Quentin Tarantino and Stephen Sondheim. An unlikely pairing, yet appropriate considering both artists’ pinnacle accomplishments are tales of violent, bloody revenge.
Tarantino spoke to me on the commentary track of Kill Bill when he said that revenge was the only motivation necessary for a movie—in the case of Kill Bill, two brilliant movies clocking in at over four combined hours.
This being a theater blog, my focus is Sweeney Todd, recently revived in a stellar production at Aurora’s Paramount Theater. Is Sweeney Sondheim’s best work? For most of my life I would have said Into the Woods, a soundtrack I learned by heart after my first viewing at the Marriott in 1990. Sweeney, in contrast, has never been a musical that I could sing along with, but with each successive viewing I am increasingly mesmerized by Sweeney’s plight.
A young barber named Benjamin Barker found himself graced with a simple life. A respectable profession. A beautiful wife named Lucy, and an equally beautiful baby daughter named Johanna. Barker was blindsided by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who sentenced Barker to labor in Australia on a false charge to free up Lucy for Turpin’s seductions. Seventeen years later Barker returns, now using the name Sweeney Todd.
Paul-Jordan Jansen is brilliant in the title role at the Paramount. His Sweeney Todd never quite looks other characters in the eyes because he is also staring just beyond them—seeing how they might contribute to his singular goal of revenge. As a singer, Jansen hones a perfectly-pitched baritone and the articulation necessarily to evoke some of Sondheim’s most challenging lyrics. Jansen is partnered with Bri Sudia as Mrs. Lovett. Sudia was spectacular in 2015 in Northlight’s Shining Lives: the Musical, and she is equally entertaining as Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney has little in the way of comic relief, but Sudia manages to dig humor from Mrs. Lovett’s deadpan responses to the grotesque circumstance of replacing her “Worst Pies in London” with those containing a more cannibalistic ingredient.
During the last two years, Paramount Theater has excelled at particularly dark stagings of classics, and Sweeney Todd is no exception. Director Jim Corti makes great use of lighting to create a set seeped in shadows with actors often singing directly above sharp light beams (think campfire storytellers with a flashlight). Notably, when I first saw Sweeney Todd in 1993 (again, at the Marriott), it was played somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Sweeney’s murders were accented by fountains of blood and audience members in the first two rows were encouraged to cover with a plastic tarp. Corti’s production, in contrast, is pure horror. The murders are not drawn out but terrifyingly realistic as they follow moments of pure rage from the obsessed barber and his razor. Also, I cannot fully shake the image created by Corti in “God, that’s Good!” As the ensemble eats more and more of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, blood flows down their chins and stains their clothes; the ensemble becomes reminiscent of zombies banging on a barricaded front door.
Like all Sondheim musicals, the songs in Sweeney are extraordinary—although I realize now that I needed to be more mature to fully appreciate their brilliance. The most beautiful melody goes to “Johanna,” the hopeless love ballad sung Anthony (Patrick Rooney) after he first glimpses Johanna (Cecilia Iole), who is now ward and virtual captive to Judge Turpin (Larry Adams). “A Little Priest” exemplifies Sondheim’s skill with lyrics as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett create an impressive string of puns regarding the taste of their victims. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is a dark showstopper from the start, whose clipped lyrics and octave changes gets the heart racing just in time for Sweeney’s entrance. Yet, in the Paramount’s production, all was trumped by “Pretty Women,” the slow melody that Sweeney and Judge Turpin sing together in the first act as Sweeney runs his razor along his nemesis’s throat. Turpin is such a despicable character, I must not have been the only person in the theater who longed to jump up and scream, “Kill him!” while knowing that something was going to save Turpin… at least until the second act.
Now that the horrifying Sweeney Todd has risen past Sondheim’s other titles in my esteem, I found myself inclined to review my experiences with his other works. Here is my definitive ranking of Sondheim’s shows followed by the production of each that I remember best:
NOTE: Sondheim classics I have not seen and thus could not be considered:
- Anyone Can Whistle
- Saturday Night
Sondheim classics that I just didn’t love:
- The Frogs (Lincoln Center with Nathan Lane, 2004)
- Passion (Chicago Shakespeare, 2007)
- Sunday in the Park with George (Chicago Shakespeare, 2002)
(9) Bounce: I felt this musical about money-grubbing brothers was adventurous and fast-paced… but it was DOA for everyone else. (Goodman, 2003)
(8) A Little Night Music: “Send in the Clowns” is Sondheim at his melancholy best, but the rich-people-with-problems plot lacks intrigue. (Chicago Shakespeare, 2003)
(7) Assassins: As short as this musical is, the pacing often feels long to me except for “The Ballad of Booth” and “The Ballad of Guiteau.” (I saw Assassins at a small theater in Chicago. I could not find a record of the production.)
(6) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: One of the first professional shows I ever saw, 10-year-old me was entranced by the slap-stick fun of Sondheim’s most rapid musical. (Goodman, 1989)
(5) Into the Woods: I love the meticulous plotting of the first act, and “Your Fault” and “Last Midnight” remain one of the greatest song combinations in musical theater. (Marriott, 1990)
(4) Merrily We Roll Along: With songs like “Not a Day Goes By,” this is a musical where the repetition of melodies define the troubled characters. (Apple Tree, 1993)
(3) Pacific Overtures: This is Sondheim using music to explore the fascinating and complex transformation of Japan. This minimalist production transferred from Chicago to Broadway. (Chicago Shakespeare, 2004)
(2) Follies: Some say the plot does not hold together, but I say who needs a plot when such a remarkable variety of songs explore ghosts of the past? (Broadway with Polly Bergen singing “I’m Still Here”, 2001)
(1) Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street: (Paramount, 2017)