On March 1, 1979, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street premiered on Broadway and precipitated all-out war.
Coming as it did from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince, the show should not have shocked as many people as it first did. After all, Prince and Sondheim had been redefining the established ideas about musical theater since their first collaboration in 1970: that show was Company, and it very carefully and deliberately trampled on every convention of what had been called (until then) American musical comedy. With its plotless, non-linear construction; its abstract, constructivist unit set; its abrasive, urban score; its barbed, neurotic lyrics; and its ensemble cast consisting of an ambivalent bachelor anti-hero and five married couples who in their duality functioned almost as a single character each, Company was revisionist in every conceivable way.
Company was soon followed by a string of astonishing Prince/Sondheim collaborations: Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), a 16-performance Broadway flop that led to the breakup of the Prince/Sondheim collaboration; but in going their separate ways they have continued to challenge old shopworn notions about the nature of musical theater: Prince went on to direct such landmarks as Evita (1980); Willie Stark (1981) for the Houston Grand Opera; two productions of Candide (1974 and 1982), once in an experimental staging for the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then for the New York City Opera; Sweeney Todd (1984) for the New York City Opera; productions of two Puccini operas (Madama Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West) for Lyric Opera of Chicago; The Phantom of the Opera (1987); the hallucinatory, homoerotic Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993); and a controversial new production of Show Boat in Toronto (1993). Sondheim has since gone on to establish a fruitful relationship with playwright and director James Lapine: with Lapine he created Sunday in the Park with George (1984 Pulitzer Prize), a complex meditation on the creative process which uses pointillist painter Georges Seurat's life and work as its inspiration; Into the Woods (1987), a revisionist study of family relationships using well-known characters from the tales of the Brothers Grimm; and Passion (1994), a hypnotic, erotic, and rhapsodic chamber opera which examines love, sex, and beauty in nineteenth-century Italy. In 1991, with playwright John Weidman and Playwrights Horizons, he created what has proven to be his most controversial work to date: Assassins is a disturbingly funny and politically provocative vaudeville which swirls American classical music and history into a nightmare vision of the dark side of the American Dream.
All of the shows in this long catalogue have been, in one way or another, further developments of the form of musical theater: Prince is a director who delights in scenic abstraction, framing devices, deep focus, juxtaposed theatrical modes (such as Broadway musical and Kabuki), and dark subject matter; Sondheim composes rhythmic, dissonant, densely layered music heavily influenced by nineteenth and early twentieth century composers (particularly Ravel) and by American popular song forms, and he writes witty, often sarcastic, always poetic lyrics that embrace such distinct forms as showtunes, patter, pop, ballad, folk, free verse, and haiku.
Why, then, should a work like Sweeney Todd meet with such initial critical and popular hostility? Partly, I think, because of its pivotal position in the Sondheim canon, and partly because of its subject: it is based on an obscure nineteenth century British melodrama (which in turn was based on an even older British folk legend) about a deranged barber who cuts the throats of his customers and then has them served up as meat pies baked by his accomplice Mrs. Lovett. When the show began previews, hoardes of unprepared theatergoers stampeded for the exits, unaware that cannibalism was on the evening's menu; and Prince's Brechtian conception hardly helped matters, involving as it did the full frontal-viewed throat cuttings and an elaborate mise-en-scene that placed the action firmly within the dehumanizing context of the Industrial Revolution. Sondheim's music is his most Romantic and, conversely, his most disturbing: it includes a gang-rape conducted against a cheerfully dissonant minuet, a hilarious (and now quite famous) duet about cannibalism, a complicated ensemble scene which has the denizens of Fleet Street greedily gorging on Mrs. Lovett's human pies, and a difficult and disturbing scene that combines self-flagellation, geriatric lust, masturbation, and puritanical guilt which was so controversial that it was cut from the original production.
Like most of Sondheim's work, Sweeney Todd is extremely schizophrenic. It tells its story through a unique blend of theatrical, musical, and literary modes, including Brecht's Epic theater, Jacobean tragedy, music hall burlesque, nineteenth century European fairy tales, Victorian operetta, the social commentary of Charles Dickens, American Expressionism by way of Orson Welles, the film music of Bernard Herrmann, and modernist opera by way of Benjamin Britten, Kurt Weill, and Alban Berg. This is, to say the least, quiet a mixed bag, but it neatly characterizes the ambivalent nature of the play and of Sondheim's work in general, which usually balances itself within a morally ambiguous context. Philosophically, the play owes its presentation to at least two ethical perspectives: egoist (Hobbes) and nihilist (Nietschze). The moral and ethical dilemmas of the play are expressed partly in its very conception and presentation, and partly in the situations into which it forces its characters.
To speak of the criteria for ethical decisions in the case of the character of Sweeney Todd seems a rather odd statement, since he does not seem to be acting out of any sort of ethical philosophy, but a close examination of his motives reveals a definite Hobbesian world-view:
For what's the sound of the world out there?...
(Sweeney Todd, 91-2)
The juxtaposition of "Epiphany" and "A Little Priest" carefully reflects the central conflict of the production: the first piece is neurotic, skittish, as mad as the character, a deafening Hitchcockian explosion; the second is also mad, but it takes the form of a joyous Viennese waltz (one of the composer's favorite musical forms), and like the character of Mrs. Lovett it has a definite lilt. Indeed, it may be said that the central relationship of the play (Todd and Mrs. Lovett) neatly characterizes the moral ambiguity which is so typical of Sondheim. Todd is the honest man driven mad by grief and his overwhelming desire for revenge, Mrs. Lovett the amoral businesswoman driven mad by capitalist lust. It is she who concocts the popping-people-into-pies venture which proves so profitable, and it is in her character that the Hobbesian perspective of the play becomes most evident: she is Capitalism run rampant, a bizarre music hall combination of Lady Macbeth and Mother Courage whose dream is to live:
By the sea, in our nest
We got a nice respectable business now, money coming regular --
Todd is the complete antithesis of Mrs. Lovett: solemn, gloomy, obsessive, brooding, intense, he is everything that the giddy, talkative, cheerful Mrs. Lovett is not. Unlike Mrs. Lovett, who is driven by capitalist greed plain and simple, Todd has deeper, much more personal motivations: he wants to revenge himself on Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, who had had him imprisoned on a trumped-up charge, then raped his wife and (he believes) drove her to suicide; it is only this which drives him to murder. It is not until the Judge slips from his grasp that Todd really cracks, vowing that he will "practice on less honorable throats" (88) until he gets another chance at the Judge. In his rage he adopts the existentialist view that God is dead; worse, he comes to believe that God is on his side:
The history of the world, my love...
The lives of the wicked should be
When does it become too much? Clearly, Todd seems to put no limits on the extent to which his obsession can rule him; and yet his motivations are not so obviously egoist as Mrs. Lovett's. Todd's situation calls into question the very nature of justice: Todd, a working-class citizen, was unjustly sent to prison, his wife raped, and his daughter committed to an insane asylum, all by Judge Turpin, the representative of justice and law. One of the questions which ethics poses is what, precisely, constitutes justice? In exchanging Judge Turpin's brand of "justice" for his own, does not Todd put himself on the same level as the Judge? And what of Mrs. Lovett? Does she deserve her fate, or is Hobbes right in saying that the true state of nature is a state of war and that Mrs. Lovett is behaving as she must?
These questions become even more complicated when we see that the presentation of Judge Turpin is, to a certain degree, as morally equivocal as that of Todd and Mrs. Lovett. This is revealed in a controversial scene which was cut from the original production because of its explicit nature: as the Judge kneels and peers through a keyhole at Todd's daughter Johanna, he flays himself into a frenzy of Puritanical shame, pleading with God to purify him. His cry of "God! Deliver me!" becomes a refrain as the whip lashes grow more forceful. Shame, lust, pain, and pleasure mingle. The song has an unpleasant ambience of perverse sexuality and sacrilege, as the orchestra writhes and pants a decadent Ravellian waltz and the Judge continues his sado-masochistic flogging, until, at the very climax of the song, as the melodic fragments of Johanna's and Lucy's themes mingle (mother and daughter becoming much the same person in his own mind), the Judge has an orgasm.
In this powerful scene, the Judge reveals the extent of his own guilt. He cries for God and Johanna to deliver him, asks God to "release," "forgive," "restrain," "pervade" him, calls for the "filth" to "leave" him (179-80), and yet at the same time seeks to relieve his building sexual tension. He seems to be aware of his own sinfulness, but can do nothing to escape it. The violent confusion of prayer and masturbation in the music and staging mirrors the Judge's own personal difficulty in reconciling his spiritual fervor and his sexual needs. Johanna is depicted as an archetypal Virgin, a pale vision of innocence and purity with blinding golden hair who is first seen at her second-floor window singing of her loneliness, her despair, and her desire for freedom. She is Rapunzel to the Judge's Witch, and she represents the pure ideal for which the Judge reaches but which he can never seem to grasp, and so he must possess her in the only way he knows how. His desires and his actions are cruel and blasphemous and completely at odds with his obligations as a dispenser of justice, and somewhere he seems to know it, and he hates himself for it.
This is a distinct contrast to Mrs. Lovett, who is not even aware that what she is doing is wrong; for it is the very notions of right and wrong that are at issue here. Todd believes he is right in looking to revenge himself on the Judge, and we are inclined to agree with him; Mrs. Lovett clearly sees herself as a moral person (she often speaks of her maternal nature); and, were it not for the flagellation scene, the Judge, too, could be said to see himself as behaving morally. Yet the scene exists (and was subsequently reinstated into the show), and its existence effectively complicates the Judge's character and his motives: he is much less the stock villain of melodrama and more a pitiful representative of fallen man trying to regain the ideal he had forsaken (very much what Todd himself is in danger of becoming). The fundamental question of the musical remains who is right and who is wrong?
Quite likely it is a question without an answer. The very structure and execution of the play reflect this central conflict. Sondheim sets up an abrasion between melody and lyrics and their dramatic context that forcefully points up the work's schizophrenic tone: the entire show pivots upon the distinct split between comedy and tragedy represented by the characters of Todd and Mrs. Lovett (so much so that the show ends up having a faintly Absurdist flavor), and so Sondheim's approach to each character's music was designed to reflect that dichotomy. In addition, there are scenes in which the music works in direct opposition to the staging: in Act II, there is a scene in which Todd sings--to a gorgeous, lyrical, serene melody -- of his love for his daughter; as he sings, he slashes the throats of the various customers who come through his shop. There is a similar moment when Mrs. Lovett calls for her young assistant Toby, who has discovered the ghastly secret of the meat-pies. She sings:
Where are you hiding?
This conflict between content and context effectively characterizes the moral ambiguity represented by the central characters. The overwhelming philosophy of the work is Hobbesian, but we can also see Nietschze in statements such as,
It is a sentiment which is not unfamiliar to Sondheim: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, and Assassins have all been criticized for their cynicism, their uncompromising presentation of disillusionment (be it marital, professional, sexual, personal, political, or ethical) among the middle classes. Sondheim's view of the world is depressingly bleak. The two shows sandwiched between Merrily and Assassins described a definite upward arc toward a more optimistic philosophy; and yet he will not -- perhaps cannot -- let go of his bleak world view. Both Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods present complex ethical questions that do not have easy answers (even as they present a much more optimistic conclusion than I think is comfortable for Sondheim), while Assassins heralded a full return to the familiar Sondheim themes of lost innocence and the death of the American Dream, and Passion is as uncompromising in its depiction of the destructive nature of obsession as Sweeney Todd. It is perhaps this very contradiction (between the bleakly cynical and the idealistically optimistic) which gives Sondheim's work its vitality, a vitality born out of the abrasion created between his chosen form (the musical) and his choice of subject matter, which are not typical of either musicals or operas. Sondheim chooses to address ethical questions (such as the morality of marriage and family, the price of Imperialism, the costs of professional success and capitalism, the nature of justice and truth, the conflict between art and commerce, the accountability of the individual to the higher truths of community, and the loss of innocence both personal and national) within a format that is more accustomed to trivializing them. In Sweeney Todd he creates a world which is strongly Hobbesian in its outlook, with echoes of the nihilism of Nietschze and the existentialism of Kierkegaard and others (like Sartre and Beckett). The powerful conceptual references to Brecht help to delineate further the ethical questions posed by the play: Brecht's view of the world was itself distinctly Hobbesian. What is significant about Sondheim is that he in no way condones the egoist philosophy; rather, his work, while acknowledging the truth of Hobbes' observations, seeks to change it. What makes his work so effective (like Brecht's) is that it uses an established popular format to stare middle class America right in the eye, and spit into it.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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