The Shaw Festival Theatre - Niagara-on-the-Lake
by Mike Keenan
You will never trust your barber in quite the same way...
Kyle Blair as Adolfo Pirelli and Benedict Campbell as Sweeney Todd with the cast - Photo by David Cooper
When I opened the program, a single sheet insert read that for this performance of Sweeney Todd, Jenny L. Wright would fill in for Corrine Koslo in the key role of Mrs Lovett. Damn! I wanted to see Koslo play the main female role opposite Benedict Campbell's Todd because I admire her flair and artistic dexterity. No worries... it turned out that Wright shone brightly as the standby. I couldn't dream of Koslo performing the role any better. Such is the strength of Shaw's talented ensemble.
This is Jackie Maxwell's last show of her final season spanning 14 years at the Festival, and next season, British director Tim Carroll takes over. The strength of Shaw's ensemble may also be its weakness - at least in musicals because some productions demand massive talent for success. Maxwell introduced musicals in Niagara on the Lake to bulk up Shaw's financial take as Stratford had done successfully years ahead. In 2015's Sweet Charity, she cast Julie Martell as Charity and Martel was indeed workmanlike and competent, but that particular role demands surplus talent in song and dance which Martel did not have. In Sweeney Todd, I encountered the same problem. Campbell was competent and workmanlike as Sweeney, but here again, we need excess for ultimate success.
There are glimpses. Marcus Nance as wicked judge Turpin has a deep, resonant voice one could listen to all night, while Kyle Blair was a standout with his comic portrayal of Adolfo Pirelli who engages Todd in a
contest as to who can give the closet shave and pull the quickest tooth. Jeff Irving is convincing as Anthony Hope, a handsome sailor and well named in his pursuit of Todd's daughter, Johanna played by Kristi Frank, their first scene reminiscent of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.
Sweeney Todd's desolate set befits the blood-spattered theme. In order to violate Todd's wife the judge, aided and abetted by The Beadle (Jay Turvey) had imprisoned Benjamin Barker in far off Australia, but after 15 years he returns with a new name to exact revenge. The judge ups the ante by taking on Todd's daughter as a ward and then intending to marry her. Patty Jamieson as a beggar woman reminds me of the soothsayer in Julius Caesar. With her presence, you know that something bad is about to happen. Mrs Lovett just happens to have kept Todd's straight razor and other barber apparatus in a box, and a series of grisly murders begin with their partnership, her meat pies taking on a strange yet popular taste about which they cynically joke as Todd dispatches customer after customer as supply and demand rapidly increase, so much so that Todd hopes to eventually dispatch the judge.
Judith Bowden effectively turns London's Fleet Street into a bombed out Syrian city - dangerous, dark and as dystopian as Margaret Atwood's bleak Oryx and Crake. Alan Brodie's eerie lighting and John Lott's sound assist in this endeavour. Musical director Paul Sportelli and his band are wonderful as always with this difficult Sondheim score, really an opera in my view.
Maxwell's staging is superb as is the ensemble, particularly in their intermittent groupings like a faulty neon sign, pulsing and probing, the audience edgy as serial killings take place, thankfully with minimal blood, and the chute that sends each corpse directly to the basement below actually takes on a gallows humour of its own.
This production was well received by an appreciative audience with a standing ovation. There are no tunes that stick in one's head to hum afterwards, but the brilliant staging alone is well worth seeing.
As usual, the program offers these enriching notes -
"Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" by Michael Billington
So runs the first line of this haunting musical thriller. And audiences have been attending Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, for the last 37 years. I've seen it staged over that time in a vast variety of venues. At one extreme, there was Broadway's 1700-seat Uris Theatre, where the show had its premiere in 1979, to the even bigger Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2003. At the other end of the spectrum were small-scale stagings in the National's Cottesloe Theatre in 1993 and an even more intimate pie-and-mash shop in south London in 2014. And you know what? It works beautifully wherever you put it on. For years a debate has rumbled on as to how to classify the piece. Hal Prince, having already staged Sondheim's Company, Follies, A Little
Night Music and Pacific Overtures, naturally saw it as a musical, albeit one on an epic scale. His famous 1979 production gave this tale of a wronged barber who seeks revenge on society a strong political impetus. Eugene Lee's vast set, using parts of old foundries from Rhode Island, evoked an Industrial Revolution that dwarfed and degraded humanity: this was virtually Brecht on Broadway. But on the first night Harold Clurman, the doyen of American theatre critics, rushed up to the former manager of the Metropolitan Opera to know why he had not offered to stage it, only to be told "I'd have put it on like a shot if I'd had the opportunity because it is an opera - a modern American opera."
Musical or opera? The debate ultimately seems to me futile. Sweeney Todd is one of those rare masterworks that can accommodate a variety of styles and approaches. Just as Guys and Dolls was included in the anthology of Best Plays of 1950 on the grounds that it outstripped in wit and coherence the season's straight dramas, so Sweeney Todd can be viewed as a superb musical play or an opera that can sit comfortably alongside Verdi or Puccini. But it's worth paying attention to Sondheim's own terminology: "a musical thriller." It's a reminder that Sondheim has always been addicted to cinematic horror stories. Indeed in his own classic commentary on his work, Finishing the Hat, Sondheim tells us that the show was conceived as a tribute to Bernard Herrmann who scored the Edwardian thriller, Hangover Square, as well as a number of Hitchcock's classics. But just why has this tale of a barber-turned-serial-killer such a strong hold on our affections? One answer is to look at the show's origins.
In 1973 Sondheim was in London for rehearsals of Gypsy, for which he'd written the lyrics, and on a night off went to see Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It was written by Christopher Bond and was staged at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royal in London's East End. What Bond had done - and I remember the production well - was to take an old London legend of a mad barber who murdered his customers to turn them into pies and transformed it into a beguiling melodrama. That instantly triggered Sondheim's imagination since it combined a meaty story, blood-chilling horror and natural opportunities for music.
But genius has its own rules and, after Hugh Wheeler had artfully rewritten Bond's original, Sondheim created a work that strikes me as intensely personal. There's a famous story of Hal Prince's wife, Judy, listening to Sondheim's early piano version of the score. According to Sondheim, after a few bars, she cried "Oh God, I didn't know this was what it was about.
It's nothing to do with Grand Guignol. It's the story of your life." That may seem a strange remark to make of a cultivated Broadway composer and lyricist: a man who today, at the age of 86, is famous for his benignity and charm. But, although there is no obvious connection between a Victorian serial killer and Stephen Sondheim, what Judy Prince instinctively grasped was
that the musical is a study in obsession. For me Sweeney Todd ranks with Company as one of Sondheim's rare works of personal revelation. Company was the story of a Manhattan bachelor nervous of long-term emotional commitment. In Sweeney Todd, Sondheim capitalizes on his own - and, by extension, our own - darkest fears about the danger of single-minded preoccupation with a fixed idea.
There are many other reasons why audiences around the world have flocked to this work for four decades. For a start there is the brilliant creative friction - Sondheim's particular trademark - between words and music. The most intensely emotional love-song in the piece comes when Sweeney hymns his precious razors proclaiming, in an inversion of the "Dies Irae" theme that runs through the work, "Friends, You shall drip rubies / You'll soon drip precious rubies." And when Sweeney and his partner-in-crime, Mrs Lovett, seal their murderous pact it is in a song, "A Little Priest", written in three-four waltz time. Eating people may be wrong but the grisly prospect of "some shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd on top" is alleviated by the rousing gaiety of the tune. It's as if the murderous obsession of Titus Andronicus, who also uses cannibalism as an act of revenge, has been set to music by Johann Strauss.
Sweeney Todd is also a gift to performers. The title-role requires a strong voice and consummate acting and I've seen a fine assortment of Sweeneys including Len Cariou, Thomas Allen, Bryn Terfel and Michael Ball, but only lately have I come to grasp the point that Sweeney starts as a man quietly nursing a private grievance - "Inconspicuous Sweeney was / Quick and quiet and clean 'e was" - and only gradually becomes a demonic killer.
Mrs Lovett is an equally great role for a woman which I've seen inhabited by a variety of performers including Angela Lansbury, Julia Mackenzie, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton. What strikes me is how beautifully Sondheim and Wheeler prepare the ground showing a woman who, initially horrified by murder, allows love and greed to overcome instinctive morality.
In the course of my reviewing life, I've been lucky enough to see a handful of works that, even on first acquaintance, one can see have the capacity to turn into classics. That rare band would certainly include Tony Kushner's Angels in America, David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. To that select list I would add, without a moment's hesitation, Sondheim's masterly musical about the dangerous destructiveness of obsession.
Michael Billington has been drama critic of The Guardian since 1971. He is the author of several books including An Authorized Biography of Harold Pinter (1996) and an award-winning assessment of post-war British drama, State of the Nation (2007). His most recent book is the 101 Greatest Plays - From Antiquity to the Present (2015). He also frequently broadcasts and lectures on the arts.
Musical Director's Notes by Paul Sportelli
Early on in rehearsals, I turned to my associate Ryan deSouza at the piano to explain how I would conduct a complex section of music. He replied "Oh, I'm not looking, I'm counting."
There was no way Ryan was going to take his eyes off the complicated section of music in order to watch me conduct. I consider Sweeney Todd - the sixth
Sondheim musical we've
produced at the Shaw Festival - his most complex score. Complexity not for its own sake, but rather to heighten our engagement with the story and characters. Like Wagner, Sondheim employs leitmotifs that correspond to characters and events and deepen our experience of the story. Sondheim wrote Sweeney Todd in the late 1970s, at the end of a decade where the minimalist music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich was gaining ground. I believe that Sondheim was influenced by this music - not the harmonic vocabulary (Sondheim sounds like Sondheim) - but the ever-morphing rhythmic patterns, changing meter and cycles within cycles. These techniques take us inside Sweeney's head and make the story's progress seem inevitable. I could tell you a surprising chunk of the story of Sweeney Todd just through Sondheim's chords, motifs and rhythmic patterns.
Sondheim called Sweeney Todd "a musical thriller"; he is a fan of Bernard Herrmann's scores for Alfred Hitchcock films and one can hear this influence. Sondheim also loves
puzzles, and this is most apparent in Sweeney Todd. The Shaw Company would arrive at rehearsals in various frames of mind, but within a few minutes of rehearsing this music,
all of our brains would go to the exact same exciting place to crack the
intricacies of this score. I recall a rehearsal where I looked over at my music intern, Joseph Tritt, and his eyes
were ablaze with the fire of Sondheim puzzle-solving. It has been a challenge and a joy to assemble this epic musical.
Director's Notes by Jackie Maxwell
The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat. The opening line of this astonishing musical is "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd", and this exhortation does two things: it immediately makes the audience a part of the story and, like any good "tale", implies that if you do "attend" you might learn something along the way.
And here is a tale indeed - one of revenge and mayhem with a love story to root for, twists and turns galore, jokes (yes), several heart-stopping shocks, not to mention a radical solution for a failing pie business. All of this is rooted, however, in a world where gaping class inequities are the norm, and the manipulation of a corrupt justice system is rife - a world
where the mode of dog eats dog holds sway.
Familiar? Of course.
And so we bring you this story as one which has clearly been played out many times - a Victorian penny dreadful that erupts when it needs to be told, again and again and again.
We can't simply sit back and judge. As our company points out: "Isn't that Sweeney there beside you?" Maybe they are right.
Eleven years ago I directed the first musical to play in our Festival Theatre - Gypsy. Seven years later I directed Ragtime, an important milestone for our Company. It feels
right then to be ending my tenure as artistic director with this brilliant piece of, dare I say, Shavian Musical Theatre, which demands and has received so much commitment and
collaboration from all parts of this extraordinary organization through to the cast, crew and creative team.
Ridiculously hard work, yes - but what a joy.
The name of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (b.1930) has become synonymous with experimentation and excellence in the field of musical theatre. Born in New York City, he moved to rural Pennsylvania with his mother when his parents separated, and their neighbours included Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim began piano lessons at age seven, wrote original musicals in high school and college, and after a couple of attempts at Broadway musicals, he was chosen to write lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's music in West Side Story (1957), one of the great landmarks in American musical theatre.
The success of Sondheim's lyrics for Gypsy (1959) and Do I Hear a Waltz (1965), and of his music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), established him as a new leader on the Broadway scene. Soon came a spectacularly successful series of productions directed by another Broadway legend, Hal Prince. These included Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd (1979). In 1981, the failure of the Broadway premiere of Merrily We Roll Along brought an end to the Sondheim-Prince partnership, and Sondheim's subsequent hits included three productions with director/writer James Lapine - Sunday in the Park with George (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Into the Woods (1987) and Passion (1994). In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, Sondheim has won six Tony Awards, seven Grammy Awards, and an Oscar. In 2008, he received the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987) began his career as a mystery novelist before becoming a playwright and screenwriter. Born in London, he moved to the United States after attending London University and began writing mysteries under the pseudonyms Patrick Quentin and Q. Patrick. After 20 years and more than 30 novels, Wheeler wrote his first play, Big Fish, Little Fish (1961) followed by Look: We've Come Through (1962). He then turned to musical theatre and wrote his first book for a musical for Harold Arlen's Softly (1965). But it was his fascination with the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night that proved to be a major turning point for him, leading to his first collaboration with Stephen Sondheim on A Little Night Music, which went on to win six Tony Awards. A second Tony Award came for Candide (1974), when Leonard Bernstein asked him to write a new book for his musical. The collaboration with Sondheim was revived for Sweeney Todd which earned eight Tony Awards including one for Best Book of a Musical. Other credits include musicals The Little Prince and the Aviator (1981) and Meet Me in St Louis (1989). He wrote the screenplays for Harold Prince's Something for Everyone (1970), George Cukor's Travels With My Aunt (1972), Harold Prince's A Little Night Music (1977) and Herbert Ross's Nijinsky (1980). He was also an unaccredited co-screenwriter of Bob Fosse's film version of Cabaret (1972).