My wife, her mother, and I have been subscribers to Drury Lane Theater in Oak Brook Terrace for a number of years now. Last night it was our turn to see the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd”. You might say I had reservations of a different kind too because this play’s reputation had preceded our visit. On the cover, Playbill calls “Sweeney Todd” a musical thriller. It would be more accurate to call it a musical killer. There were in my tabulation eight instances of homocide. I knew as I said that this was not your conventional musical fare. This insight I picked up from the chatter on my theatrical radar over time, from seeing the opening scenes of Johnny Depp’s cinematic performance, and from playing the song ‘Johanna’ on the piano.
But seeing the play live on the stage is another matter all together. You might say it keeps you on the razor’s edge— that being the weapon of choice for dispatching the most victims. To be sure, I must separate my scruples over the incidents in the story from the other elements of the performance: the music itself, the accomplished cast of singing actors, and the production values in general. All of these were of the highest quality.
My negative reactions are to what happens in the plot. “Sweeney Todd” is based on a story that originated in Victorian England. It has undergone a variety of alterations in its epiphanies over time. Sondheim modeled his musical after a 1973 version. Even though his version has softened the edges somewhat, the stark narrative still has enough evil and misanthropy in it to shock and awe any audience, especially the typical Drury Lane crowd. Revenge tragedies like “Sweeney” go back to the Roman dramatist Seneca. They were very popular in the Elizabethan Age. Shakespeare dipped his quill into the genre and the result was a bloody, lurid melodrama that ran the gamut from human butchery and cannibalism to graphic rape. He made up for this wretched excess some years later when he wrote another tragedy of revenge that is arguably the greatest play ever written by anyone anywhere at any time: Hamlet. Revenge, it’s said, is a dish better eaten cold. Hot or cold, whatever you may eat before or after, “Sweeney Todd” is definitely not a musical for a squeamish stomach.
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