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God, that's good! How I fell for my favorite musical
In a youth almost entirely unblemished by voluntary physical exertion, I remember one particular sprint quite vividly. The objective was to get from my matinee seat at the Longacre Theatre, where I was seeing the original Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God, to the TKTS Booth at 47th and Broadway, through the line, up to the window to purchase tickets and back to my seat within the duration of a standard intermission. That I succeeded was a personal best, but little did I know how it would change my life. You see, I came away with tickets to the show that would become, immediately and forever, my favorite musical: Sweeney Todd.
As an avid watcher of the Tony Awards, I had seen a bit of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney televised in 1979, but it had not sent me running to buy the original cast recording. Nonetheless, this tale of a vengeful barber and his resourceful meat pie-baking paramour lodged in my brain as a show to see. So, given the opportunity during spring break with a few high school friends and a teacher who offered to chaperone us on a long day's trip into the heart of darkness that was early '80s Times Square, we resolved to go.
Upon entering the Uris Theatre with the vastness of Eugene Lee's decrepit factory set laid out before us, it was clear this would be quite a different experience from my Broadway shows to date, which numbered less than ten, including Stephen Schwartz's The Magic Show, Jason Robards in A Touch of the Poet and a revival of West Side Story. My assessment was confirmed the moment a live steam whistle (no synthesized sample has ever replicated it) jolted the audience into instant anxiety, all the better to receive Sweeney Todd when he rose from the grave on a hydraulic lift at the end of the opening ballad.
I had never seen anything that induced gasps in so many ways: an array of breathtaking songs, witty verbal wordplay, gallows humor, heart-quickening suspense, a bit of spurting blood and a late-in-the-game surprise of tragic horror. In an era when my entertainment consumption ran heavily to television—years of variety shows, Carol Burnett, All in the Family, The Waltons, Charlie's Angels and Three's Company—Sweeney's impact was seismic.
Like any good thriller, one's introduction to Sweeney Todd can never quite be equaled. Secrets once revealed can never be forgotten. Still, I was excited to see it twice in one year: first at the Uris with George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon in the leads, then again in December when the national tour played Philadelphia where I was a freshman in college. By this point, I had bought the two-disc vinyl original cast recording, which I played incessantly. So, you can imagine how transported I was when I got to see, alongside Hearn once again playing Sweeney, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. It is one of my great regrets that I never saw Len Cariou in the role he created.
On that second viewing, I already knew practically every word and note. I had been singing along to the album almost nightly for months, annoying first my dad, who couldn't fathom a musical with Sweeney's story of murderous revenge, and then my college roommate. Of the latter, I can say in my defense that the only music he played was the justly forgotten band Kansas, so we were locked in an audio stalemate, each convinced the other had very strange taste.
Such is my love for Sweeney that I make a point to see the musical at every opportunity. My viewings include the first New York City Opera production, once again directed by Hal Prince; The York Theatre Company revival with Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler when it moved to Circle in the Square; the Watermill Theatre production directed by John Doyle when it played London's Trafalgar Studio; Doyle's mounting on Broadway with Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris; the immersive bakeshop Sweeney in Greenwich Village; the Chichester Festival Theatre staging with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball at its first West End preview (with Sondheim right across the aisle from me); and two high school mountings, each of which faced varying degrees of censorship.
The order is imperfect and incomplete, but I think I've made my point. I am endlessly drawn to both the grand and the guignol of Sweeney Todd; it stirs me with its sweep and its audacity. Its familiarity is a pleasure, but because it is never quite the same production, especially after Doyle freed it from the template of the original, there remain surprises, if not of plot, then of interpretation. I may know what's going to happen, but I have learned that I can never know what to expect. In this, I have never been disappointed.
I don't know if I can ever fully express what I feel with Sweeney. Yet, despite being a theatre geek who has now seen quite literally a couple thousand shows, I find it's a vehicle which yields, to quote another Sondheim show, "perpetual anticipation."
Even my father, who for years found my attraction to Sweeney downright ghoulish, eventually came to understand my delight. In the '90s, I worked as the general manager at Goodspeed Opera House and my parents loved traveling to the East Haddam theatre's picture-perfect spot on the Connecticut River to see shows. When we mounted a revival of Sweeney, my mom would not be denied, despite my dad's antipathy to the material. When they emerged at the end, I looked pointedly at my father as I asked them both, "So, did you enjoy it?" And my dad, having been somewhat dragooned into seeing something he'd avoided for about 15 years, replied, "Yes. And now I get it."
He's not the only skeptic whose tune Sweeney changed. At Timberlane Regional High School in New Hampshire, I helped lobby successfully for the restoration of the show to the drama program's schedule after it had been summarily canceled as a result of anonymous complaints about its violence. About a year later I attended the production, and I asked the director if I might say a few words to the cast before the performance. I did not have the hubris to make a speech of my own, but instead read a short message I carried from another, written just for them.
"I've never understood why Sweeney Todd is considered 'controversial,'" I read aloud to dozens of students. "The incidents in the plot may be lurid, but the show's themes are primarily injustice, morality and greed… More important, it's a wonderful, scary story—what Sweeney Todd is really about is having a good time."
When I concluded the letter, I announced its author: Stephen Sondheim. Shrieks, screams, tears, whoops of triumph. Joy and amazement, at a cacophonous pitch, as these young people, "seen" by the genius of Fleet Street himself, fell into one another's arms, giddy. It took a few minutes for their director to quiet them and get them to remember they had a matinee to do. Yet another special thrill from Sweeney Todd and its cocreator that I will carry always.
I have been in perpetual anticipation since the new production with Annaleigh Ashford and Josh Groban was rumored, then announced officially. I'm thrilled it's finally starting previews. As Mrs. Lovett always says, all good things come to those who can wait.
Top image: Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford in Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photo by Franz Szony.