‘Sweeney Todd,’ His Vengeful Spirit Ranges in Thomas Kail and Alex Lacamoire’s Magnificent Revival
With a nod to the original 1979 Hal Prince directed Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Broadway (1989, 2005), and off Broadway revivals (2017), Thomas Kail (director) and Alex Lacamoire (music supervision) achieve breathtaking majesty in this 2023 revival. Emphasizing immutable themes and character archetypes inhabited by the brilliant, sonorous Josh Groban and comically conniving, mischievous Annaleigh Ashford, Sweeney Todd’s thrilling, operatic music spins out a Jacobean revenge tragedy for our time. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond, audiences at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre are having a rollicking time, gauging from their cheers and whoops, as the cast takes their bows.
The artistic team’s well-thought out choices restore the musical (more like an opera), to its epic, grand stature. The suspenseful Sweeney story is arrayed through ingeniously integrated spectacle, delivered by Nevin Steinberg’s sound design, Mimi Lien’s scenic design, Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Natasha Katz’s lighting design and Steven Hoggett’s choreography. All cohere, enhancing Kail’s acute vision of Sweeney’s obsessive need to pursue vengeance, with an assist by an avid, affectionate partner, Mrs. Lovett, who manipulates him into her embrace, using keen practicality and amoral, surreptitious duplicity.
Stephen Sondheim’s exceptional music, delivered by the twenty-six piece orchestra’s soaring sounds, is superlatively arranged by Jonathan Tunick. And under the musical supervision of Alex Lacamoire, the immensely variable score evokes the piercing macabre, the lyrical romance and the chaos of despair. Indeed, every phrase, every note resonates tonal moods of light and dark, that swirl like fateful winds directing the emotions of the lead characters. All of this creative gorgeousness unfolds in the service of displaying humanity in its full-bodied fallibility, as it plunges from grace, victimized by circumstance and the Satanic designs of others. And, as the culprits free-fall, wallowing in a surfeit of pride and sardonic delight by killing the wicked with impunity, we are drawn into lurid expectation, aroused to anticipate which corrupt victims will be sliced by Sweeney’s razor, next.
Originally taken from popular Victorian fiction known as penny dreadfuls, the name Sweeney Todd was first noted in ‘The String of Pearls.” The plot elements evolved to other genres, but the horror tale of the murderous barber slitting his victim’s throats, while Mrs. Lovett’s pies hid the ground-up fleshly bodies, was enhanced by Christopher Bond’s addition of obsessional revenge. These elements inspired Sondheim and Wheeler because of their mythic and dramatic possibilities.
The musical begins, as the ensemble of 19th century Londoners sets the scene (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”). They are the Greek chorus, who sing the ballad at key moments throughout the musical, making judgments about Sweeney Todd and his relationship to the world he lives in. As they sing, Sweeney emerges from the grave looking gruff and moody to animate the Sweeney legend and receive grand applause, as the audience acknowledges Groban’s exceptional vocal gifts and acting skills. Indeed, his well conceived, profound portrayal of the demon barber is worthy of every second of applause he receives.
Thus, unfolds the story of injustice, corruption, oppression, obsession, vengeance, mayhem and murder. The latter, Sweeney justifies in the Act I song “Epiphany,” with his “novel” definition of two kinds of “men,” who comprise the entire human race which deserves to die. These are the upper class wicked, who oppress the poor, and the miserable lower class, for whom death is a relief. When he sings this, Sweeney has gone over to “the dark side,” choosing to expiate his rage and hatred on his fellow human beings, including himself, a key theme of the tragedy. However, at least Sweeney recognizes what he is, where the hypocrites he murders (especially Judge Turpin and the Beadle), pretend perfection.
After the epilogue, the scene moves to flashback and shifts to the past, enacted by the spirits of those brought to life to evoke the tragic tale of the barber, his wife, the duplicitous paramour, a corrupt judge, his assistant and the barber’s grown-up daughter and her lover. With the exception of Johanna (Maria Bilbao) and Anthony (Jordan Fisher), all are victims of their own weakness as they succumb to a fateful destiny. Their macabre acts and the ensemble’s ballad refrain, which threads throughout, compel us to listen and learn.
Convicted of a trumped up crime by the sinister, lascivious, Judge Turpin (the fearful and excellent Jamie Jackson), the barber is shipped off in chains to Botany Bay, Australia, to intentionally separate him from his beautiful wife Lucy, and young child, Johanna. Over a decade later we meet Sweeney, who disembarks from a ship in London with Anthony (the golden voiced Jordan Fisher), a sailor who rescued him, and to whom he sings of Turpin’s injustice (“The Barber and His Wife”). Returning to his old apartment, which is owned by the impoverished Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), who has a pie shop no one frequents because her pies are just crust (“The Worst Pies in London”), Sweeney learns from her that Lucy was raped by Turpin and Beadle Bamford (the fine John Rapson).
As Lovett sings (“Poor Thing”), we discover that Lucy became so demoralized and degraded, she swallowed poison. Taking pity on Johanna, Turpin adopts her as his ward and raises her under his possessive, watchful eye. Under his oppression she is like a sightless bird in a cage, who is blinded so it sings beautifully. In the following scenes we understand the bird metaphor, as it relates to Johanna imprisoned in a lovely mansion, unknowing of her past and the wicked Judge’s corrupt actions and scurrilous intentions.
Grogan’s Sweeney becomes manic with rage learning of Lucy’s plight. Consumed with painful thoughts of her sexual abuse at the hands of the powerful, “moral” judge, who cravenly destroyed their family, and who now has his Johanna, he vows revenge with the help of his razors (“My Friends”), which Mrs. Lovett kept for him. Mrs. Lovett, who always fancied Sweeney, seizes the opportunity to encourage him in his revenge, suggesting he open a barber shop above her pie-making establishment. As he works, he can wait for the opportunity to kill Turpin (“Wait”). It is there that the formerly innocent Sweeney enacts his first homicide of blackmailer Pirelli (the comical and insidious Nicholas Christopher), who threatens to expose Sweeney’s true identity and turn him over to Beadle Bamford, a death sentence.
This is the first blood-letting, the ensemble assures us in “His Hands Were Quick,” a reprise of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” But it’s not the last. The fates are spinning. Mrs. Lovett distracts Pirelli’s assistant Tobias (the wonderful Gaten Matarazzo), who eventually grows close to her and believes her lies that his boss “went away.” Ironically, he becomes the instrument of karmic discovery, which brings down the killing machinery of the Todd/Lovett enterprise.
Ashford’s seduction and insinuation into Sweeney’s life, and Groban’s Sweeney, at first reluctant, then gradually swayed by her cajoling advances, are a couple made in hell, as they align in comedic malevolence. Their performances are humorously symbiotic and perfectly realized with such spontaneity and verve, we are subtly sucked into their foul deeds and initially cheer them on. Jamie Jackson’s Turpin is so goose-bump abhorrent, arrogant and hypocritical, when Sweeney finally kills him, the audience cheers.
However, it takes the appropriate time for Sweeney to avenge Turpin’s horrors. These “drive him up the wall” and push him to accept the god of vengeance and unforgiveness as his master. After Sweeney is interrupted from killing Turpin and despairs that he’s lost his chance, he appoints himself an executioner of “mankind” (two types of men), in “Epiphany.” It’s a show-stopping number and Groban is in his full, lush glory. In a profoundly clever Sondheim transition, ever the opportunist, Ashford’s Lovett soothes Sweeney’s explosive mania. She conceives of an ingenious way to dispatch the bodies of those “who deserve to die,” by baking their flesh into savory meat pies (“A Little Priest”). Forever, she elicits his gratitude and affection, which she gladly receives because she is so smitten with him and wants to supplant memories of Lucy with her love and murderous complicity. She becomes his invaluable asset for vengeance with impunity.
Sweeney’s transformation from doom and gloom to joy and laughter occurs when he “gets” how Mrs. Lovett will help rid him of the evidence of his murders. Groban’s Sweeney is absolutely mesmerizing in this scene. As the realization of her lovely idea takes over his whole being, his interior darkness shifts to light, as if a burden has been lifted. Happily, he binds himself to her in a euphoric irony of evil. Ashford’s mastery of his soul lures him and couples him to her, as they fly toward doom, too taken with their genius to be bothered by the possible consequences of their wicked amorality. Thus, together they answer the world’s corruption, emphasizing the theme of how human beings eat one another, taking the devouring from metaphor to realty.
The portrayals and performance of this clever song marries these actors in their brilliant talents and shared generosity. It is one of the most memorable moments in a production that is filled with many memorable moments. Importantly, as we are relieved to see them laugh, and laugh with them as they delightfully plot against those high born and low, who deserve to die, fate spins the tragedy of consequences and accountability in Act II.
Meanwhile, in a second feeder plot, whose action develops in conjunction with the scenes between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, Fisher’s Anthony comes upon the grown-up Johanna (Maria Bilbao). Bilbao aptly sings about birds that are caged (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Listening to her (Bilbao’s flighty performance and lyrical singing are stunning), Fisher’s Anthony inquires her identity from a Beggar Woman (the incredible Ruthie Ann Miles), who is always near Mrs. Lovett’s or the Judge’s mansion. Anthony falls in love at first sight (“Ah, Miss,” “Johanna”). Emboldened by the Beggar Woman’s admonition that he should stay away, he pursues Johanna who is receptive to running away with him to escape marriage with Judge Turpin, her future intended. When Turpin discovers her plot with Anthony, he locks her in an asylum, waiting for her to relent.
How these characters reach the end of themselves in freedom or bondage unravels in a darkening Act II. Only then, do we realize, like Sweeney, how “kindness” and “friendship” can be exploited to deceive those weakened with unstable and desperate passions. As the emotionally seductive Mrs. Lovett, whom we and Sweeney come to delight in, then are horrified by, Annaleigh Ashford’s portrayal is sumptuous and grand. Her antithetical character is Ruthie Ann Miles’ Beggar Women, with whom Mrs. Lovett secretly is in competition. Throughout, the Beggar Woman is the key upon which events turn. Also, she is the wise Cassandra that no one listens to because they look at her outer appearance (“City on Fire”), and think her mad. This important theme is one more irony the fates spin out in this fabulous revival.
With spot-on performances by the entire cast of those who “eat” and are “eaten,” of the righteous innocent who escape, and of the hapless, beautiful, trafficked Lucy-types, who are in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” and are abused by men and women alike, all the characters “get what they deserve.” The warning is that memento mori. The same will happen to us, though it may not be at the hands of the Sweeney Todd’s of the world. If vengeance is sought, let karma deliver it. Pursuing it is its own destruction.
This Sweeney Todd affirms stylized truths that remind us of the precarious balance between justice and vengeance, love and obsession, helpfulness and selfishness. In its monumental arc where duplicity, self-deceit, betrayal and cruelty play out in the characters’ lives, the messages are profound. The characters in their impulses and desires are terrifying, not in the horror genre sense, but in their reflections of human emotions, revealing what people are capable of. Kail and the actors have teased out incomparable, believable portrayals. We have only to read the news to see their conjunction with our time, indeed, all time.
This devastatingly human Sweeney Todd, whose only hope is an escape through love, is a classic. It is a fitting revival of a masterwork that must be experienced live to feel its grandeur. For tickets go to their website or visit the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre at 205 West 46th St. https://sweeneytoddbroadway.com/