Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street may be the greatest thing to ever happen to musical theatre. A Grand Guignol masterpiece, Stephen Sondheim broke down all barriers of the musical genre. Yes, it's a grisly story involving cannibalism and throat slashing; but it is also a genuinely moving tragedy that contains elements of melodrama, macabre humor, and astounding theatricality in the vain of the best operatic repertoire.
The original Broadway production, directed by that master of masters Harold Prince, was indeed a spectacle to behold and yet as intimate a piece as anything thanks to the wondrous music created by Sondheim. Angela Lansbury, in what is now considered a legendary performance, absolutely delights in the role of Nellie Lovett - a baker of meat pies that include the victims of barber/serial-murderer Sweeney Todd (a powerful Len Cariou.)
The plot centers on Sweeney's thirst for revenge on the Victorian villain Judge Turpin (Edmund Lyndeck). Aiding Sweeney is Nellie Lovett, the baker of "the Worst Pies in London." In their pursuit for blood, they come across a young man Toby who will be pulled into the massacre unwittingly, Anthony (a young Victor Garber) and Johanna whose connections to the murderous barber could bring them to their deaths, a rival barber with a dark secret, the judge's right-hand man Beadle Bamford, and an interjecting beggar woman with a knack for sniffing out evil in its purest forms.
The score is subtly layered with leitmotifs that don't call attention to themselves as clearly in less accomplished works. Listen to this recording once and get the visceral impact that accompanies its lush orchestrations; listen to it twice and unearth the beauty behind the haunting melodies and the poetry intertwined in the gruesome lyrics; listen to it a third-fourth-fifth time and start to discover the seemingly endless musical complexities and subtleties Sondheim has buried in the achingly beautiful music. This is one of those recordings that lends itself well to- nay... demands multiple listens.
The operatic complexity of the score is considered to be the finest of anything written for the musical theatre stage; and while it is technically genius, it is also quite moving. Critics of Sondheim claim that he "makes music for the mind, not the heart." However, listen to the beauty of Tobias (Ken Jennings) sing a lullaby "Not While I'm Around;" or to Sweeney's breakdown in "Epiphany;" or even Mrs. Lovett dream romantically in "By the Sea." The raw emotional power of Sweeney is ever-present throughout the score and is definitively represented here by a first rate production.
To give this set the recommendation it deserves would require an encyclopedic-volume analysis of every note and every word of Sondheim's best score. You can't argue with the magnificent cast or the fantastic production of the recording. The glory that is Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is astronomical and can't be beat.
Actor and sometimes director/writer. This blog is dedicated solely to my thoughts on the wonderful world of live theater. If you wish to read my take on film, head to "And That's a Wrap," [http://j.mp/ThatsaWrap] syndicated at TheMoviePool.com [http://j.mp/TMPBlog].