SWEENEY TODD – Broadway, November 2005
Okay, let me start sort of backwards. It hurts after seeing this production of Sweeney Todd to know that I should never have given up the theatre. I mean, I felt so strongly that I knew how to do all this and I could have cleaned it up a little. But that’s selfish. That’s not how things work out. But I gotta tell you, I knew how to direct this production back in the early 80s. But it all made me pine to be a part of it all. Really pine. Really ache.
There’s no big mystery to it, this is a readers’ theatre production of Sweeney Todd. It’s produced really as a straight play rather than a musical. Does it pay off? Yes. Yes. Certainly. It’s eerie and spine-tingling and very very moving throughout. Beautifully wrought though minimal. My only quibble is that it sort of ends in a fizzle. But that could just be me. People getting up to leave before the show is over because they want to get their cars or whatever, really ruin things for me. I wish I could go to the theatre and not have anyone else be in the audience. NO, I just wish people would behave with respect.
Upon entering the theatre the audience sees a simple black curtain with slashes in it. There is light — blue light — behind it, the light mutates and there is a bit of fog. It’s not too much. The proscenium is edged with very very fake looking brick. It actually looks like cardboard but I won’t fault that. I won’t compare this to the original too much because it’s such a different animal. However, I was worried that I was about to be disappointed. Luckily, my fears were quickly killed when the houselights went out and everyone applauded, the curtain rose, and the lights came up on the entire cast seated around the stage with their instruments. The stage floor and upstage wall are slats of wood which are often lit from behind for effect. Center stage is a simple black wooden casket on supports like sawhorses. The upstage wall rises very high and there are black shelves every few feet rising to the heavens. They are crowded with knickknacks and sundries, interesting things that are lit at different times during the show sort of setting the scene but not really. All the staging is a sort of funeral dirge ballet, the pace is consistent throughout and it really works, really really works. Except, well, personally I could have used a little more quick violence at the end but I am getting ahead of myself.
The curtain rises on dead thick silence. Honestly, I almost started to cry. It was that theatre catch-in-the-throat kind of thing that doesn’t happen often enough on Broadway. You know that I believe that this should be the POINT of a show on Broadway but hacks and poseurs don’t seem to understand this. Anyway, the silence was magic. I did NOT expect it. It really sets the mood. The lights come up slowly, very ooky, on a young man in a strait jacket in a chair. I figured out it was Tobias but it really didn’t matter. He’s wearing pajamas and looks mad as a hatter and it is SILENT. A woman, who could be perhaps a doctor (?) undoes the strait jacket and pulls the jacket off the young man. Then the Ballad of Sweeney Todd begins and it’s just spot on perfection. I was immediately transported (thought not for life!) and thought, Jesus, they NAILED it. I have to applaud all of the actor/musicians who were perfection in every way. I do wish the two leads were as magical as the 8 others, but I’m a bitch and I’m jealous I suppose. But I must say that all the “secondary” characters are so completely committed and have to play their instruments almost constantly that it truly is amazing. Sweeney picks up his guitar twice and does little with it, Patti has some really fun bits with a triangle in ACT I and with her tuba at the top of ACT II but it’s the rest of them who are dashing around with cellos and violins and an accordion who are really just awesome.
It’s all great. The difference of the sound is awesome, one doesn’t miss the large orchestrations at all. And the music never sounds cheap like in the Beth Fowler revival several years back that was all synthesizers. Tobias plays the violin. Joanna and Anthony both play cellos and that is great but it is their ACTING with the instruments that really sweeps you away. The instruments are characters in the play too — both their physical presence and their sound. It’s all very theatrical — but still readers’ theatre, which is not a negative criticism. However, here is a negative criticism. Mr. Director, there are TWO acts in this play. And you wasted almost all your good stuff in Act I, or got too tired to do ACT II. I don’t know. ACT I amazed me completely. They cut some music but it didn’t matter. Pirelli is played by a woman and it works and she plays the accordion and the flute. The way all the actors never really stepped out of character even though they may have just sung a song and then had to move a chair was really lovely. Except Patti Lupone who was quite charming and slutty but sometimes she seemed to be performing in her own living room.
The intimacy works. But then the sound seemed sort of muffled in some places because of the miking I suppose. That irked me. There were times I just wanted more SOUND but the leads especially couldn’t give it. Now, I have nothing against Michael Cerveris. He seems to be the IT boy for musicals these days. However, the only thing he seems to be able to do is BROOD. He’s got that down. But he’s not a very nuanced actor. And the rest of the cast are. Anthony and Joanna are the real finds of this show. I mean their singing voices are spectacular, their acting is top notch and they’re goddamn toting around cellos the whole time. And the Joanna is funny in just the right way for the character during “Marry Me Sunday.”
Sweeney Todd in the City of Mahagonny — that should be the title.
Every second of the staging in ACT I was intriguing and exciting and beautiful. Everything moved, I believed everything.
ACT II starts with “More Hot Pies” and it really worked. I was amazed at how Patti could oompah her tuba and then set it down and sing and then pick it up and oompah a little more. It was great. And I don’t want to sound ungrateful but there are problems with presentation in Act II. The choice for Sweeney’s “chair fit for a king” is wrong. Just wrong. It’s artful. It can be justified. But it is wrong theatrically. I don’t even want to tell you what it was. But it really shocked me and then continued to get in the way of the show. The staging in Act I is seamless. In ACT II it starts to look like readers’ theatre that has lost its way. Suddenly actors are moving the furniture endlessly. When less should be better we go for more. It seemed like in ACT II the director started to try and be literal which made no sense to me at all. The staging of the slicing of throats is breathtaking the first time, then tedious the rest of the time. It doesn’t grow as it should. It never changes, plus you know it’s coming and then you have to wait for it. Again, I don’t want to tell you what it was — well I do but I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Okay, never mind, the chair is represented by a small white coffin and once it is introduced (and no one really ever sits on it) Sweeney cradles it in his arms for the rest of the play. It annoyed me. I mean, I GET IT, but it was not right. And for the murders we see Sweeney make a huge sweeping arm gesture slice with the razor and he holds it high (hearing it singing YES, I suppose) and then BRIGHT blood red lights and someone pours a bucket of blood from one white metal bucket into another very S-L-O-W-L-Y. It’s chilling the first time but I needed it to go faster the next few times. And each time someone is killed another actor hands the person a white lab coat stained with bright red blood and the now dead character puts on the lab coat. It works. But it should have picked up speed as the show progressed. I also think they should have splashed blood on a wall or something. It needed to be bigger but I don’t think the director understood how to do big and that’s why he opted for doing the production this way. Yes, that’s good and glorious and it works so well but now make a broader stroke — lose a little control. It was still lovely but it wasn’t GREAT. I do, however, appreciate that nothing about the style of this show was show-offy. It was all purposeful and not tacked on to the script. Choices, for the most part excellent, were made. Which is why I was surprised and dismayed and disappointed by the chair and the blood.
The Tobias is amazing. He has to play his fiddle in the middle of singing “Not While I’m Around” and it works and he does it so masterfully. And I greatly admired the director for ending the show in exactly the same tableau as at the beginning. I love that. It’s what I would do. Here, folks, we’re back at the beginning, but so much has happened.
Certain things were really neat. In the original production and on the album “God, That’s Good” becomes this huge song really loud at the end and then there’s probably scene change music. Here, in order to keep moving that same song ends in a whisper and suddenly we’re inside the next scene and it’s perfectly eerie and wisely done. The more I write about this the more I liked it, even though I have many qualms about it. But I stood and cheered at the end, and not just for Patti Lupone. I cheered for the production. Okay, I cheered for the guy playing Anthony because the character is soooooooooooooo romantic and his cello sawing was so sexy even though I don’t think he’s probably terribly good looking but he’s on Broadway for crying in a bucket and he’s playing Anthony and he loves Joanna so terribly much and I just wanted to jump in his pants because hell for a hundred bucks a ticket I have expectations unreasonable though they may be and he deserves to get some love back for all that he’s given.
The one thing that REALLY really pissed me off and I think it proves that this director is one of those “let’s make art” folks and doesn’t really want to do a SHOW he wants to do a PLAY and that peeves me because it’s BROADWAY and things are to be done A CERTAIN WAY (I’m sure that’s in a book somewhere). The curtain call sucked. Hello, it’s the last thing the audience sees. This director actually YANKED applause from his own production because his curtain call SUCKED. Hey, MISTER! Listen to me. If you are going to spend all this time and make your actors work so hard GIVE THEM A CURTAIN CALL that MAKES the audience SCREAM and stamp their feet. I hope it wasn’t because Mr. Cerveris screwed up the last “Street” downstage center by coming in TOO SOON for chrissakes you must be nervous Mr. Broadway Star! I felt badly for him, but that’s the way it was. I can forgive it, I will not forget it.
Anyway. The problem actually began earlier when after the last death (Sweeney’s) we return to the opening scene when the woman/doctor/Pirelli puts the strait jacket back on Tobias. This is LOVELY but the problem is that many idiots in the audience thought the show was over and started to leave. There was too much SPACE between the death and the beginning of the ballad. Yes, it ties us to the beginning but we’re not really at the beginning so it cannot be exactly the same.
So, the curtain call. Everyone is still on stage except Sweeney who has just exited up and slammed the door (just like the original production which is also a little dismaying). Blackout. And then, and this is VERY wrong, I think, they brought the black slashed curtain down again. And then there was this TIME WARP I guess when they had to get everyone off stage. WRONG! WRONG! I wanted and NEEDED to see these wonderful actors immediately or my enthusiasm was going to wane. Well, it’s a shame. The director then gives us a curtain call that would be appropriate for THE BOY FRIEND, but not for this production of Sweeney Todd. Finally the curtain goes up and out come two actors, who make sloppy bows, all chipper and happy. Then two more etc. WRONG! At first I thought it was going to be like West Side Story with no curtain call at all. That’s how long the curtain was down. Maybe they had to remove instruments or something. Okay, now I’m going to tell the director how to do it. BLACKOUT. Fast curtain. The ONLY person who needs to leave the stage is Mrs. Lovett. FAST CURTAIN UP full lights. Entire secondary company tableau. Riotous cheering. Then the individuals and pairs, then bring on Patti and then Michael Cerveris and the audience will be shooting sparks. Goddamn that sort of thing really pisses me off. It’s like the director doesn’t want there to be applause because the enterprise is so artistic! It’s shameful. These are BASICS, kids, BASICS.
I will probably see it again. It really is good. However, I don’t see what they’ll do when someone is sick. I just can’t see how it can be so seamless with someone who is thrown into the mix at the last minute. I have not mentioned Ms. Lupone’s accent. I shan’t. Just don’t try and find it on a map.