Shout! Factory releases the live 2001 concert version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London…
At the top of the hole sit a privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed…
I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders,
for the cruelty of men is as wonderous as Peru
but there’s no place like London!”
Your perspective on the ride depends on where and when you get on the train and for this writer, my first true taste of Stephen Sondheim’s blood-spattered horror musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street came in the form of Tim Burton’s Grand Guignol 2007 film version. And, after that movie’s majestic, gory opening credits sequence and wordless overture ended, it was Johnny Depp – made to look like another Burton character, Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck in Batman Returns – who hissed the seething words above, as his ship sailed into a phantasmagorical vision of London at night. I was, of course, hooked by every second of this film. Every inch of it. By every performance, every note of every song, every jet of blood that came screaming out of the the throats of the unfortunate stubbly men who had the misfortune of sitting in Sweeney Todd’s barber chair. Though Burton has always used horror fetishization as the colors for his cinematic palette, I have long said that – to date – Sweeney Todd is his only fully realized, full blown horror film.
Some years later a colleague of mine – Lee Gambin, who writes for this very site – sent me a copy of the 1982 Harold Prince and Terry Hughes mounting of the original 1979 Sondheim musical, with Hollywood and Broadway icon Angela Lansbury playing the scheming and lovestruck human meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn as the haunted looking Todd, which they had both played and perfected on stage for years. Without the cinematic affectations, this was an entirely new, raw and decidedly theatrical impression on the film and it felt pure, raw and alive, as proper live theater always does. I have watched both versions many, many times since.
Now, Shout! Factory, under their Shout! Broadway imprint, have just released another version of the material on Blu-ray and it is – for me – an entirely new way to appreciate the play. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert is culled from a live 2001 performance of Sondheim’s opus, staged as a concert only with the San Francisco Symphony and featuring Hearn – 20 years older and looking even more hang-dog and grim – as Todd and Patti LuPone as Lovett, with Neil Patrick Harris (pre-his pop culture comeback) as Toby. Devoid of sets of any kids or props, save for Todd’s shimmering razors, this is stripped down affair, with the actors in full costume performing the music in character and miming actions on a stage jammed with musicians and a full choir that also serve as auxiliary cast members.
If you’re not familiar with Sweeney Todd, the story is a romantic tragedy stemming from a Penny Dreadful about a kindly young London barber named Benjamin Barker whose wife is coveted by the evil Judge Turpin. The judge finds a way to frame Barker and send him to prison for life and, after raping his wife and doing God knows what else, steals their daughter Joanna and raises her as his own. 15 years later however, the now hopelessly mad and seething with rage Barker escapes and finds his way back to London, where he renames himself Sweeney Todd and, with the help of Mrs. Lovett, the eccentric running the meat pie shop under his salon, he begins murdering his clients, with Lovett carving their corpses up for her tasty tarts. Todd wants Turpin in his chair, Lovett wants Todd to love her, virtually every word of dialogue is sung not spoken and none of it ends happy.
This particular version – directed by Lonny Price – is a marvel and, with affectations stripped, gives you the chance to fully appreciate Sondheim’s genius for not only writing wonderful music, but using music exclusively to tell an emotionally sophisticated story. The cast is incredible, with LuPone’s take on Lovett sympathetic and Hearn sending chills down the spine. And while not a drop of blood is spilled on stage, you feel as though you’re watching a gorefest. At the end of the concert, Sondheim himself even shows up to take a bow…
This is a hugely recommenced release and a must for Sweeney Todd completists. There’s no place like London!
Checkout the clip below, where Todd and Lovett first come up with the idea to turn to cannibalism to please her customers.