Review Summary: No, there’s no place like London, Mr. Todd, sir.
It is a musical’s role to take the viewer onto a journey into a new, exciting world; to let him escape the mundanity of everyday life and throw him into a universe where specters haunt opera theaters and village peasants venture through magical woods. Perhaps the most captivating of these worlds is that of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd
, which takes listeners on a macabre voyage into the very depths of Vicotrian London, a city where maniacal, vengeful barbers plunge their razors into the fleshy throats of dishonest judges, crazed beggar women prowl the streets cursing wrongdoers from their distant past, and demented cooks sing pleasant tunes as they turn their own customers into meat pies.
Sondheim paints a thoroughly depressing picture of London: poverty and disease fill the filthy streets, corruption plagues the police force, and innocent men are wrongly accused of terrible crimes. One such man is barber Benjamin Barker, who is sent to a far-off penal colony by the dishonorable Judge Turpin, who hopes to woo the barber’s beautiful wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London and vows to take revenge on his malefactors with the help of failing chef Mrs. Lovett. Here begins a grisly story of murder, cannibalism, and hopeless love.
Sondheim’s frequently dissonant score is appropriately dark for the subject matter. The music, particularly during Todd’s songs, rapidly jumps from deafening fortes to eerie pianissimos. The barber’s actions are equally unpredictable: one moment, he sings a twisted love song to his razors, the next he shouts that everyone deserves to die and subsequently threatens to kill the audience.
However, the show also has a lighter, humorous face, which is embodied primarily in Mrs. Lovett, who’s numbers are mainly upbeat and serve as much-needed break from Todd’s misanthropic tirades. Unlike Todd, who only dreams of slitting Judge Turpin’s throat, Mrs. Lovett hopes to one day escape her dismal surroundings and move to a small cottage by the sea. From the syncopated ‘The Worst Pies In London’ to the waltz-like ‘A Little Priest,’ in which she dreams of baking various citizens into pastries, her songs offer a lighthearted contrast to Todd’s ire.
Of particular note is Sondheim’s use of leitmotif. Apparently, the score contains over twenty recurring melodies, but their repetition is used very tactfully; every time a theme is replayed, it has a specific purpose. Take for example the Johanna motif: first, it is introduced as an innocent love song, but it is soon reprised by the aging, perverted Judge, who performs it (while spying on a young girl and whipping himself) with a new, sinister edge.
creates a world unlike any other. Simultaneously disturbing and, in a slightly sick way, amusing, Sondheim’s London is a city in which the most ruthless killers can be seen as heroes. And it’s a city that you’ll want to return to over and over again.