Stephen Sondheim is one of the most influential living contributors to the musical theatre form and his success and popularity seem to only be increasing. With a string of successful productions under his belt, he is well known on either side of the Atlantic, as well as globally thanks to the many internationally recognisable titles he is responsible and part responsible for.
Anyone who has read the incredible documentary of his life and work, 'Finishing the Hat' and 'Look I Made a Hat' will be familiar with his career trajectory, which has only matured throughout the past three decades. Whilst many of his original productions were notorious financial flops (Merrily We Roll Along and Follies amongst others), the artistry involved has never gone ignored by fans, who have kept the spirit of his shows alive.
Whilst critics were once quick to criticise his shows, the tables have turned in many ways and his shows are considered to be regular favourites. Much of this change of heart is down to the popularity of regional, off-Broadway and fringe productions which have breathed new life into even his most difficult of material, stripping away the 'hype' that clouded many original productions, and have instead allowed the exceptional scores and intricate lyrics be the true star of the show.
Sondheim is now revered around the world and actors of the highest calibre are falling over themselves for the chance (and the challenge) to put their own spin on one of his many iconic characters.
Musicals often face criticism for being light and fluffy in nature. Not this one. This Gothic tale was described as a 'musical thriller' when it first opened back in 1979. Unlike anything ever seen before on stage, this modern-day revenge tragedy was directly based on Christopher Bond's drama of the same name, following the Demon Barber as he seeks revenge on those who had wronged him which eventually turned into the whole of humankind. Hal Prince's original production was incredibly stark and mechanic, playing on the Victorian London setting, successfully creating the dog-eat-dog dirt of the city complete with a revolving scaffold heavy set, with a show curtain depicting the feudal system where those at the top are propped up by those beneath them. Not your typical theme for a Broadway musical...
The Gothic themes, plot and bloodiness have been reinvented throughout the years, ensuring that the show exists as one of the darkest examples of the genre ever to grace the stage.
The musical is not just left to the leading duo but also features star turns from a number of fantastic supporting roles. The villain of the piece, at least in Sweeney's eyes, is Judge Turpin, who years before banishes the young Sweeney, then known as Benjamin Barker, to Australia and locks up his daughter Johanna to keep as his ward. As Barker returns to London, under the new name Sweeney Todd, he is inspired to seek revenge for the Judge's action, setting into play an intricate plan that is enhanced by Sweeney's saviour, a young sailor Anthony, falling in love with Johanna.
It's not all doom and gloom – the musical contains numerous moments of comic relief – be it from the 'Italian' rival Barber Pirelli or the Judge's sidekick Beadle Bamford – the story allows for wonderful moments of comedy that only darkens the tragedy underneath, leading to the dramatic conclusion.
Sondheim's score is suitably dramatic and is often described as one of his most complex. He relies heavily on counterpoint alongside angular harmonies in the style of composers such as Ravel and Prokofiev. A repeated ballad is used as a motif throughout the score, heavily influenced by the 'Dies Irae', which runs throughout the score and is eventually inverted. At the time, many described the show was more of an opera than a musical – leading to the composer describing it himself as a 'black operetta'. Matched by Jonathan Tunik's haunting orchestrations, the style and horror of the show is clear from the first factory whistle and the familiar sounds of the organ prelude.
Because of the strength of the score, opera companies the world over have been inspired to stage the show in both concert performances and full productions. The ENO is no exception, bringing the musical into the London Coliseum, bridging the gap between musical theatre and opera in a refreshing way.
Sondheim's talents as a composer are matched only by his own skill as a lyricist. His wordplay and style have become synonymous with his musical timbre and he is responsible for some of the most memorable lyrics in musical theatre history – from Gypsy and West Side Story to Company and Into the Woods.
Writing within the framework of a London-set 'penny dreadful', the lyrics are an integral part of creating and maintaining an authentic atmosphere. Nowhere in musical theatre do two characters have as much fun with a song as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett have in their act break number 'A Little Priest' in which Todd's intentions widen and Lovett's bright ideas lead to them using their victims as pie fillings. Only Sondheim could rhyme so cleverly – yet without breaking the truth in his characters, leaving the audience both laughing yet gasping in horror at the enjoyment which is being played out as the ghastly pair plot their murders, in a seemingly trivial, yet horrifyingly real way.
Since the original production in 1979 the musical has attracted the highest calibre of performers, all eager to put their own stamp on such iconic roles. The demand on performers is considerably higher than average, with demands being made not only on acting through character but sheer vocal stamina and comedic timing. Angela Lansbury took home the Tony Award for creating the role of Mrs. Lovett, as did Len Cariou as Sweeney – roles that would stay with them throughout their performing career. Julia McKenzie, Alun Armstrong, Michael Ball, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Imelda Staunton and Sheila Hancock are just a handful of theatrical royalty who have lent their skills to the roles – most of which took home numerous awards for doing so.
Baritone Bryn Terfel has played the role of Sweeney twice times previously – the first at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2000 and the second in 2014 at the Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic, opposite Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett. The production received glowing notices and was later broadcast around America on PBS. It is this production that transfers to London and is set for further success.