Monday, February 17, 2014

Sweeney Todd: There's No Place Like London

All jokes about Andrew Lloyd Webber aside, musical theater doesn't figure very heavily into discussions of horror. Comedy, drama, entertainment spectacle? Sure. But not horror. Bursting into song? Not very scary (again, all jokes about Andrew Lloyd Webber aside). But I'll be damned if Sweeney Todd isn't one of the scariest things I've ever seen.

Now, I'm not talking about the overblown Tim Burton version, which ends up being yet another exercise in taking an Edward Gorey aesthetic and blowing it up to Tex Avery proportions while simultaneously losing all of the charm or strangeness either of those things would usually promise. No, that one's cartoonishly ghoulish, even for all of its pretensions of being "dark", it's largely toothless compared to this one. I'm talking about a 1982 television production of the version that debuted on Broadway in 1979. It's merciless, bleak, and unsparing, feverish and apocalyptic.

In the opening song, we are told to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," and it's one hell of a tale: A respectable London barber named Benjamin Barker had his life ruined by a corrupt judge who had taken a shine to his wife. Barker was sentenced to transportation on trumped-up charges, his wife poisoned herself in grief and shame after the judge raped her , and his daughter - now for all purposes an orphan - was adopted by the very judge who put the whole thing into motion.

Flash forward 15 years, to 1846, as a ship is pulling into the London dockyards, carrying Barker (now going by the name Sweeney Todd) and the sailor who rescued Todd from the wreckage of the boat he used to escape the penal colony. This sailor - Anthony - knows nothing of Todd's past, and Todd is happy to keep it that way. They have both returned home after being a long time gone.

London has changed much in the 15 years Todd has been away, and the first place he returns to is the site of his old barber shop on Fleet Street. It's vacant, upstairs from a struggling pie shop run by the hapless Mrs. Lovett. Todd wishes to rent it and begin to plot his revenge against the judge who destroyed him, but where to start? Well, Mrs. Lovett can help him there, she knows all about the sad story of Benjamin Barker and knows exactly who Todd is. She points him in the right direction, and - his beloved heirloom razors in hand, kept safe all these years under the floorboards of his shop - he begins the deadly work of murdering everyone complicit in the ruin of his life. But murder is a complicated thing - once you've cut a throat, what do you do with the body? They're big, hard to hide, hard to get rid of. And there are going to be a lot of bodies before Todd's work is done.

Ah, there again, Mrs. Lovett has an idea. More to the point, she has a meat grinder and an oven. And, "with the price of meat what it is/when you get it/(if you get it)," well, they come to an arrangement. Todd murders the guilty, and Mrs. Lovett feeds them to the rest of London in her meat pies.

Keep in mind, this is just the setup, the work of the first act. Nothing is simple, everything is complicated. Todd's daughter Johanna is a fine-looking young woman now, and sailor Anthony happens to make her acquaintance and a love story blooms, much to the dismay of the judge, who has been waiting patiently for Johanna to reach her majority for reasons I don't think I need to outline here (they aren't good reasons). Getting to the judge isn't the easiest of tasks, and for Todd, anyone who gets between him and his revenge needs to go. It is an ugly, avaricious, grasping, corrupt world, as Todd sings "there's a hole in the world like a great black pit/and the vermin of the world inhabit it/and it's morals aren't worth what a pig would spit/and it goes by the name of London" his contempt is palpable. The real meat (haha) of the story is the second act, when wheels are put into motion, and like the clockwork of the age, wheels turn other wheels which turn other wheels and the tragedy of Sweeney Todd is put into motion.

Put simply, this isn't what I think most people think of when musical theater comes to mind. It is pitch black, unsparing in its themes, and the presentation follows. Setting is everything - it's a spare stage, made up mostly of metal scaffolding and framework marked by incidental props and furniture used to establish settings - it's the metal skeleton of London laid bare, the bones of the beast that was the Second Industrial Revolution, with a backdrop consisting of crammed buildings and smog as far as the eye can see. The action is punctuated by shrill, keening steam whistles that set the audience on edge and suggest the hysterical madness seething below the surface of this society - this is the age of soot and grime and steam and factories and child labor and grinding tenement poverty and everyone is just on this side of completely losing it. The score, the movements and voices of the actors, all of it suggests a churning madness just barely kept in check, and the steam whistles are nothing so much as screams.

The costuming contributes to the atmosphere as well - this is a videotape of a staged production, so everyone is made up for the stage. As a result, everyone has a stark, ghastly pallor marked by heavy age lines. On stage, it looks more or less normal, but from our perspective, on tape, it looks heavily expressionistic, closer to something like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. This complements the setting nicely - everyone here is a ghoul, almost nobody is innocent (except for Anthony and Johanna, and they contrast so sharply with their surroundings it almost hurts), and this is a London where everyone is climbing all over everyone else trying to get what they can, when they can. Blackmail, bribery, murder, the casual abuse of the mentally ill, prostitution, everyone feeds on everyone else. That the cannibalism is literal as well as metaphorical is pretty much just a formality, it's predators all the way down.

As with the staging and dressing, the performances are stronger and broader than we're used to in film - they have to be for the stage, they're playing to the back row. This broadness underscores the outsized Grand Guignol aesthetic, and the title character radiates hate and menace anytime he's on stage. In some ways, it feels like we've stepped into the world of a silent film, only now everyone can talk and it's in color, while still being just as expressionistic.  The end result seethes and writhes, like swarms of rats as they hurry to abandon the sinking ship of London. Earlier I referred to the production as apocalyptic, and a strong feeling of impending doom runs throughout - there's a repeated refrain of "city on fire!" that underscores the idea that everything is falling apart, and Todd's monstrosity (as well as that of the judge and others) are just symptoms of a larger disease.

What little relief we get comes either in the form of Anthony and Johanna singing to each other and making plans to run away together (which is small relief because they are so good, so innocent, that we can't help but think that London is going to eat them alive) or the black humor of Todd and Lovett - their duet "A Little Priest" consists of all kinds of awful puns based on the type of people who end up in Lovett's meat pies, and although it's one of the bigger sources of laughs in the production, it's still the two of them sharing a hearty chuckle at the thought of feeding human flesh to unwitting customers. They're laughing into the void.

None of this would matter as much if the music undercut the mood, but it doesn't in the slightest. This is not the radio-ballad friendliness of modern musicals, this is Stephen Sondheim at his thorniest. The music is nervy, hurried, frenetic, time signatures twisting and coiling phrases into gnarled poems to fear and dread. It's much more operatic than what we usually think of as musical theater today, with lots of ranging into upper registers to match the steam whistles and a chorus commenting on the action. Even the kinder, gentler, sweeter numbers, extolling the virtues of pretty women or assuring someone that no harm will come to them, are juxtaposed with moments of horrible violence, impending danger, or black grief and regret. There are ballads, but they are sung by murderers to the murdered, or by people who cook and serve other people, or corrupt officials who think nothing of bending the law to serve their base desires. Again, the only exception are our lovers, Anthony and Johanna, and their sweetness and innocence, while the one bright ray in the whole production, in their singularity make it hard to take solace in their joy because you're just waiting for the other boot to drop every moment they're on stage.

In the end, everything falls apart in the worst way possible as everyone's agendas collide, leaving almost none alive or unbroken. The opening ballad is reprised as a warning: Attend the tale, lest you fall prey to Todd or someone worse, and a final slam of an iron door punctuates the proceedings - this story has ended, but the world that Todd saw so unsparingly goes on, and his last look at the audience implicates us all.

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