Sweeney Todd [Original Broadway Cast] [Bonus Tracks]
Having adapted Ingmar Bergman to the musical theater with A Little Night Music (1973), then traveled to Japan with Admiral Perry in Pacific Overtures (1976), composer Stephen Sondheim remained in the 19th century for his next Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd. It was arguably his most ambitious work yet, and one of his most controversial. For its subject matter, the show looked to Christopher Bond's 1973 play, itself based on the 1847 melodrama The String of Pearls by George Dibdin Pitt. The story concerns a London barber unjustly exiled so that an evil judge can have his way with the barber's wife. Years later, the barber returns, maddened with a desire for revenge, to begin slicing the throats of his customers on his way to killing the judge. As if that weren't enough, he allows his neighbor to cook the remains into meat pies. It's Grand Guignol, of course, and, accompanying the script by Hugh Wheeler, Sondheim wrote an extensive score that did not stint on the horrific aspects, even as it was full of lavish music and lovely melodies, with the two sometimes placed in ironic juxtaposition. For example, in the third of three different songs called "Johanna," Todd sings movingly of his love for his daughter while dispatching a series of victims with his razor. To say that the work requires a sense of gallows humor is an understatement. One of the wittiest numbers, "A Little Priest," finds Todd and his neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, comparing the qualities of various types of people as potential meals. Todd's mad outlook is best expressed in one of Sondheim's typically sharp couplets: "The lives of the wicked should be made brief/For the rest of us, death will be a relief." His conclusion: "We all deserve to die." Of course, Shakespeare was known to litter the stage with corpses, too, on occasion, but Sondheim and Wheeler were deliberately using an extreme genre to make points about the Industrial Revolution and, God help us, the world in general. They were assisted by an outstanding cast in the initial Broadway production, with Len Cariou expressing Todd's darkness and fatalistic humor, while Angela Lansbury, employing a broad Cockney accent, lent Mrs. Lovett a ghastly mirth. Along with the other performers, they managed the never-easy task of getting out Sondheim's often wordy lyrics and making the jokes land along with the more moving passages. Sweeney Todd was the closest Sondheim had yet come to an outright opera, and this first recording, even with a limited orchestra, gave a sense that it might prove his most lasting work. The opera connection becomes overt in the two bonus tracks added to the 2007 reissue, both taken from Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, an album based on a 1992 benefit concert. In "Symphonic Sondheim: Sweeney Todd," with an orchestration by Don Sebesky, themes from Sweeney Todd are intermingled with a performance of the first "Johanna" song (first line: "I feel you, Johanna") sung by tenor Jerry Hadley and "Pretty Women" by baritones Eugene Perry and Herbert Perry. Soprano Harolyn Blackwell then gives a sense of what "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" would sound like on an opera stage. (The brief hidden track that follows is one of the "Parlor Songs," rendered by a woman who sounds suspiciously like Julie Andrews).