Walking Among My Yesterdays: Sweeney Todd (2005)

Another revival of Sweeney Todd looms on the horizon, this time poised to start performances in the West End next month. I’ll be in London, and have plans to take in a preview of the production which stars Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball (and has sights set on Broadway). In the meanwhile, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to look back on my thoughts from the 2005 Broadway revival, itself a transfer of the previous London revival, directed by John Doyle.

A Day at the Asylum: The Revival of Sweeney Todd

One of my top three musicals, Sweeney Todd, is currently in revival at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The show has been re-conceived and economized for 10 actor-musician-singers in what may be the riskiest undertaking of a musical I’ve ever seen. The company never leaves the stage, except for the 15 minute intermission. They are a part of the staging at every given moment, always in character whether playing their instruments, singing/acting in their scenes or just being part of the general atmosphere. Starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, the show is an overwhelming theatrical event.

The show is told from Tobias’ perspective, with the events of his incarceration being retold by him and other members of the asylum. The show continues in a very abstract, eerie style playing up the intimacy of the story in a way that is entirely unsettling. The Victorian oppressiveness of the Industrial Revolution is not to be seen in the unit set or costumes, especially Mrs. Lovett’s riotous barmaid/slut getup. (God love her, but Patti could’ve been mistaken for Alan Cumming in Cabaret).

I definitely missed the full sweep of the Jonathan Tunick orchestrations, but admired the musicianship and the way the score has been adapted, though I don’t love that buttons have been dropped from the end of some songs (the first break for applause comes 40 minutes into the show). Patti LuPone, who played the role in the 2000 NY Philharmonic concert has gone back to the drawing boards and done a complete overhaul of the character from her broader, more lovable characterization (which can be seen on the DVD of the 2001 San Francisco Phil concert). This Lovett is dryer and not nearly as likable, with an almost catatonic line delivery in most of her scenes. Her costuming adds a great deal to the evening, with her leather miniskirt and torn fishnets. It didn’t happen nearly as much as I would have liked it, but everytime she started on the tuba, the audience went nuts. She also held back on a lot of music, not always brandishing that famous belt voice of hers, but singing in a low-key style that occasionally reached her stratospheric heights. Her acting in the final scene is absolutely breathtaking.

While I loved Patti’s Lovett immensely, I confess that Michael’s Sweeney had to grow on me, but I was singing his praises by the curtain call.  Though both actors clearly are carrying the evening, this particular production is played as an ensemble piece. Everyone is working toward the same goal, and two star turns are really just pronounced ensemble turns. The entire company is worthy of note, but in particular Manoel Felciano’s Tobias was just staggering, taking the character in a direction I never thought possible.

Another thing about the actors playing their own instruments, they had several musical gags during the dialogue. The musicianship was stellar, no one missed a beat or a note. (Props for memorizing that entire score). There is no conductor for the show, but the one actress playing accordion would occasionally guide the musicians along from time to time.

The actual throat slitting scenes created some of the most indelible images of the evening, with the stage lighting suddenly hitting a red glare as that famous factory whistle, a staple of this musical, blew. Each time a murder would take place, an actor (usually Mrs. Lovett) would pour a bucket of blood into another white bucket slowly, and the audience could hear the liquid building inside the buckets. Grotesque symbolic imagery, and it added so much to the experience.

Overall, I have to say I admired the production more than I loved it. I almost felt that the concept itself distracted me just a bit from the character development and exposition, particularly during act one. I found myself early on remarking during scenes and songs “Wow look at how that actor has memorized the lines, lyrics & the instrumental music.” as opposed to keeping focused on the story. However, by the second act I was completely mesmerized. I can easily see how someone unfamiliar with the show might have difficulty following the show (one of the complaints I have seen on the message boards lately).

It’s amazing to see this show work so well with only ten people and no orchestra or conductor (astounding for a work that is performed at opera houses around the world). It’s a tough ticket right now; it was an enthusiastic and sold out house tonight. They’ve recorded a cast album of this particular production, which makes me wonder if it will hold up well on disc as it does in the Eugene O’Neill. This is one not to be missed.