Musical about obsession makes the cut at Civic
September 12, 2019
The opening words, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…,” began a love affair I have had with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street since I first became aware of the show in the early ’80s.
I have always been enthralled with the entirety of the piece; how, when looked at separately, each of the elements is exquisitely detailed and complete, and when joined together somehow manages to be exponentially more than just a sum of its parts.
The clever language, the treatment of a taboo subject with wicked humor, the unique and memorable characters, a true chorus, the lush orchestration and underscoring, the haunting melodies with intertwining motifs, the grand, opulent feel of an opera that still manages to hold the intimacy of musical theatre, the representation of huge, overarching themes — and all of it intricately meshed together to present an intriguing, cautionary tale. Basically, like life, it’s complex.
The character Sweeney Todd traces his origins to the 1846 Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls. The story of the murderous barber became an urban legend, retold many times, and eventually caught the eye of British playwright Christopher Bond. It was Bond’s version, giving Todd a more sympathetic motive, upon which Stephen Sondheim based his musical.
As with everything about Sweeney, important ideas are intertwined and plentiful. There is a smorgasbord of meaty themes to be explored.
Consider this one verse, “In all of the whole human race…there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one staying put in his proper place, and the one with his foot in the other one’s face…. and the lives of the wicked should be made brief — for the rest of us, death will be a relief. We all deserve to die…”
In this one passage, the ideas of capitalism, greed, exploitation, the class system, vengeance, and perhaps even the safety concerns of food preparations are explored.
Sweeney Todd is not merely a show about a crazed Victorian serial killer, but more about being caged in by a cycle of destructive obsession. The idea that obsession and hypocrisy live unacknowledged in each of us, that we justify our own choices — however immoral, dark, indecent, or frowned upon by society — all the while passing judgment on and castigating others for their decisions.
We all do it, and then polish up our thirst for revenge and retribution by calling it justice. We recognize ourselves in Sweeney. Sweeney isn’t a stranger to us. He is us.
We have had a delicious time working on this show. The magnitude of talent on our stage is staggering, and we have been truly lucky to have this group of gifted artists working on stage and on the production team.
Ben, Murphy, and I invite you to sit back, relax, and attend our tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. We caution you to remember, “To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it, though seldom as well…”