Thursday, 29 November 2007

29/11 Swing Your Razor High Sweeney

Well in the last month or so you have endured all sorts of witterings from me and, with the exception of my piece on “Curtains”, it’s been a while since I have focussed on a particular show. Well today is where that all changes as I finally look at another of my personal essential musicals.

So what is the show in question? If I mention popping pussies into pies or piccolo player being served piping hot does that answer your question? If it does then you are no doubt already familiar with “Sweeney Todd” and with Tim Burton’s movie version just a round the corner it seems just the right time to talk about this most dramatic and horrific of musicals.

Stories have long been written about the demon barber of Fleet Street but it was a stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton debuting at the Theatre Royal Stratford East that inspired Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince to work on what is often cited as their greatest collaboration.

Opening in 1978, “Sweeney Todd” was unlike anything Broadway had ever seen before. The story tells of Sweeney (aka Benjamin Barker a former convict) as he returns to London and opens a Fleet Street barber shop. His first friend is the sailor Anthony, but it’s not long before he makes the acquaintance of the proprieter of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. Whilst Anthony becomes lovesick for the beautiful Johanna, it’s only a matter of time until Todd is recognized as Barker by one of his customers. The best course of action seems to be a quick slit of the throat. Mrs Lovett becomes aware of Todd’s actions and it’s not long before she suggests that they may do business together. After all she needs meat for her pies! So the blood letting begins. Initially the business thrives but complications ensue with the lovelorn Anthony’s pursuit of Johanna (who ends up in the madhouse!), and the attentions of the judge and Beadle Bamford – not to mention a mysterious beggar woman. I don’t really want to divulge any more of the plot though – after all as one of the songs goes “what happened then – well that’s the play and he wouldn’t want us to give it away”

as it may spoil the movie for you but, needless to say, by the end of the show there is barely anyone left standing!

The musical has horror, pathos and comedy in abundance. The shaving competition and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” are amongst the shows lighter moments, as is the glorious duet “A Little Priest” where Lovett and Todd discuss the merits of various professions as pie filling. “Not While I’m Around” provides a tender moment between Toby and Mrs Lovett, and Anthony sings the soaring “Johanna”. Possibly the creepiest tune in the show is the oft reprised “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd”, where the shrieking factory whistle that is used in the original orchestrations, can send a nightmare shiver throughout the audience.

The acclaimed Broadway original saw Len Cariou (star of “A Little Night Music” and the Palladium’s “Ziegfeld”) as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as Lovett. Yes that’s Jessica Fletcher herself! Performed on a vast “foundry like” set, it’s said that during previews Miss Lansbury almost came a cropper as a huge iron bridge fell to the stage. Ironically this was just as she she was singing “No one’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around…..” This original production was recorded for TV (with Lansbury and George Hearn) and is available on region one DVD.

When the show travelled to London it was for a short, relatively unsuccessful, run at Drury Lane starring Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock. During it’s run former colleague Plum Peyton’s childhood home was the Marquis Of Granby pub just a cross the road and she was known by most of the theatre’s staff. She says that they would often let her in the theatre and she can remember sitting in Sweeney’s barbers chair on more than one occasion! Luckily she didn’t get her throat slit.

It was actually with Plum that I saw the show for the first time at the National Theatre in it’s Cottesloe auditorium. The intimacy of the house worked brilliantly for the piece as you were so close to the action it really did heitghen the terror. We were mere feet from Sweeney’s razor’s as they dripped the blood of his victims – it really was quite chilling. I am quite relieved we weren’t sitting in the front two rows though, those audience members found themselves covered in flour as Lovett sang “The Worst Pies in London” not to mention shaving foam at more than one point. A superlative cast included Alun Armstrong as Todd, Adrian Lester as Anthony and Denis Quilley returning to the show as the Judge, later taking over in the lead. In her last stage musical role to date was Julia McKenzie. I had been a little disappointed by McKenzie in “Follies” and “Into The Woods” but her performance in “Sweeney” was an absolute revelation. Without a doubt one of the greatest performances I have ever seen.

It was a few years later that I saw “Sweeney” for a second time. Maybe 2001. This time around it was at the Bridewell Theatre – eerily just off Fleet Street itself. This time it was done in promenade. Although we were seated for part of the show we were often ushered around various parts of the theatre. It made the murders all the more horrific to be mere inches from the victims as they writhed in blood, making the show a really exhilarating experience – particularly it’s shocking conclusion. I attended with another two former colleagues, David Dolman and James Maddison. Now James seemed pretty traumatized by the whole night but it was one particular moment that freaked David out. There is a scene where the actors seemed to be ushering us all over the place and causing confusion. Now poor David found himself right in the middle just as they all started running at him yelling “City on fire!!!!!” I have very vivid memories of his look of terror whilst he waved his arms around in panic. All adding to the experience.

Of course this wasn’t the last London production, as it appeared a couple of years ago at the Trafalgar Studios in a version directed by John Doyle of Newbury’s Watermill Theatre. With the actors playing the instruments as well as doing all the acting I did feel that the show didn’t work as well as either of the previous productions I had seen. Somehow the drama was diluted a little. However, it’s such a strong piece of theatre that it still couldn’t fail to impress. This version also provided a little chuckle as the actress playing Lovett seemed to be a (loving) tribute to former Palladium staffer Roz Read. Down to the big hair, leopard skin and wedge heels. It seems that Broadway producers (and indeed Sondheim himself) had fewer reservations about this production as it was to go on to receive a Broadway showing with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in the leads.

It’s not only in theatre’s that “Sweeney” makes an impact. Prior to her Broadway performance, LuPone had starred in a concert staging with George Hearn which played various engagements across the US. The musical is also oft performed by Opera companies and recently had en engagement at the Royal Opera House, and also at the New York City Opera where Elaine Paige had the opportunity to do some serious pie making!

So now Hollywood has beckoned and a movie version has been completed. It remains to be seen if the film will recapture the qualities of the various stage productions but I feel that Tim Burton is an inspired choice of director. He excels at “dark” stories so there is no one better – and we can also look forward to Johnny Depp as Sweeney and a host of British performers making up the supporting cast.

The original Broadway production is on CD and DVD and for my money it’s the best version available. Also out on CD are the (quite rare) concert version, and recent Broadway revival both starring Patti LuPone. In my opinion Lansbury’s performance outstrips LuPone, providing a sweetness that lulls you into a false sense of security before you get the horror of Lovett. Lupone is pretty scary from the off, although this is a lot of fun in the DVD of the concert.

The most recorded song from the show is “Not While I’m Around” and my favourite would have to be La Streisand on “The Broadway Album”. Anthony Warlow does a stunning “Johanna” on “Centrestage”. For comic relief though seek out Lea De Laria’s “All That Jazz” album for a jazz “Ballad Of Sweeney Todd” Even harder to find and extremely odd is Gordon Grody’s disco version of the track.

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