by Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler
starring Michael Cerveris & Patti LuPone
on Broadway, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (in previews)
I’ve always felt that what’s wrong with Sweeney Todd is that it fits just a bit too comfortably into the New York City Opera repertoire, where it has been given the ultimate stamp of prestige for a musical. But what’s Stephen Sondheim doing writing a grand opera in Victorian garb? And what’s a piece supposedly telling us “we all deserve to die” and we are victims of post-industrial alienation doing entertaining the Lincoln Center set in a huge glitzy opera house? (Yeah, what about Wozzeck, you’ll say. Fine.) And while Sweeney always delivers some chills and some of Sondheim’s grimmest music and lyrics, all the dress-up of it has struck me as not a little pretentious and disingenuous.
Well British director John Doyle has rectified many of these problems. His new production–originally for his own Watermill company in the UK, now restaged on Broadway with an American cast–certainly ain’t your father’s Sweeney Todd. Or Hal Prince’s, at least. Performed by a cast of ten on a claustrophobic stage platform of wooden planks, under harsh white lights, there’s nothing lavish about it. And, except for what seems to be the setting of an old apothecary shop, nothing Victorian. Nostalgic for Angela Lansbury’s cute red pigtails? Well, gone are the traditional costumes, too, in favor of a wash of generically modern 20th century blacks-and-whites. Sweeney, in his mid-size black leather coat and black skinny tie here resembles a classic gangster or Gestapo agent more than George Hearn’s vintage sideburn-twirling villain in a barber’s apron. By stripping away the (automatically) comforting and familiar Victorian trappings, Doyle lets us see Sweeney for the 20th century–I dare say modernist–piece it is.
To call Doyle production “Brechtian” might be too facile. There is indeed a “frame” which provides layers of mediation and distance between us and the proceedings. (Basically, it’s presented as the vision of the boy, Tobias, supervised by actors in white lab coats. Sweeney himself appears almost as the boogeyman of the boy’s fantasies.) Doyle is actually reclaiming the show’s roots in Brecht, believe it or not. I was always under the general impression Sweeney was based on an authentic melodrama by this “Christopher Bond,” some forgotten 19th century hack, I assumed. But not so fast. Look at what his program bio reveals:
CHRISTOPHER BOND (Adaptor), an actor/director/writer, wrote Sweeney Todd for the Stoke-on-Trent experimental Theatre. [So, presumably not in the 19th century.] He took Brecht’s Man Is Man, renamed it Man Eats Man and applied it to the public domain one-act folk play of Sweeney Todd by George Dibdin Pitt who stole the story from a short story “The String of Pearls: A Romance” in the Victorian gossip magazine Penny Dreadful.
To Sondheim aficionados, this must be old news, and now I’m fascinated to read more about how he happened on adapting this adaptation. (It certainly gives gives new resonance to lines like “The history of the world, my sweet/ Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.”) In reverting to this germ, Doyle opens up the whole show and shows it to us anew–that is, closer to how it was originally conceived.
So while the chatrooms and gossip columns have been full of Patti LuPone Tuba jokes (yes, let your imagination run wild), what we actually see on stage is a good old “ensemble” staging. The actors don’t just double as musicians for convenience or cost-saving. (Though obviously this was a financial plus for the producers who imported the show.) It is integral to the aesthetic of the production–where the playing of music becomes as important form of human expression (i.e. acting) as singing. Sometimes the effect is uncertain, or even bordering on silly (as when Johanna and Anthony sing their love duets astride matching cellos). But when, in the famous “Quartet”, the Beadle the Judge loom over the lovers, plotting their schemes as they intone quiet menacing muted trumpets, a dark, subtle visual poetry is achieved the likes of which
you won’t find in an average Broadway musical.
And because the music is seen not just heard, we pay attention to it in totally new ways. Even if traditionalists balk at the new scaled down “orchestrations” and perhaps more relaxed standard of musicianship–the payoff is that this production ends up really showcasing the dazzling score. And the experimental staging allows for even more dissonance and jarring shifts in that music to be brought out than you may be used to. Seeing how the individual instrument/actors play together in continual disharmony is, to say the least, relevant to the content of the play.
The chief problem of the production, though, is exactly what Broadway considers the chief lure. Put another way: how do you create an ensemble show, with stars! I take nothing away from the pure presence and magnetism of Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris. And they’re clearly “good sports,” about the whole thing. Cerveris, in particular, gave a very brave performance in the early preview I saw–wandering about the stage in quiet dementia, never charming. In short, total Wozzeck. His “Epiphany” (that crowd pleaser with the rousing chorus “We all deserve to die!”) was almost out of control in its mania, but it chilled the audience into stunned silence. (Doyle’s ability to generally discourage applause–even for Broadway royalty like LuPone–is admirable.)
With LuPone, though, I don’t doubt her commitment to the concept, only whether she is capable of giving a Brechtian performance. She can’t not charm us. When it’s time for Mrs. Lovett’s comic numbers “Wait” and “By the Sea” alienation has left the building. Despite all Doyle’s efforts to de-Broadwayize the material, LuPone is a Broadway animal, and so are Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler; in LuPone’s hands their jokes come with rim-shots intact. “A Little Priest” was a telling example of the obstacles to Doyle’s project. I can imagine playing up the “music hall” aspect, and Doyle might have employed his actor/musicians as onstage audience to highlight Lovett and Sweeney’s self-conscious performativity of the number, making it a grotesque entertainment. Instead, LuPone and Cerveris are given their (no doubt contractual) downstage center special to wow us, unencumbered, while the rest simply accompany from behind. Unfortunately the mic-ing was so thick in the theatre they still couldn’t effectively put over Sondheim’s famously baroque rhymes here. And so the producers get the boffo Act One finale they were counting on. Too bad it no longer fits the show.
There are other times to when the avant garde concept doesn’t mesh what is still at heart a Broadway piece. It even doubles back on itself at the conclusion, leading to at least two false endings to my count. Perhaps that’s been addressed in previews. Perhaps they are the result of compromises between an adventurous director and “seasoned” Broadway producers (or Sondheim himself!). Sam Mendes reportedly had to submit to much correction by Arthur Laurents & co. when he tried to reimagine Gypsy, remember. (Leading to a weird hybrid of a production.) One wonders how much of what we’re seeing on stage here resembles what Doyle was able to get away with in the London fringe when no one was looking.
I suspect there will be great disagreement about this show when it opens in a couple of weeks, not only from Broadway and Sondheim junkies, but also critics. Sweeney is a classic and here–in its first Broadway revival, no less–it is being quite markedly reinvented. It will be an interesting test of how far an experimental aesthetic can go in a purely commercial presentation. (Another British import of a decade ago comes to mind, An Inspector Calls, which was surprisingly successful!) But even if Broadway tradtionalists balk, I hope their opposite–the downtowners, anyone who thinks they hate musicals–will get hold of some affordable tickets and check out this intriguingly dark chamber opera that just happens to be under a fancy marquee with a glitzy showbiz pedigree.
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