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Sweeney Todd has it all: love songs, cannibalism, a murderous barber. Is it just a surreal comedy - or was Sondheim telling his own dark story?  

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It is a long way, geographically and aesthetically, from the rackety Theatre Royal Stratford East to Mario's East Side Saloon rooftop bar, on Walnut Street Pittsburgh this Thursday. But if, 44 years ago, Stephen Sondheim had not dropped in to see Christopher Bond's ghoulish melodrama, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at Joan Littlewood's old stamping ground, he would never have been inspired to write the "musical thriller" that comes to Pittsburgh this month, courtesy of Pittsburgh festival Opera.

Get Tickets for Thursday's "Tasting Sweeney Todd" at Marios' East Side Saloon ($10 online in advance; Free to members; $20 on the door) : http://bit.ly/BritsburghAEWSweeneyTodd

The extraordinary journey the work has undergone raises many questions. Is it opera or musical? Epic spectacle or chamber piece? And where exactly does it belong in the expansive Sondheim canon?

I remember being blown away by the work when I first saw it at New York's cavernous, 1,700-seat Uris Theatre in 1979. Yet it seemed a strange anachronism in a Broadway dominated by musicals like Annie, Ain't Misbehavin' and Bob Fosse's Dancin'.

Here was a show that, in the heartland of capitalism, attacked greed, rapacity and exploitation. Its hero was no sympathetic smoothie, but a vengeful barber turned serial killer. And, musically, it seemed a sophisticated amalgam of Bernard Herrmann, Benjamin Britten and the Dies Irae. Indeed, on the first night Harold Clurman, the doyen of American theatre critics, rushed up to Schuyler G Chapin, former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, demanding to know why he had not put it on at the Met. To which Chapin replied: "I would have put it on like a shot if I'd had the opportunity. There would have been screams and yells but I wouldn't have given a damn. Because it is an opera. A modern American opera."

Although it has since been staged by opera houses all over the world from Helsinki to Chicago it strikes me as one of those transgressive works that makes nonsense of existing categories. In that sense, it is like Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera: it changes its colours depending on the context in which it is staged.

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You can stage it as a big Broadway musical, as Hal Prince proved in 1979. But it's significant that Prince told Sondheim, "You'll lose some of the scary part but you'll gain size," which turned out to be true.

Some of the story's lamplit horror was sacrificed to an epic vision of industrial England, symbolised by the iron foundry, complete with rusted beams and grimy glass panes, which designer Eugene Lee shipped on to the Uris stage. It was massive but overwhelming and prompted the English actor, Keith Baxter, to remark: "You can see many things from Fleet Street but the Manchester Ship Canal isn't one of them."

The challenge for any director is to find the appropriate style. If you do it as a musical, you need to retain its smoky intimacy. If you stage it in the opera house, you have to ensure you don't lose its Brechtian savagery.

But the best production I've so far seen was Declan Donnellan's at the National's Cottesloe Theatre in 1993. A nine-piece band ensured that every word of Sondheim's lyrics was crisply audible. The chorus was on stage throughout, laying supportive hands on Alun Armstrong's manic Sweeney as if he were a mythic hero. And Julia McKenzie as Mrs Lovett, who helps Sweeney turn his tonsorial victims into meat pies, went about her task with the practicality of a Victorian Delia Smith.

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For a masterpiece Sweeney Todd undoubtedly is. And, in trying to work out why it stands supreme in the Sondheim canon, I was struck by a tiny incident that Meryle Secrest describes in her excellent life of the composer.

Apparently, it is Sondheim's custom to play songs from a work in progress to Judy Prince, wife of his long-time collaborator Hal. Thinking Sweeney Todd was going to be a murder mystery, she was somewhat reluctant, but when she heard the first few bars she was knocked sideways. According to Sondheim, she cried: "Oh God, I didn't know this was what it was about. It's nothing to do with Grand Guignol. It's the story of your life."

This may seem a strange remark to make about a show dealing with a crazed Victorian serial killer. But Prince hit, I suspect, on a profound truth: above all, this is a work about destructive obsession and seems to spring from some dark, expressive need in Sondheim himself.

I hardly know the man but, according to Secrest's biography, he is - or at least was - emotionally reclusive, slightly "scary" (even to his best friends) and known to bear grudges. This is not to say that Sondheim is Sweeney; but only a fiercely driven individual could have so convincingly created a hero who misanthropically argues that "We all deserve to die" and "The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat."

Only in Company, which deals with a Manhattan bachelor terrified of emotional commitment, and the more recent Passion do I get a similar sense of personal revelation. In all his other musicals Sondheim, to use a distinction made famous by Isaiah Berlin, is more fox than hedgehog: he knows many things rather than one big thing.

It was once said of him: "Every time Stephen Sondheim writes a new score Broadway gets rebuilt." And, over the years, he has shown that he can write kabuki pastiche (Pacific Overtures), ironic Ziegfeld spectacular (Follies), dark Grimm fairy tale (Into the Woods) and acrid historical revue (Assassins).

Sweeney Todd stands apart in its portrait of a tragic hero driven to destruction by existing inside his own glass bubble: "Back of his smile, under his word, Sweeney heard music that nobody heard." Just like a composer, in fact.

What makes the opera aesthetically pleasurable, however, is the creative friction between words and music - Sondheim's particular trademark. The most emotionally intense love song in the piece is the rapturous hymn delivered by Sweeney to his precious cut-throat razors.

And when Sweeney and Mrs Lovett seal their cannibalistic pact in a song entitled A Little Priest, they do so in rousing three-four waltz time. Eating people may be wrong, but the grisly prospect of "some shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd on top" is alleviated by the gaiety of the tune. It's as if the murderous obsession of Vendice in Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy had been set to music by Johann Strauss.

See how this will work at the Britsburgh Performing Art Society event this Thursday (July 6th) at Mario's East Side Saloon rooftop bar.  We aim to fill Walnut Street with blood curdling magnificent song.

Get Tickets for Thursday's "Tasting Sweeney Todd" at Marios' East Side Saloon ($10 online in advance; Free to members; $20 on the door) : http://bit.ly/BritsburghAEWSweeneyTodd

Britsburgh Performing Arts and Britsburgh Society members have access to 20% off tickets for the Britsburgh Sweeney Todd performance at the Fauk Auditorium, Winchester Thurston School on Thursday July 20th, including an after show party with the cast. For membership details please visit http://www.britsburgh.com.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera's season of Sweeney Todd runs from Friday 7th July to Saturday July 22nd. Performance tickets are available at http://www.pittsburghfestivalopera.org


Source: The Guardian, UK. Article by Michael Billington
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