Monday, September 15, 2014

Sweeney Todd: Musical Blossoms in a Dark City


            What can be so inspiring about a story of a barber who cuts throats with his razor in league with a pie-maker who bakes the remains in her increasingly popular meat pies. Oh, look, says the slow-witted boy who is one of the tale's few survivors, "There's a bit of fingernail."
            Why this darkly satirical musical -- Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" -- is not only invigorating, but proftoundly moving, often funny and a complete pleasure to behold on a stage from start to finish may tell us something about the popularity of medieval "morality plays" that began with their characters neatly labeled: Virtue, Vice, Everyman.
            In Sondheim's tale, Sweeney Todd -- "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" -- is Everyman. He's not a monster -- or no more of a monster than the lords and toadies of the demonically unjust social system that drove him to the distracted state in which cutting throats for profit and convenience seemed merely part and parcel of life in Victorian London. This is darker Dickens territory, but with no sentimentality, and no happy rescues of the virtuous by a member of the well-meaning, well-off minority.
            In a song called "No Place like London," Todd explains his world view: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/ And it's filled with people who are filled with shit/ And the vermin of the world inhabit it/ And the name of the place is London."
            Basically, Todd came to this conclusion after he was framed for a crime and "transported" to Australia as punishment by London's notoriously corrupt and casually cruel court system because a judge lusted after his wife. Having schemed to get rid of Todd, the judge rapes his wife and raises his daughter as his own ward. When Todd somehow escapes, many years later, and makes his way back to England -- a plot premise favored by Victorian writers such as Dickens and Conan Doyle and so many others you assume it must have happened sometimes -- he finds his wife dead and the judge still in full posession of his awful class-based authority while lusting after his teenaged ward.
            When the one-time barber picks up his old razer again and opens for business it's with an eye to serving the judge out. A rival barber discovers the secret of Todd's criminal past, threatens to expose him, and Todd feels obliged to give him a closer shave than he bargained for. Mrs. Lovett, the lady baker who harbors a one-sided romance with Todd, remarks that it's a shame to waste such fleshy remains, what with times being so hard and the price of meat so high, if you can get it -- and the partnership is born. From there it's off to the races.
            In the marvelous song that ends the long first act, Mrs. Lovett sings:   
"... Have a little priest
Sir, it's too good, at least
Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh
So it's pretty fresh

Awful lot of fat only where it sat
Haven't you got poet, or something like that?
No, y'see, the trouble with poet is
'Ow do you know it's deceased? Try the priest."

            We saw the play last weekend at the Lyric Theater in Boston in a marvelous production -- fast, vibrant, energetic, note-perfect -- that emphasizes the play's 'morality play' message: "[The] history of the world, my love... [Mrs. Lovett, again] Is those below serving those up above."
            I don't know if the play's terribly precise, mordantly comic delivery of that vision accounts for its impact. "Sweeney Todd" may be one of those things -- like great art in any form, high humor, or the pleasure of a sunset, a spring morning, an autumn vista, or a full moon rising over the water -- that evades a complete analysis.
            It's as if (still trying, anyhow) in the 19th century macabre tale of "demon barber" Sweeney Todd -- which today we would probably call an "urban legend" -- Sondheim found an image shocking enough to approach the horror of 19th century life for the urban poor. Which was mostly the urban everybody, saving of course the one percent.
            The framework of the plot is old-fashioned stage melodrama, with a revenge theme that goes back to Shakespeare -- and for that matter the Greeks.
            The wit of the music -- both in the tart lyrics and in music written not so much to accompany the singer but to lead him to unexpected places -- frees the spectator from stereotyped reactions to pat situations. Todd is cetainly an anti-hero. We can't go around approving of people randomly offing other people -- including strangers guilty of nothing more than walking into his shop when flesh is in demand. But then, as the play repeatedly suggests, in a dog-eat-dog world people are in effect "eating" other people all the time. So in the 'great black pit' that his Sweeney Todd's London, as our anti-hero rationalizes, people are better off dead anyway.
            Sondheim and his collaborators (book by Hugh Wheeler) pull the mechanics of the plot and the dark brilliance of the play's vision into lock-step, or dance-step harmony, physically enacted, logically concluded, by the play's climax. Every nuance is brilliantly expressed, and unlike 'realistic' drama almost none of it matters to our appreciation of the work's impact. At the end we're happy that even a handful of the good are alive and the worst of the villains are, so to speak, minced meat.
            In a world where human life is not sacred, this visionary piece of musical theater tells us, all we are is meat. The exhilaration of our theater-goer's experience at the Lyric may be attributable to seeing that point ungainsayably demonstrated.