Demon Barber of Fleet Street returns

Musical theater or opera? Sondheim's "grusical" masterpiece is on the cutting edge

Musical or opera? Sondheim's "grusical" masterpiece is on cutting edge

Sweeney Todd at HGO 2015
Nathan Gunn as Sweeney Todd; Jake Gardner as Judge Turpin. Photo by Lynn Lane
Sweeney Todd at HGO 2015
Nicholas Phan as Tobias Ragg. Photo by Lynn Lane
Sweeney Todd at HGO 2015
Susan Bullock as Mrs. Lovett. Photo by Lynn Lane
Sweeney Todd at HGO 2015
Sweeney Todd at HGO 2015
Sweeney Todd at HGO 2015

Now, let’s see… we’ve got tinker. Something pinker! Tailor?  Paler.  Butler?  Subtler.  Potter?  Hotter. Locksmith?  And with that last interrogative, Stephen Sondheim indicates in the libretto that Todd simply “shrugs, defeated, as Mrs. Lovett offers another imaginary pie.”  

It’s just one of the many-splendored twists and turns of phrase in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sondheim’s 1979 “musical” based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name.  

 While the work is without doubt a masterpiece, Sweeney was quite shocking to many viewers in 1979. 

Why the quotation marks in that last sentence? Because the jury seems to be out, even to this day, when it comes to finding a proper category for the work. Yes, most of the lines are sung, making it more like an operetta than a musical. And those rhymes, puns, and bullet-like syllables pouring out all over the place, aren’t they a lot like something by Gilbert and Sullivan? In this case, they aren’t quite sung the way singers might approach La Bohème, however, so it is definitely not an opera.

But wait! Sweeney Todd has leitmotifs, lots of them, just like Houston Grand Opera’s current production of Wagner’s Die Walküre.  

In the nearly four decades since Sweeney Todd premiered, I’ve yet to come to any conclusion. Perhaps the question is moot. Thematically, it really is not a far cry from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes or Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, except that it wears the cloak of comedy at many points, especially as regards invention of language.

Extraordinary book

Sweeney Todd has an extraordinary book by the late Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote books for Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures, not to mention the 1974 “second” book for Leonard Bernstein’s  Candide (Lillian Hellman wrote the first, but that is entirely another story). Other categories have been suggested, such as “grusical,” a portmanteau of “musical” with the lovely German word gruseln, and epitomized by examples such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Dance of the Vampires.

  Let’s hope we’re in for more Sondheim “musicals” in subsequent seasons. 

When HGO presents the American premiere of Lee Blakeley’s lavish production at the Wortham, I’ll be interested to observe how great stars like dramatic soprano Susan Bullock and dreamy baritone Nathan Gunn will succeed in trying not to sound like opera singers. I will also want to discern all the myriad details in Blakeley’s scheme, which at its Théâtre du Châtelet premiere four years ago, had sets by Tanya McCallin and lighting design by Rick Fisher. In the New York Times, critic George Loomis wrote, “the Châtelet’s production by Lee Blakeley evokes Industrial-Revolution London down to smallest squalid detail.” Sondheim gave the production his blessing.

Loomis also points out that the difference between seeing this at an opera house and a musical theater is the size of the orchestra. “Broadway productions are notoriously stingy about hiring decent-sized orchestras,” he added, and the point is well-taken. If you saw HGO’s stunning A Little Night Music last season, you know that Sondheim in a space like the Wortham Center, from a major American opera company with a large and talented group of musicians, is nothing short of breathtaking. Let’s hope we’re in for more Sondheim “musicals” in subsequent seasons.

Shocking masterpiece

While the work is without doubt a masterpiece, considered by some to be Sondheim’s supreme masterpiece (and that is saying a lot), it is worth mentioning that in 1979, Sweeney was nonetheless quite shocking to many viewers. By that time, Sondheim had already imprisoned himself within his own masterpiece syndrome.

 Sondheim’s ability to blend disparate elements, high and low, is what keeps so many of us coming back to his work time and again. 

He had scored significant success with his 1970 Company, a tuneful yet biting commentary on dating, relationships, and marriage, with much emphasis on cynical New Yorkers and the attachments they maintain to their own neuroses. The songs remain, to this day, sublime. A year later he gave us Follies, a brilliantly self-reflexive revue about musicals and a decaying Broadway theater waiting to be demolished. It won seven Tony awards.

As if he could possibly have gotten better than those gems, Sondheim offered then A Little Night Music (1973) and Pacific Overtures (1976), respectively on Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night and then the mid-19th century westernization of Japan, from the perspective of the Japanese.

Are you seeing a pattern? No, of course not. On paper, they appear sketchy at best. The only thing that has remained constant over the years is Sondheim’s singular gift of imagination and his ability to keep surprising his growing group of fans and even himself with even more outlandish and unlikely narratives.

In a promotional video, Blakeley likens Sweeney to King Lear, saying the musical has Shakespearean elements that place it far above the average “slasher.” Above, but not too far above. Sondheim’s ability to blend disparate elements, high and low, is what keeps so many of us coming back to his work time and again.

In more recent years, I have lamented the decay of the great American musical, evidenced by sentimental schlock such as Beauty and the Beast and Wicked. In the late 1970s, people were also lamenting that the great heyday of the American musical was long gone. “These are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett, ” Todd exclaims in Sondheim’s masterpiece, “and desperate measures are called for.” Sondheim’s answer? An imaginary pie, and God help those who can discern the true ingredients.