Sweeney Todd: The Awful, Painful Musical That You Are Going to Hate?
When I was about 15 years old, I checked the original LP record album of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street out of the public library in town. I was intrigued by the gruesome cover, complete with caricatures of a maniacal barber and his razor dripping blood and a sunken-eyed woman, armed with a rolling pin and a penchant for cooking human flesh. Of course I was intrigued. That picture alone has done its fair share of piquing the interests of many young, curious theatre enthusiasts.
I took the album home and told a friend about it (before I had listened to it). The friend, who had always been in love with old-fashioned musicals of the Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein vein, told me “Sweeney Todd? That’s an awful, painful musical that you are going to hate!” They informed me I would be wasting my time listening to what he had decided was “creaks and groans and a lot of annoying accents.” Since he and I had always shared such similar tastes, I didn’t bother to listen to Sweeney Todd, returning it to the library feeling disappointed that a show with such exciting artwork could be so awful. How naïve a fifteen-year-old boy can be when listening to his friends.
Two years later, my high school drama teacher Ms. Brunner reintroduced Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to my world, insisting that if I loved musical theatre, I NEEDED to hear this show. She knew I loved Into the Woods, and she tried to help me see the two had a lot in common. I had assured her that I had been told I would hate it and, in my teenage arrogance, tried very hard to dismiss the fact that she knew me and my musical tastes a hell of a lot better than I knew myself. Fortunately for me, she was dogged in her determination to get me to listen to the show. She made me two cassette copies of Sweeney Todd and suggested I take them home and listen to them at my leisure. Begrudgingly, I agreed, but was insistent that it wouldn’t change my mind about this show I had never listened to.
A few weeks later, however, I was true to my word and on a rainy Sunday, I curled up with a blanket and put the first cassette in my little SONY boom box, and pressed “play”. I must admit, the first minute or so made me wonder “What in the Hell was she thinking?” the creaking groans of a pipe organ playing sounded like ghastly church music. My friend had to be right. Then “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” came on and, although the melody didn’t capture my ear at first, the lyrics did. This was lyric perfection that even exceeded by three favorite musicals Carousel, Finian’s Rainbow and Into the Woods. Sweeney Todd was dark, menacing, and even spooky, but the lyrics were illustrating things in ways I hadn’t been aware that musical theatre was capable of. Urgency, unrest, contempt, and scorn were finally given their due. An honest portrayal of humanity, instead of a candy-coated one, was captured in this glorious score.
I listened on, wondering just how dark this show was. Was it a musical theatre horror story? In some ways, it was, but it was much more than that. I suddenly emerged from my teenage naiveté and began to hear the underlying social messages and the rich detail of character development in Sweeney Todd. What is more, it had the audacity to find humor in the darkest of places: cannibalism (“A Little Priest” and “God That’s Good”) and poverty (“The Worst Pies in London”). Until then, I don’t think I understood that there was such a thing as black comedy, nor did I ever contemplate and understand that comedy could address social wrongs with a more scathing indictment than the prose and poetry of revolutionary rhetoric. Sweeney Todd, I believe, has been the benchmark of maturity for many musical theatre enthusiasts to understand that the art form can achieve a lot more above and beyond simple storytelling.
So, my friend steered me wrong. It turns out that Sweeney Todd was NOT the “awful, painful, musical” that I was “Going to hate”. My drama teacher steered me right, and instead, it opened my eyes to a whole new purpose for and level of musical theatre, ushering in my deeper appreciations for composers and lyricists like Stephen Sondheim, William Finn, and Kander and Ebb who explored the darkness as well as the light in our world. Whenever I feel the urge to either embrace or dismiss a musical by the art work on its cast album, or make judgments on one person’s vague opinions of the piece, I remember my dear friend who told me I would hate Sweeney Todd and try to forgive him this transgression and open my own mind a little further to the possibilities.