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Reflections: Opera Theatre's 'Sweeney Todd' meets a standard set in New York 33 years ago

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2012 - I saw “Sweeney Todd” at the Uris Theatre on West 51th Street in 1979. Angela Lansbury was Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou was the Demon Barber. The memory constructed for me by that show, in that cavernous barn of a theater, is so vivid and treasured, so disturbing and ultimately reassuring, I never expected to see those convictions challenged by any subsequent production of this Stephen Sondheim masterpiece.

I made the mistake of watching parts of the Tim Burton movie version at home, but it was nothing more than a nuisance, and I was happy when it went creeping back to Netflix. However, when I heard that Opera Theatre of St. Louis was planning to produce “Sweeney Todd,” I feared not. That is because, having come to Webster Groves to attend the company’s operas since 1976, and thanks to one instructive year working for Richard Gaddes as a member of the company’s staff, I know Opera Theatre‘s considerable capabilities. I trust it to treat works of substance with care and thoughtfulness.

The company seems not only to know its way around the standard repertory as well as new works but also around Sondheim. He is a consummate musical and theatrical craftsman. In his understanding that content directs form, and that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s observations that less truly is more and that god is in the details are valid, he is enabled to create towering works of art that appear to sprawl all over the philosophical landscape but in the end are tightly constructed, thrifty, and like Mies’s Seagrams Building on Park Avenue in New York, glow with the forces of revelation.

Two years ago, Opera Theatre brought “A Little Night Music” to the stage magnificently. So my supposition was that the company understood Sondheim’s genius well enough that a good enough “Sweeney Todd” would be forthcoming. I was only partly right. The essential flame of the 1979 magic shines brightly in this production – and far from being simply good enough, it is extraordinary, boldly ambitious and, indeed, hypnotic.

“Sweeney Todd” can be presented as a sadistic farce or as a morality play, but it is considerably more complicated than either of those interpretations. The conflict is, biblical. When we learn, for example, how brutally Todd was screwed by the system, how an unscrupulous judge stole his wife and daughter from him and that Todd – real name Benjamin Barker – was sent to Australia with many other British criminals, we clamor for revenge. The chorus sings,

“He’d seen how civilized men behave
He never forgot and he never forgave.”

And indeed, why should he? We cheer his desire for retribution of a most bloody sort and find it bizarrely imaginative.

Soon enough, Todd hooks up with Mrs. Lovett, whose meat pie business is in  serious doldrums because they tasted so bad. She and Todd discuss the fact that a competitor grinds up cats for pie filling, and Lovett and Todd follow that general recipe, except Lovett grinds up gentlemen whose throats are slit by Todd in the barbering chair. “A Little Priest” is a hilarious song, but becomes part of a weighty pile of evidence of wanton criminality.

Although there are customers enough to fill a thousand pies, they actually are bait. That is because the quarry really is the malignantly evil Judge Turpin, who has blood on his hands too, because he is holding Todd’s kidnapped daughter, Johanna, close at hand, a hostage to his sociopathic desires. A fatuous character, the Beadle, whose sadism approximates Todd’s, assists him.

Contrast these vicious characters to Anthony, who has accompanied Todd back to London – and was, in fact, a party to saving Todd’s life. On arriving in London, both Anthony and Todd sing “There’s No Place Like London,” but their takes on it are polar: Anthony sings of the music of its ubiquitous bells. Todd warns Anthony that, indeed, while there is no place like London, the distinction rests in criminality and injustice. Todd tells young Anthony that his eyes will be opened to the evils of the capital and the world it represents metaphorically. “You will learn,” Todd warns Anthony. And learn he does, in lesson after painful lesson.

Two other characters weave special threads into this sprawling tapestry of humanity.

One is the beggar woman, who – as fools and lunatics often do – speaks smut and nonsense to begin with, but eventually her gibberish emerges as the truth, in this case the horrible truth of the charnel house Todd and Mrs. Lovett have established. In the moments we spend seeing the early days of this business, we are nervously amused, but dawn soon reveals we are watching murder. The stench it throws out is symbolic of the evil that produces it. In the end, the beggar woman’s identity is revealed, and we are not surprised whom she turns out to be. She fills the role of Knowing, and the knowing suffer special torment.

And then there is Tobias, the boy who sings so sweetly, so sincerely to Mrs. Lovett, “No one is going to harm you, not while I’m around.” However, he cannot save her from her own special damnation. Tobias is innocence, and his naïve innocence is no match for the venality of the murderous duo. Indeed, although they share space on the stage, they inhabit separate universes.

This brings us to Anthony and Johanna, whose courage emerges from a smelter of evil and horror. In an early and telling scene, Anthony tries to buy a bird for Johanna. We learn from the peddler that the birds have been blinded so that they will sing through the night. Judge Turpin’s Beadle discovers that Anthony has bought a bird for Johanna, and he reaches into the cage, grabs the bird, breaks its neck and throws it to the ground. Although the brutality of that scene is nothing compared to Todd and Co., we feel it sharply because it has to do with a deliberate assault on innocence. It also prefigures Todd’s particular manner of human extermination.

I’m certain there are reams of interpretations of this show. I am confident that the answers posed by the various behaviors are not clearly delineated. I am satisfied with that ambiguity, as well as an understanding of this show as a gigantic tapestry that is, when viewed at a remove, crazed in its discordant complexity; however, on close inspection there is an order to it that reveals a quite biblical war between evil, born of vengeance, and goodness, born of courage.

I imagine lesser productions can hint at these qualities. Only a great one, such as Opera Theatre’s realization of “Sweeney Todd,” can touch the cosmic lessons. The company’s “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Ron Daniels and conducted by Stephen Lord, follows the trails of human frailties and human strengths so effectively as to arrive, at the hammer’s blow of conclusion, at a place that appeared to be, from where I sat, Redemption.

An Afterword

I meant to avoid any discussion of whether “Sweeney Todd” is an opera. Stephen Sondheim in his 2010 book “Finishing The Hat,” declares impatience with opera itself, and initially describes “Sweeney Todd” as “dark operetta,” then changes his mind and says that is a misnomer.

Rather, he says, “What ‘Sweeney Todd’ really is is a movie for the stage.” Good enough! And -- given the cinematic notions that inform the company’s “Carmen” this year -- his description is particularly interesting and apropos.

I’ve come to a point in my life where I truly think labeling one show as opera and another as an operetta or a musical and fussing about it is not only academic but also tiresome.

Similarly, having seen all the ink spilt for Ben Brantley’s declaration against the institution of the standing ovation last week in The New York Times, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that standing-ovation discussions are tiresome, too. If you want to stand up and applaud, be my guest. Who, other than the infinitesimal population of critics, cares if you sit or stand?

What matters is not where you stand on ovations, but what you take home with you: treasures such as the experience of seeing “Sweeney Todd” in New York in 1979, and the entirely comparable and estimable experience of seeing it in St. Louis more than three decades later. 

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.