September 7, 2014

Sweeney Todd: the show even “nice people” can love.

I'm thinking of letting my beard grow out....
(photo by Alex 1011)
I’m nice. Are you? I’m sure you are – you look nice. (I’m sure people tell you that all the time.)

Most of my audiences, whether readers of this blog or folks who attend my classes and lectures around Virginia, are made up of refined, educated, well-mannered, civilized and (above all) nice people.

They’re kind to animals. They‘re concerned about foreign affairs and the economy; they vote in national, state and local elections. They recycle. They support local businesses over national chains. They don’t use vulgar language and feel uncomfortable when others do. They watch “Masterpiece Theater” and especially enjoy “Downton Abbey”.

When it comes to movies, they stay away from films with gratuitous graphic sex, violence, car chases and explosions, preferring romantic comedies, substantive dramas and stylish mysteries.

If you fit this general description, then you don’t have to tell me, because I already know what you’re thinking:

You’re not so sure you want to come to see Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Virginia Opera.

You’re pretty sure it’s not nice. You’ve heard about the goings-on in this show. “I don’t think I would like it”, you’re thinking. Homicidal barber? Cannibalism? People eating meat pies with……. with human flesh in them? Who would want to see THAT? Oh sure, maybe some big-city hipsters enjoy that sort of thing, those godless pagans from New York and Boston and L.A.

But this is Virginia – it’s the Bible Belt, for Pete’s sake! We’re simple folk hereabouts. We want our operas with uplifting stories and lovely tunes and tender emotions. “Golly”, you’re thinking, “I sure wish they were doing Puccini instead.”

Yep, you’d be hippy-hoppy-happy if we were staging Tosca. You know – that classic opera containing a torture scene, an attempted rape, two murders and a suicide. Why, it’s practically Mary Poppins.

LISTEN TO ME: Sweeney Todd isn’t what you think it is. It’s a masterpiece and you WILL enjoy it, I promise. This music drama, a hybrid of opera, operetta and musical, is bursting with humanity, humor, pathos, toe-tapping tunes, soaring love music, and tragic destiny.

Let’s confront the gorilla in the room: the whole baking-people-into-meat-pies subject that has you scared and grossed out.

This show is not The Silence of the Lambs. I know you’re wondering why it was necessary to add that element. I mean Tosca killed Scarpia but she didn’t EAT him, right? So let’s consider: why and how is this element present?

One aspect of drama is catharsis; the notion that by vicariously experiencing that which we fear, we rise above our fears and feel spiritually uplifted. The Silence of the Lambs exploits one such fear: that we might experience the horrifying death of being eaten. 

Sweeney turns the tables: what if WE were the (unwitting) cannibals? What if WE unknowingly consumed human flesh? That's another cause for morbidity and dread.

Remember being served “mystery meat” in your school cafeteria? It was brownish-gray, oily, covered in fried breadcrumbs and no one could figure out what it was. And no one has seen Mr. Jackson the Algebra teacher for a few days – you don’t suppose…….??

In Sondheim's music drama, the subject is handled with humor, which drains all the shocking revulsion out of it. The finale of Act I, “A Little Priest”, becomes a vehicle for Stephen Sondheim’s greatest achievement in amusing wordplay as the two principal characters speculate on what priests, lawyers and other professionals might taste like. Far from recoiling in revulsion, you'll chuckle and even belly-laugh.

But there’s a higher purpose in introducing the spectacle of citizens devouring their neighbors.

It’s a metaphor, of course; a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. The class system in London was like those food chains we saw depicted as children:a tiny fish eaten by bigger fish,the bigger fish eaten by a giant fish. In nineteenth-century England, each strata of society used (read: “ate”) the class below them for their survival and comfort. Judge Turpin “consumes” Todd and his wife Lucy to satisfy his wanton desires. This is no cheap horror show; it's literature. It's art.

One final reassurance: the music is of immortal quality. Now passionate, now anguished, now bantering, now lush and melodic, now harrowing, now majestic, it is one of Sondheim’s richest, most rewarding scores.


It’s a masterpiece, one which even you nice folks out there will find enhances your life. Don’t stay away. Sweeney Todd is not what you think.

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