In Defense of the Horror-Musical: Exhibit A – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Even though I’m a tremendous genre fan and I’ve been watching the horror films in earnest for over a decade, I know I will always be a horror noob. Real, dyed in the wool horror fans were raised on the stuff – Nightmare on Elm Street, Pet Semetary, Sleepaway Camp – celebrating grisly death and desensitizing their impressionable brains to the gore, so they have to up the ante with each film. They found themselves in the corners of blockbuster or scouring the shelves of Errol’s looking for the hard stuff, Cannibal Holocaust, Zombie Flesh Eaters, and The Company of Wolves, just to attain the same scare. I was not allowed to watch horror films as a kid, and my parents were probably right. I was a delicate child. The VHS covers of Chucky and Hellraiser made my hair stand on end, and I would have to avert my eyes until I returned to the relative safety of the ‘family’ section where all of the MPAA/parentally approved G and PG movies were. I found the old lady yelling “boo” at Buttercup in The Princess Bride about all of the horror I could take. I entered my young adulthood with my childlike ability to have the snot frightened out of me intact, and while, as a viewer, I find the ability to get really scared by a movie an asset, I know it seriously damages my cinephile/film writer cred.
My siblings and I were raised watching musicals. It started naturally enough with Disney animated films, then movie versions of Broadway shows like Sound of Music, Annie, and Flower Drum Song, but then I discovered the hard stuff – Sondhiem. Rather, my big sister discovered it and I was at the age where her things were my things. My peers had sisters that taught them about Nirvana and Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers. My sister taught me about Bernadette Peters and character shoes. My parents had conscientiously laid out what my siblings and I could watch unsupervised, and it was G/PG movies and educational public broadcasting channels. But as we wandered the carefully gated community of media of we were allowed to consume, we managed to stumble upon its darkest corridor – Fleet Street, where a certain demon barber resides. Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was my introduction to the horror genre, and with its serial murders, cannibalism, dark humor, implied pedophilia and self-flagellation, I was both shocked and riveted.
The general view of the ‘horror-musical’ subgenre is that of an oxy-moron, the ironic lovechild of two concepts that were not supposed to go bump in the night, but I submit that the two are not all that different. Both the horror and musical genres have found a backdoor to our basest human emotions – granted one does it through buckets of blood and scary clowns, and the other does it through harmonic suspensions and snappy choreography. Over the next two weeks or so leading up to Halloween, I’m going to be proving this point with some primo examples of horror-musicals that will both move and thrill you, starting with Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. And I’m not talking about the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp 2007 film adaptation, which I can argue the merits of, but mostly pales in comparison. I’m talking the 1982 stage version, starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, which first captured and infected my imagination during a PBS pledge drive all those years ago.
The show opens with shriek of a whistle, signaling the working class of Fleet Street to begin their labor. A dingy, burlap curtain falls as the violins begin to ominously churn a chromatic ostinato. A cast of ghostly figures, many of them tattered, all of them stern and faced out to the audience, act as a Greek chorus, inviting us to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” They impartially lay out the exposition – that Sweeney Todd was a neat, and skillful barber of some renown who would exact vengeance on his clients by slashing their throats in his barber chair – “And what if none of their souls were saved? They went to their maker impeccably shaved.” The set is just some unadorned metal scaffolding, save an imposing, rusted oven to stage left. Several men enter, carrying a brown, lumpy body bag, which gets unceremoniously fed to the oven as the ensemble screeches the chorus, “Raise your razor wide, Sweeney! Hold it to the skies! Freely flows the blood of those who moralize.” This opening number sets the tone for the play. It is otherworldly, dark and playing in the extremes both narratively and sonically. The chorus performs at the boundaries of their range, from gravely, bass tones to shrill soprano, with such abruptness that it is the melodic equivalent of a jump scare.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the story of a barber who was wrongfully sent to prison, separating him from his beloved wife, daughter, and his good name. He escapes prison and returns to Fleet Street, where he reestablishes his business on the top of a meat pie shop under an assumed the name, Sweeney Todd. He satiates his rage by murdering his elite clientele, and then conspires with the owner of the pie shop, Mrs. Lovett, to get rid of the bodies by cooking them into meat pies and feeding them back to the good people of Fleet Street.
Sweeney Todd will have you questioning your own moral fortitude with how sympathetic and magnetic our two villians, Sweeney Todd (George Hearn) and Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury), are. You’ll find yourself rooting for the murderous barber with every crimson slice, and delighting in the baker’s success as she profits off of the eerily delicious pies. When we meet Sweeney, he is being rowed to shore by Anthony Hope (Cris Groenendaal), a young and optimistic sailor, who is filled with a naïve sense of adventure, proclaiming “there is no place like London!” Anthony acts as a shiny, clean foil to Sweeney’s grim pessimism. Sweeney waxes on, calling Anthony’s beloved London “a hole in the world, like a great black pit.” He refers to its inhabitants as amoral vermin, greedy and filthy, that spoil the beauty of the world. Sweeney seems twisted and terrible until he opens up to Anthony, telling the story of a barber and his wife. His face goes from contorted with hate, to soft and sad. His baritone voice goes from a pointed snarl to woefully lyrical. “She was his reason and his life, and she was beautiful, and she was virtuous, and he was naïve.” He was sent to prison so a corrupt judge could steal his wife. His heart is beyond broken. It is irreparable. George Hearn’s performance of Sweeney illuminates all the darkest corners of vengeance – from deep sadness, to rage, to righteous elation. The expressions that ripple across Hearn’s face are so contradictory and yet so true, that he evokes a perverse trust.
George Hearn’s Sweeney Todd is an embodiment of the inherent danger of anger. Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett is the embodiment of the inherent danger of loneliness. When Sweeney arrives at her failing pie shop, her desperation and lust for company sends her into verbal overdrive. She feverishly exercises her limited charms as she profusely apologizes for her crusted, disgusting pies, “the worst pies in London.” Mrs. Lovett’s solitary existence quickly bends to serve Sweeney’s vengeance in exchange for his friendship with the vague promise of romance. It was Mrs. Lovett’s idea to cook Sweeney’s victims in his pies, and she sells the idea with a wicked, comedic number entitled “A Little Priest.” The fresh carcass of a slaughtered clergyman is cooling upstairs, and Mrs. Lovett notes deviously, “seems and awful waste. I mean, with the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it…” When Sweeney’s eyes illuminate with understanding, he celebrates the very idea. They then flirt and tease each other with delectable cannibalism puns, offering each other pies with different vocations:
“Mrs. Lovett: Lawyer’s rather nice.
Todd: If it’s for a price.
Mrs. Lovett: Order something else, though, to follow since no one should swallow it twice.”
Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney’s playful, macabre collaboration is kept buoyant by Mrs. Lovett’s bubbly positivity, but the dance she does is one of a person who is hiding something. Something besides the fact that she’s making people pies. Lansbury’s performance is distressing and adorable. You would be disgusted by her moral turpitude if she weren’t so damn cute. And when her gruesome deeds and betrayal finally catches up with her, you are heartbroken.
While a stage production cannot reach the levels of gore a film can, the context and suspense will stir your innards. Act II of Sweeney Todd opens with Mrs. Lovett dressed like a proper shopkeep, aside from some superfluous cleavage, and proudly serving a now crowded pie shop full of customers who are getting their fingers greasy with the rendered fat of their neighbors. The new and improved pies seem to send them into a tizzy, hungrily demanding “more hot pies!” With the profits, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett sensibly invest in their business, and install a chute that drops freshly slain clients from barber chair to the meat grinder in the basement. Killing his patrons becomes so mundane to Sweeney he can off several in a row while blissfully daydreaming of the day he is reunited with his daughter, Johanna. The melodious flight of fancy is punctuated by the mechanical clicks of the chute, and the thud of dead weight. Sweeney may not flinch, but you do every single time.
The real menace of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the composer, Stephen Sondhiem. His ability to weave a melody that perfectly outlines the subtle nuances of human emotions, from the lovely to the most sinister, is diabolical. The churning ostinato from the opening number returns several times, evoking that same sense of unease, like your heartstrings are just another instrument in his orchestra. Sondheim uses of leitmotivs, chromaticism, and a sparse, deliberate orchestration with a fluency that is unparalleled. With the intoxicating seduction of the music and the depraved allure of the performances, my child-self was taught the glamour of the grotesque, and a reticent horror fan was born. This particular production is impossible to find streaming, and I fear the slow and painful death of physical media will take this particular iteration of Sweeney Todd with it to the grave. It is a damn shame, because this production will always loom great in my mind. It is the stick by which all other horror-musicals are measured, most of which fall short, like a limp body through a chute.