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Jim McDermottApril 06, 2023
Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, and the cast of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (IBDB)

It begins with an overture you might expect to find in Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, a lugubrious organ signaling something eerie, Victorian. Then with the shriek of a factory whistle, the music shifts to the modern, violins driving us quietly forward into what feels like uncertain territory while the same notes repeat over and over again.

A shadowy figure steps forward from the pale mob standing across the back of the stage. “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” he sings.

It has been nearly 40 years since I first watched the “Great Performances” PBS broadcast of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler/Harold Prince musical “Sweeney Todd,” which has just begun a much-celebrated revival on Broadway.

Based on a British penny dreadful from the mid-18th century, the musical is a blood-spattered tale of revenge, obsession and, to paraphrase one song, “packing people into pies.” Benjamin Barker is a London barber transported to Australia on charges trumped up by a lecherous judge infatuated with Barker’s wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London under the pseudonym Sweeney Todd to find his wife and daughter and have his revenge. What he discovers—and what he does then, at the suggestion of the lovesick, money-poor baker Mrs. Lovett—well, suffice to say it isn’t exactly in keeping with the beatitudes.

I admit, it’s a strange story to love as much as I do. But if anything, my love for "Sweeney Todd" has only grown as I have gotten older.

I admit, it’s a strange story to love as much as I do. But if anything, my love for "Sweeney Todd" has only grown as I have gotten older. I am the age now that I always imagined Sweeney to be (in point of fact, he’s meant to be in his 40s), and I have my own circles under my eyes to show for it. I understand what it is to carry not the fiery, fast-burning resentments of youth but the uranium fuel rods of middle age, endlessly spitting out radiation that kills you slowly.

Composer Stephen Sondheim always described “Sweeney Todd” as a show about obsession. Director Harold Prince thought it was a romance—whether with Sweeney’s dead wife, his imprisoned daughter, his razors or death, he didn’t say. For me, it is a parable of the harrowing cost of grief. In these days in which the church celebrates a man whose divinity was revealed in his willingness to sacrifice everything for love, consider this to be that story’s dark, demonic twin.

Sondheim once said of the play that “the true terror of melodrama comes from its revelations about the frightening power of what is inside human beings.”

There’s a hole in the world

When Sondheim was adapting “Sweeney” from the 1970 play by Christopher Bond, he imagined it as intimate and immersive. He wanted street lamps scattered through the theater and the “half-crazed beggar beggar woman” who haunts the action to be a ghoul that might suddenly pop up and scare the audience. More than anything he saw Sweeney as a horror movie for the stage.

But for Prince, the scale had to be epic—and the story was a damning, Dickensian social critique. He asked producers to buy an abandoned factory in New England and used its exterior to frame the stage. Stained glass in the roof was grimed in soot so thick that not a single beam of sunshine could get in. He told his pallid cast to imagine themselves as “prisoners in a factory…collectively driven to cannibalism.”

Sondheim would eventually get his version, most famously in 2014, when the show was staged in a London pie shop at which you could buy actual meat pies. (The production transferred to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City in 2017.) But social critique remains central to the story. This is a tale of a world in which the poor are driven mad and damned. “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,” Sweeney sings to the dashing and naive young sailor Anthony, who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, “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.”

And yet even as the script describes Sweeney at the start as “a sullen man seething with anger,” there is still a ray of innocence within him, a hope beyond hope in the possibility of justice. After learning from Mrs. Lovett that his wife killed herself after being raped by the aforementioned judge, and that their daughter has been for all these years the judge’s ward, Sweeney concocts a plan to lure the judge to his barber shop and cut his throat, rescuing his daughter and avenging his wife.

As the act goes on, we see Sweeney slowly shedding some of the despair he has carried. He charms a crowd with his wit and talent, wins the judge’s assistant, the beadle, over, and in short order welcomes the judge. In the culminating moment, he’s so totally overtaken with joy and perhaps relief, he stops to sing a gorgeous duet with the judge. Ostensibly it commemorates the beauty of women, but we know better. After 15 years of holding them in so tight, he can finally share his tender feelings for his beautiful, betrayed wife. Against all odds, he has found a way out of the pit.

Even as the script describes Sweeney at the start as “a sullen man seething with anger,” there is still a ray of innocence within him, a hope beyond hope in the possibility of justice.

The way I’ve dreamed you were

Of course it all goes terribly awry, and Sweeney is left with the realization that he’s still just as naïve as he’s ever been. “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,” he sings again, “and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit.” He comes to a new conclusion: “We all deserve to die.”

And in a way this is what I mean when I say “Sweeney” twins with the Passion. Who knows better than Jesus at the end of the Gospels just how awful humanity is, how unworthy of salvation? Or how alone we all are? “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” he cries. And yet he responds to this heartbreak with faith and surrender.

Sweeney surrenders to his heartbreak, too, and there’s something unexpectedly touching about it. Early in Act II as Anthony tries to learn where the judge has hidden Johanna, Sweeney sings lovingly to her while the stench from the cooked bodies of the dead he’s killed draws screams from the beggar woman below. In the Lincoln Center concert version from 2014, Sweeney (played by opera singer Bryn Terfel) spends most of the song daydreaming of his daughter, his tone gentle for the first time. He begins by singing her name; his voice ethereally high, it sounds like an invocation.

In the verses that follow, Terfel proceeds more slowly than most actors do in the role. And even as it allows him to wield each hard consonant like another slash of the blade in his hands, it also gives Sweeney a more thoughtful character; more than anything he seems like a father at the grave of his long-dead daughter, finally at a point of acceptance with what’s happened and able to talk to her now as a friend.

But all the while, he’s also killing people. And as Sweeney readies his blade for his last customer, the man’s wife and daughter show up, foiling his plans. It is a classic example of Sondheim’s wit; he relishes a hoisted petard. But when the three leave, there is also a quiet poignancy. Husband, wife, and teenage daughter: This is the life that Sweeney has lost.

As he began the song with his daughter’s name, so now he ends with one, long last word: “Goodbye.” But behind him on another platform stands Johanna herself, her presence revealing the painful truth behind his words: This is not a loving elegy for a lost daughter. It’s a suicide note. (To my mind this is the saddest song Sondheim ever wrote.)

As his blood-smeared victims rise from the dead to sing of the demon barber one last time, my heart always wells with grief and regret.

City on fire

Sondheim once said of the play that “the true terror of melodrama comes from its revelations about the frightening power of what is inside human beings.” And in the crazed miasma that is the final sequence of “Sweeney Todd”, as escapees from a mental institution rush back and forth shrieking while Sweeney prepares to kill the judge, we and Sweeney both confront exactly that.

Having killed the beggar woman to keep her from ruining his shot at the judge, Sweeney suddenly recognizes her face, and realizes everything he has been told from the start by Mrs. Lovett was a lie. It’s a brutal moment, and one that only hurts worse upon seeing the show again. In the new revival, Annaleigh Ashford plays Mrs. Lovett with a Lucille Ball-like hilarity. It’s the most interesting and joyous take on the character since Angela Lansbury’s performance in Sondheim’s original. And yet throughout the show it kept coming back to me, like waves beating hard upon the rocks: “This is all a lie. She has betrayed him, too.” Sondheim himself called Mrs. Lovett “the true villain of the piece.”

While Mrs. Lovett begs Sweeney to remember the life they could have together “by the sea,” he returns to his dark epiphany of the inescapable hell in which they all live. But this time he strikes a repentant chord: “The history of the world, my pet, is learn forgiveness and try to forget.”

In truth, he is just telling her what she wants to hear so that he can get her close enough to the baking furnace to throw her in. But if there is a lesson to this bloody, corpse-strewn tale, it is indeed that the only way forward in life, maybe the only way to survive it, really, is to practice forgiveness and try to forget.

As his blood-smeared victims rise from the dead to sing of the demon barber one last time, my heart always wells with grief and regret. Resentment is an acid that burns away everything and everyone that it touches. I know this. I have seen it in my life and in the lives of others that I love.

But forgiveness is also so damn hard. Maybe the reason I am so passionate about this grim and nihilistic musical, particularly as we enter into the Easter Triduum, is that I hope in loving this broken man I come to some greater compassion for the brokenness in others, and in myself.

More: Theater / Easter

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