Last week I had the opportunity to see the newest Broadway production of the musical “Sweeney Todd.” First performed in 1979, “Todd” unwinds the grisly tale of a barber in 19th-century England who returns to London after 20 years trapped in a prison colony on trumped-up charges. He is intent on murdering the crooked beadle who arrested him and the lascivious judge who stole his wife and daughter. It’s a wee bit dark. After missing a chance to give the judge “the closest shave he’ll ever have,” Todd despairs, until Mrs. Lovett, the down-on-her-luck owner of a meat-pie shop, concocts an unconventional way of combining his skill with a razor and her line of work. Let’s just say, the cuticle in your calzone might be more than an unfortunate coincidence.... By show’s end, the pie shop is a huge success; there’s a body count befitting Beowulf; and the tragedy is of Greek proportions.
“Sweeney Todd” has been a favorite of mine ever since high school. The barber sounds like a nut, but as performed by Len Cariou in the first version I ever saw, on PBS in the early 1980’s, Todd was a husband whose love had been taken from him, a father heartbroken that he had not had the opportunity to protect his daughter and watch her grow and a poor man struggling against the machinations of the rich and powerful. This wasn’t schlock, it was Shakespeare.
At my high school, “Todd” was one of those musicals everyone in the drama department talked about in hushed tones, our eyes big with visions of ourselves in different roles. The beadle role was a bit small for our drama star Dan Washco; luckily, he wanted the part. Dana Logsdon had Sweeney’s brood about him by nature. Wacky Jenna Fish would eat Mrs. Lovett up (figuratively speaking). And I was going to be the orphan Toby, who helps at the pie shop and tries to protect Mrs. Lovett from harm. Having been Oliver in “Oliver!” and the young page in “Camelot,” waifs had become my niche.
I’m sure I never told my parents about my love for this play. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed the time in therapy. My high school never did put it on; but since then, any chance I have to see a production, I go. Thirteen years ago in St. Paul, Minn., a towering African-American man knocked us out with his woeful Sweeney. In 1999 Harvard University put on an astonishing performance at the American Repertoire Theater. I can’t remember who I went with, but I will never forget Sweeney’s daughter violently shaking the enormous hanging cage in which she was locked while singing the pretty but desperate “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” The year before, a concert version in San Francisco offered big-name stars and low-budget performances.
Broadway’s latest production has the nickname “Teeny Sweeney.” The cast consists of only 10 people, acting on a tight set. It’s been getting a lot of buzz, both because it features Broadway superstars Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, and because the cast plays all the instruments. The sight of LuPone strutting around the stage hoisting a tuba is worth every laugh she milks it for.
Unfortunately, this incarnation thinks itself a Halloween special. Once murdered, the ghoulishly white-faced cast members perform in bloody medical coats. In the lead, Cerveris reduces Todd to a sociopathic zombie. The show just needed someone to run around with a chainsaw, preferably wearing a hockey mask, and the moment would have been complete. I left, having met some nice college students from Hawaii and feeling we all now had a better sense of the meaning of the word vulgar.
It’s too bad. Well played, “Sweeney Todd” evokes the madness in our grieving. If you love, you risk to lose. And when you lose, the pain can be so unbearable, you’d think of doing just about anything to make it stop. The only course of action that works is to try to accept its burden.
But that’s the hardest thing in the world to do.
A Word of Appreciation
The editors would like to extend a word of thanks on our own behalf and that of our readers to Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., for her distinguished service for the past three years as The Word columnist for America. Countless preachers and men and women of prayer have benefitted from her insight and instruction. With this issue, she will be succeeded by Daniel Harrington, S.J., professor of Sacred Scripture at Weston School of Theology and for many years editor of New Testament Abstracts.