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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Toto, I don't think we're in Oklahoma anymore. Stephen Sondheim's blackly comic stage musical, Sweeney Todd, tells the carnage-thriller tale of Benjamin Barker, a barber seeking murderous vengeance against the judge who, years before, unjustly imprisoned him and destroyed his family. Now an escaped convict, the barber returns to a grim Dickensian London and takes the name Sweeney Todd. He finds an ally in Nellie Lovett, a baker who disposes of Todd's victims by grinding their corpses into "the best pies in London." When obsession tips over into madness, Mrs. Lovett's pie shop enjoys booming business after Todd's "tonsorial parlor" gets equipped with a barber chair that slides his practice-victims (their throats slit by the closest of shaves) down a chute to the bake-house below. Meanwhile, Anthony Hope, a sailor who saved Todd's life, falls in love with Todd's estranged daughter, Johanna, who is being brought up as the ward — and unwilling bride — of the vulturous Judge Turpin.

This energetic operetta traces it heritage to a Victorian penny-dreadful melodrama that was itself derived from a British legend possibly rooted in fact. Because it's Sondheim (with a book by Hugh Wheeler), you've got a sure bet that it's more lyrically and musically inventive than other Broadway fare. His clever and meaty (sorry) lyrics come intimately braided with his multifaceted and muscular score. The powerful leads and ensemble company show their stuff with every style and flavor necessary to make Sweeney Todd a feast, from its sepulchral organ prelude to lush ballads ("The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "The Barber and His Wife"), patter songs ("The Worst Pies in London," "A Little Priest"), a lovely aria ("Green Finch and Linnet Bird"), showstoppers that stick in your head for days ("Pretty Women"), tender love songs ("Johanna," "Not While I'm Around"), an Act II opener that's the most rousing celebration of cannibalism and beer ever ("God, That's Good"), and horror-show operatics ("City on Fire!"). This blend of visceral theatrics and macabre humor is the anti-Cats that throws Starlight Express under its own wheels. (Sondheim is to Andrew Lloyd Webber what Pixar is to Disney.)

Occasionally the whole thing threatens to break its back under the weight of its Grand Guignol gusto, but it stays light on its feet and doesn't abandon its sense of macabre fun, like an enormous three-dimensional Edward Gorey cartoon. The original 1979 Broadway production, which starred Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, earned eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Actor/Musical (Cariou), Actress/Musical (Lansbury), Director/Musical (Harold Prince), Book/Musical (Wheeler), and Score (Sondheim). Courtesy of Sondheim's pathfinding brilliance, Sweeney Todd is musical theater for those who say they don't like musical theater; simultaneously, it's an essential masterwork for longtime fans of the form.

This production was taped in 1982 during the national tour that followed the show's Broadway run, specifically a performance at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Starring Lansbury and George Hearn, this Sweeney Todd made a big splash on Showtime and PBS, winning three Emmys (one for Hearn) and three Cable Ace Awards. It was directed for TV by Terry Hughes, whose fluid camera movements (and the Emmy-winning editing) fit hand-in-glove with Harold Prince's original stage directing. The multi-camera choreography never interferes with the stagecraft (the sets are marvels of design and economy) or the 30-odd performers' work. As in the taped version of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George or the best titles from the Broadway Theatre Archive series, our virtual presence within the audience and among the actors on the stage is handled seamlessly. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better model of how to faithfully translate a live theatrical production for television.

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Warner Home Video's splendid 25th Anniversary DVD may disappoint Sondheim fans with its absence of any supporting supplements, but that deficiency is more than offset by a sterling presentation of its raison d'être. The production's original videotape and audio masters have been restored and remixed, giving us a clear, strong full-screen image and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The 5.1 mix isn't flashy, but it fills the room quite nicely. Directional tricks are sensitively restrained, with the music and dialogue shouldered well by the front speakers while the satellites offer enough support and audience applause for that "you are there" experience. If you've been living with a twenty-year-old VHS tape of this production, the clarity and breadth of the orchestration will be a revelation. The run time is 2:20:14. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne



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