This is the perfect moment for Sweeney Todd. Set during “hard times,” it’s the story of a Fleet Street barber who slits the throats of his customers before sliding their corpses down a chute to the pie shop below, owned by Sweeney’s partner and love interest, Mrs. Lovett, who grinds up the deceased into meat pies. You might say it’s a morbid view of the fast-food industry through Victorian eyes.
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are verbal daggers wrapped in the soothing, velvet melodies and contrapuntal rhythms of music that careen from the torrential grandeur of Rossini to the deceptive sweetness of a Strauss waltz. Everything you need to know about Sondheim’s words and music is contained in the sardonic lyric “I guess,” within the reprise of his song “Johanna,” sung by the eponymous Mr. Todd:
“And though I’ll think of you, I guess, until the day I die/I think I miss you less and less as every day goes by.”
Over the course of half a century, Sondheim has created a musical theater for people who hate musicals in general, and the fraud of untempered romantic gush in particular. Imagine Samuel Beckett having written grand opera, and Sondheim comes into focus: sentimental and antisentimental in a single breath. His meditations on withering love and the inevitability of loss first emerged during America’s doubts about the Vietnam War, and are as close as our musical theater will ever get to the brittle essence of Robert Frost, to the capacity to spin the zeal for life and the ennui-coated bitterness of its betrayals into verse.
It’s not just in this 1979 landmark musical, now in a modern-dress revival with designer John Doyle’s staging at the Ahmanson that is two and a half hours of unfettered bliss (so much more elegant, simple and lean than Tim Burton’s comparatively overblown and dour film). You can trace the core of the artistry back to Sondheim’s 1970Company — to the song “Barcelona,” a morning-after duet between a 35-year-old bachelor unable to make a romantic commitment and the dim-bulb airline stewardess with whom he’s just had a one-night stand. She’s dragging out of bed, staggering to find her shoes, while he lounges in semislumber. The lyrics are set to a waltz’s lulling cadence: “Where you going?/Barcelona/Oh/Don’t get up/... You’re angry/No, I’m not/Yes, you are/No, I’m not/What are you thinking?/Barcelona ...”
If the nation was skeptical during the Vietnam War — when Sondheim’s comparatively benign Company arrived on the scene — look at where we are now: The fraud of yet another dead-end military adventure stings even more potently against the visage of two ineffectual “change” Democrats running for president. Meanwhile, our economy spirals down the toilet.
The musical’s larger point is crooned by David Hess’ Sweeney with Jacobean glee: “The history of the world, my sweet/is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” Sweeney, like many of us, has been wronged by the rich and powerful. “The lives of the wicked should be made brief,” he sings. “For the rest of us, death will be a relief/We all deserve to die.”
Sweeney Todd’s source was a 19th-century potboiler serial called String of Pearls, which has seen various adaptations over the years, including an 1847 melodrama by George Dibden Pitt, and a 1936 British film directed by George King and starring Todd Slaughter. It was playwright Christopher Bond who, in a 1973 adaptation, shifted Sweeney’s motives from mere greed to revenge for having suffered through his wife’s rape by a local magistrate — who then adopted their infant daughter after consigning Sweeney to an Australian penal colony, and his wife to the streets. This is the version that Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler transformed into the “revenge tragedy” of a barber who escapes from prison, returns to London and takes things a bit too far, wielding knives that “shall drip rubies.”
Director-designer John Doyle’s reimagining of the musical dates back to his 2005 Broadway version, and stems from the idea of the actor-singers each playing an instrument (or several), so that their identities become fused with the cello, or clarinet, or bass, or tuba, or orchestra bells that they’re either holding or clanging. The concept that actors are their own “instruments” sounds a bit precious, but the effect is beautiful, thanks in large part to the triple-threat cast that can act on a dime, sing and then hit the perfect accompanying note on a violin or trumpet — pristinely balanced under David Loud’s musical direction. The word versatility doesn’t begin to describe, say, Lauren Molina’s vivacious ingénue, Johanna, shrouded in long, blond curls, playing out her baby-doll role with the subtle jerks of a marionette while hauling a cello across the stage.
With the ensemble providing the entirety of its accompaniment, the sound no longer has the lush orchestration of the 1979 Broadway production, or of Burton’s film. It sounds more like the Tiger Lillies — the band that accompanies a similarly macabre children’s play, Shockheaded Peter. Although she also doubles on keyboard and flute, Katrina Yaukey’s Italian con artist, Pirelli, spends most of the play with an accordion strapped to her, and its sound tilts the production from blockbuster musical toward cabaret.
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Gone also is the original mechanistic set of moving platforms that suggested the fledgling industrial age. Doyle stages the action more like a concert performance, against a backdrop of vertical, slatted planks through which seeps, with every murder, a red glow from Richard G. Jones’ lighting design. Upon their deaths, each of the deceased dons a white robe rimmed with blood, and continues to occupy the stage — a visual effect that contributes to the ghostly, ghastly moral dimension of unrestrained vengeance. Doyle’s theatricality extends to the death scenes: no contorting corpses here. With each slit throat, Mrs. Lovett, from a distance, pours out a bucket of blood — a device that’s both lurid and elegant, pointing, as in Greek tragedy, to the aftereffect of the bloody deed rather than to the deed itself.
The richness of Hess’ and Judy Kaye’s voices, plus, more tellingly, the layers of wit that they convey so clearly, bring an intelligence and emotion to this production. Even with — maybe because of — their characters’ pathological actions, Hess and Kaye (who plays Mrs. Lovett) summon little twisted smiles, like winks, cluing us in that the flames of mayhem and heartbreak needn’t singe a healthy sense of humor.
Like Beckett, Sondheim has been studying the incremental slippage when love, and life, inch toward their end. Perhaps it’s the absurdity of it, woven into such visual and musical beauty, that makes that inevitability just a bit easier to bear, like bracing to say farewell. Sweeney sings it best: “Wake up, Johanna, another bright-red day; we learn, Johanna, to say ... goodbye.”
SWEENEY TODD | Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM, book by HUGH WHEELER, from an adaptation by CHRISTOPHER BOND | Directed and designed by JOHN DOYLE | CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the AHMANSON THEATRE, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through April 6 | (213) 628-2772