthony finds Johanna at last, imprisoned behind the walls of Fogg's Asylum and, unable to get her out himself, seeks out Mr. Todd once more.
Mrs. Lovett, counting the receipts, makes plans with Todd for a seaside home and an early retirement. ("By the Sea.") Todd, still upset about the Judge, does not return her romantic advances, muttering only "Anything you say, anything you say." Lovett senses his reluctance and despair, but does not know how to help him out. Even when she suggests that Todd bring along his razors and slay the odd guest at their seaside retreat, Todd is reluctant to respond and Mrs. Lovett gives up. . . if only for today.
Anthony bursts into Todd's shop, elated he has found Johanna at last. When Todd hears where she is, he now has a new plan for attracting the Judge: he will have Anthony pretend to be a wigmaker and purchase Johanna from Fogg. Then, when Johanna is safe within Todd's reach, Sweeney can summon the Judge and have his revenge there. Anthony bustles off to rescue Johanna and Todd sits down to write a letter to the Judge, "apologizing" and begging his forgiveness, then asking him to come to the shop on Fleet Street to pick up Johanna later that evening.
In the bakehouse, Tobias has been forming his own conclusions about what really happened to Pirelli and warns Mrs. Lovett that he would not hesitate to take any steps necessary to protect her from the monsters that may be troubling her, "even if it was just a man." Tobias and Lovett sing one of the show's most poignantly written songs, "Not While I'm Around," as they swear to protect each other from the evils of the world. Of course, Lovett means none of it, for it was her plan all along to bake humans into meat pies and she is the real "monster" behind her success. Tobias is once more a symbol of corrupted innocence and he childishly vows to always protect Mrs. Lovett.
While Sweeney delivers his letter to Judge Turpin, the Beadle arrives to investigate the Beggar Woman's complaints about the stench coming from the furnace. He sits and plays at the harmonium while Mrs. Lovett feebly attempts to explain away Todd's absence, the odors, and Tobias. It is here that the Final Sequence begins. Todd arrives, and Mrs. Lovett persuades the Beadle to go upstairs with Mr. Todd and accept a shave -- he can inspect the bakehouse later. The Beadle accepts, and he and Sweeney go up the stairs to the barber shop. Mrs. Lovett, fearful of the Beadle's scream as Todd kills him, begins to sing and play loudly on the harmonium. The Beadle comes tumbling down the chute and poor Tobias, locked in the bakehouse, has just discovered a finger baked into one of the pies. He panics and runs down the cellar. Todd arrives downstairs and exclaims "It's done!" Mrs. Lovett responds "Not yet it isn't . . . the boy, he's guessed!" She tries to get Todd to run out and get the boy, but Sweeney's mind is on the Judge. Finally, Mrs. Lovett grabs his arm and pulls him into the bakehouse.
Anthony reaches Fogg's Asylum and, disguised as a wigmaker, attempts to rescue Johanna, but is foiled when she identifies him. Fogg becomes suspicious and Anthony cannot bring himself to shoot Fogg and drops his gun. Johanna immediately picks up the gun and shoots Fogg. Anthony and Johanna run out together with the lunatics of the asylum close on their heels. They are being pursued throughout the city, and as he disposes of his costume, he makes Johanna put on a sailor's costume so that she will not be identified by the police. Meanwhile, Todd and Lovett are searching the bakehouse for Tobias. The Beggar Woman enters looking for the Beadle, who has not come out of the pie shop yet. Johanna and Anthony safely arrive at the Tonsorial Parlor and Anthony once again rushes off to find Mr. Todd, leaving Johanna alone in the barber shop. The Beggar Woman comes into the pie shop. At the same time, Johanna sits in the chair and begins to pull the lever operating the chute, but is scared by the Beggar Woman's entrance and darts for cover in the trunk. The Beggar Woman shuffles up the stairs and mimes rocking a baby, singing her own mad lullaby. Suddenly, Todd appears in the doorway. The Beggar Woman asks him, "Don't I know you, mister?" Just at this moment, the Judge enters the pie shop and Sweeney, desperate to have his revenge against the Judge, slashes the Beggar Woman's throat and sends her tumbling down the chute. The Judge enters the barber shop looking for Johanna, and Sweeney goads him into accepting a quick shave. While the Judge is seated on the chair, he suddenly realizes who Sweeney is. Sweeney reveals himself triumphantly: "Benjamin Barker!" as he slashes the Judge's throat and sends him down the chute.
Todd sings to his razor, "Rest now, my friend, Rest now, forever. Sleep now the untroubled Sleep of the angels. . ." as he lays the razor down. He starts down the stairs, looking for Tobias, and Johanna starts out of the trunk, still dressed as a sailor. Todd turns around and sees the girl, but does not recognize her. Half mad, he forces Johanna into the chair and is about to slash her throat. . . when Mrs. Lovett screams and a factory whistle blows. Sweeney, distracted, darts downstairs and the Company appears, singing "Lift your razor high, Sweeney, Hear it singing 'Yes!' Sink it in the rosy skin of righteousness!"
Mrs. Lovett is downstairs, with the bodies of the Judge and the Beggar Woman. The Judge is still barely alive and is struggling to grab her skirt. She backs away and, for the first time, notices the Beggar Woman. Lovett begins to drag her body towards the furnace and Sweeney appears, razor in hand, to make sure the Judge is dead. Mrs. Lovett, holding the Beggar Woman, attempts to distract his attention, but the furnace doors are flung open and the light from the roaring fire hits the Beggar Woman. Todd realizes that the Beggar Woman is in fact his wife, Lucy, and that Mrs. Lovett has lied to him the entire time. "No, no, not lied at all, No I never lied. . . Said she took the poison - she did! Never said that she died, poor thing! She lived--." While Mrs. Lovett twitters away in cut time, Todd approaches her, singing Lucy's name over and over again. Mrs. Lovett tells Todd she loves him and Todd finally realizes that he murdered his wife. He sweeps Mrs. Lovett into a waltz as he sings "And life is for the alive, my dear, So let's keep living it --!" and then, as she hesitantly joins in, he dances her closer to the oven and flings her inside, slamming the door. Todd sinks to his knees beside Lucy and cradles her in his arms, singing about their past life. Tobias enters, his hair completely white, and sees Todd's razor on the ground. After a brief scuffle, Tobias slashes Sweeney's throat, leaving him to die draped across Lucy. Tobias returns to the meat grinder and begins to grind the meat as the whistle blows, Anthony, Johanna and two policemen enter.
The full Company appears for the Epilogue, once more repeating the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and exhorting the audience not to practice revenge... "To seek revenge may lead to hell, But everyone does it and seldom as well. . . As Sweeney, As Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet -- Street!" The Company vanishes and the show is over.
There are several important thematic elements in this carefully written commentary on our society, and Sondheim makes good use of his music to accent not only the melodramatic plot, but these themes as well. For example, the song "Kiss Me" becomes an anthem for Anthony and Johanna and a symbol of their true love. . . they loved when they did not even know each other's names. Sweeney Todd may be a dark musical, but its construction lends well to light voices and an equally light orchestral style. Much of the music seems Baroque at times, but this is merely Sondheim's usage of irony. Hal Prince, the show's original director, envisioned the set as a huge iron foundry, taking up the entire stage. This dark, looming, and brooding set piece dominated the audience and dwarfed the actors. Plot-wise, this show is rather light. Its plot is taken almost directly from an age-old British legend, which was turned into a successful melodrama by Christopher Bond in the latter half of the 20th century. The characters seem cartoonish and one-dimensional, especially Mrs. Lovett, Anthony, and Johanna, who appear to be little more than melodramatic character roles. Ironically, Mrs. Lovett, the absolute capitalist, is one of the show's most complex characters as we ponder her insouciance and simultaneous perseverance. Mrs. Lovett is not merely some amoral witch out to make a fast pound, she is a character driven by greed and love to keep Sweeney however she can. It has been speculated that Mrs. Lovett is not really a "Mrs." Some have argued that in order to succeed, Mrs. Lovett took to wearing a wedding ring and inventing a past husband for herself. This would certainly fit her character, as she struggles to succeed.
Sweeney Todd is a play about captive innocence, and the loss of innocence that immediately follows. Sweeney is driven to murder, Mrs. Lovett bakes these people into pies, Johanna kills, Lucy is forced to become a Beggar and a whore, and nearly every major character experiences their own fall from grace. Every character in the show is a captive, whether literally or figuratively. Most importantly, Sweeney is a captive of his revenge and Mrs. Lovett is imprisoned by her love for Sweeney. Both are determined to do whatever possible to attain their goals and both fail, ultimately destroying themselves just short of reaching their goals.
Sweeney Todd is an excellent example of not only the best of Stephen Sondheim, but the best in musical theatre.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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