‘Sweeney Todd’ Review: Sondheim’s Masterpiece Endures In An Aimless Revival

Josh Groban is excellent as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but the production is ugly and chaotic.

Annaleigh Ashford (l) and Josh Groban in ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Sweeney Todd | 2hr 45mins. One intermission. | Lunt-Fontanne Theatre | 205 W. 46th Street | (212) 575-9200

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He’s back. Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece about the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has just opened again on Broadway, 44 years after it was first unveiled in the historic extravaganza directed by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansbury in what I consider the greatest performance of her illustrious career. I’m aging myself, but I’m proud to admit I was there on opening night in 1979 and I’ve cheered many great performances since then. 

The ugly, aimless, cluttered and incoherent new production at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, disastrously directed by the overrated Thomas Kail (Hamilton), is not one of them. Still, the virgin audiences of young people who have never seen the show don’t seem to notice or care if they’re witnessing a misguided version of a genuine work of art. I guess any rendering, no matter how mediocre, of a rare, extraordinary and awesome musical in an age of sound-alike jukebox junk is better than none.

I’ll never forget my first exposure to the Sondheim opera, as spectacular as the Aurora Borealis of the Valley of the Kings. I just sat there, overwhelmed by the greatness of it all, not fully cognizant of everything I was seeing until after the final curtain, and even then (and ever since) bits and pieces of its staggering theatricality have hung around to haunt and thrill me. You can recapture the rapture by taking a look at the DVD of the original production available for rent and/or purchase on Amazon.  Anyone who does so will experience the epic, monumental scope, vision and challenge that has, for decades, dwarfed every other Broadway musical that even attempts to invite comparison.

I wrote, in 1979, that I doubted if the world would ever see the  gorgeous, complicated Sweeney Todd again in the monolithic form in which it was originally presented on Broadway. With the current revival as evidence, I was right. It is odious to compare different productions of the same show, but in this case it’s unavoidable. For starters, there is the set. I’m not sure you could call the original production’s visual extravagance a set in the traditionally accepted sense of the word.  Eugene Lee, set designer, didn’t just sit down at his drawing board or send out for a hammer and a box of nails. He went up to Rhode Island and purchased an iron foundry for $7,000, then spent $100,000 to have it shipped to New York, where it took three weeks to erect on the stage of the Uris Theatre. (It was estimated that by the time the show opened on Broadway $1.7 million had already been spent on production costs.) The result was a panorama of the Industrial Revolution in 19th-century London that brought a ravaged, soot-stained era to life before your eyes like nothing ever seen before. The stage was a gigantic heap of boilers and engines and seam pipes, of chimneys spouting real smoke against a gargantuan backdrop of iron, brick, aluminum and corrugated steel.

What transpired was England in 1840, a time of misery, filth, poverty, and desperation, when London was viewed by historians as a black sewer of writhing humanity, collecting vermin and immortalizing crime with no outlet for pent-up emotional turbulence except violence. At the center of this human holocaust, a group of somber gravediggers piled dirt on the floor in the center of the stage from an open manhole while a man in a long waistcoat played a dirge on an enormous pipe organ. Rising from the grave in an eerie green light, Sweeney made his first appearance, and the stage was set for the operatic legend that began to unfold—a story told through the decades by London nannies to rebellious children: “Go to sleep now, or Sweeney Todd will get you if you don’t watch out!”

None of this happens in the new production, although the story remains as much a part of British mythology as Jack the Ripper, this is his legend, told in song and dialogue and pantomime, and it is not a pretty story for the faint at heart. The story Stephen Sondheim so outrageously set to music with the aid of Hugh Wheeler’s richly embroidered book concerns the injustice heaped on a barber named Benjamin Barker, who once had a beautiful wife and a lovely daughter, but who was sent away to prison by an evil judge who wanted he wife for his own lecherous purposes. Barker returns after 15 years, an escaped convict with the new identity of Sweeney Todd and a master plan for vengeance against the rogues who destroyed his life. Setting up a new barber shop upstairs above the pie shop of a slattern named Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney lulls his customers into a relaxed condition with musical cadenzas, slashes their throats with the speed of a dentist’s drill, drops them down a chute into Mrs. Lovett’s ovens, and she bakes them into meat pies to feed the starving populace of the London slums. Demented beggars, one-legged freaks, snarling prostitutes, powdered dandies, sailors from the wharf, loonies from Fogg’s Asylum, and a phalanx of crawling, creeping humanity invade the narrative and sweep it into crescendo, blending Grand Guignol and grand opera to tell a sprawling story of murder and mayhem in the days of plague hospitals and a populace careening dangerously toward political anarchy. Although the story precedes Jack the Ripper and the Elephant Man by 40 years, Sondheim’s score and a multitude of titanic performances recreated those cold-blooded days of terror brilliantly. 

In the new production, there is only chaos, and just one performance worthy of serious attention in Josh Groban’s chilling portrayal of the title role. Amazingly, he shows the heart that beats within the soul of a vampire, as well as the fangs. It would’ve been easier to spray the stage with blood while being driven to madness with glee, but Groban eschews cheap effects to show us what pain and despair have done to drive him fiendishly to the state of villainy. And boy can he sing! He is the only one in the cast who can be heard distinctly and understood coherently, with a place for every note and every syllable intact.

Unfortunately, he is not evenly matched by co-star Annaleigh Ashford, whose Mrs. Lovett whines and sputters in a phony cockney accent that demands a dictionary. Encouraged to twitch and ham it up mercilessly, she sings loud but with irritating incomprehensibility. She goes for laughs instead of clarity and gets them at the expense of meaning. On a show-stopper like “A Little Priest,” in which the maniac and the crone dance around the pie shop determining what kind of disgusting pastries to make from the bodies of their future victims, the hilarious cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics are still unique. What a pleasure it would be if we could understand them. For Angela Lansbury, Sondheim wrote a murderous role that was intensely demanding, vocally and dramatically, with a range that requires a coloratura beauty as well as comic timing. Ms. Ashford finds it impossible to sing fast in a very high octave range, maintain her cockney accent, and work with an interminable number of props at the same time. Recitative is not a style in her comfort zone. The result is that entire sentences and almost all of her songs come off as pointless as they are unintelligible. 

She is not alone. Except for Josh Groban, the rest of the cast is in as much of a cockney fog as Ms. Ashford. A wasted Ruthie Ann Miles, who was so good in the Lincoln Center production of The King and I, plays a beggar woman who comes and goes like the Ides of March with little impact. Gaten Matarazzo, an import from television, sings the lovely ballad “Not While I’m Around” passably, but he’s too old to play the submental servant boy whose discovery of what’s going on in Mrs. Lovett’s oven leads to the play’s harrowing finale. Sondheim’s lyrics, which demand a commitment and concentration from the audience at all times, are often sacrificed for stage movement. Sometimes there is too much clumsy group activity for no purpose, and the staging gets in the way of the plot. At other times, the comic relief dilutes the dark undertones of the piece when the story cries out for more bleak and musty horror than it delivers. And sometimes the tacky costumes and cheap looking production design just plain get in the way. A damned suspension bridge above the singers’ heads keeps diverting attention in the middle of important songs while we’re still trying to decipher the muddled song lyrics, and I kept wishing the thing would disappear from the show completely. It never did.

Still, with so many disappointments and reservations, I urge anyone unfamiliar with this work of cultural genius to see some, one, or any production of Sweeney Todd, one of Broadway’s shining achievements.  What a privilege it is to be part of this adventure, even in a sluggish, second-rate production like this one.

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‘Sweeney Todd’ Review: Sondheim’s Masterpiece Endures In An Aimless Revival