Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET opened on Broadway on 1 March 1979 with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the leading roles. Although it swept virtually every award imaginable, the box office fell short of expectations and the original production ended its run at 557 performances. Fortunately, however, the play then went on tour--and along the way was captured on film. The result is a remarkable capture of the play featuring George Hern, who replaced Cariou, and Lansbury in a close approximation of the original Broadway staging.
There is, however, a flaw. Simply stated: stage plays do not film very well, for a performance that works well on the stage must fill the theatre and is therefore very, very large--and when placed on film such performances often seem slightly static, oppressively aggressive, or both. SWEENEY TODD is no exception. Seen on film, it has a "stand and sing" quality, and while both Hern and Lansbury seem to have modulated their performances for the sake of the camera such is not the case with Betsy Joslyn as Joanna; her larger-than-life performance reads on film as unpleasantly frantic and her extremely operatic voice feels out of place when contrasted with the voices of the overall cast.
Taking this stage-play-on-film effect into consideration, however, this really is an exceptional performance of a unique and macabrely comic musical in the operetta style. Lansbury is astonishing, a mixture of silliness, stupidity, and cunning malice, while Hern truly owns the role of the psychotic barber whose clients "go to their graves impeccably shaved." The overall cast is quite fine and although the film does not let us see quite enough of the set, there is enough on display for it to be impressive. And the music! Who can argue with what most consider Sondheim's finest work? The story itself is extremely well-known, particularly in England. In 1846 Thomas Peckett Prest cobbled together several urban myths for a short story he titled A STRING OF PEARLS; within a year or so it was adapted to the stage as SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET--and, in an era that knew little of copyright law, variations of the play were soon playing all over England. Each one, however, was more or less the same: Sweeney Todd, a barber, kills the men who come to him for a shave; Mrs. Lovett, his associate, bakes them up into pies and feeds them to an unsuspecting public. The Sondheim version is specifically based on a 1973 version by Christopher Bond.
The story is very Grand Guignol, with a lot of blood, bodies dropping down chutes, and grotesque humor; at the same time, however, the music, lyrics, and subplot of an innocent in the clutches of evil open out the subject to numerous lyric charms one would not expect. Sondheim's lyrics are often ironic, but never more so than here; he intertwines a great deal of wicked satire re industry and capitalism along the way, and certainly one cannot fault the strange yet Victorian-elegant of his complex music.
Like the "concert version" starring Hern and Patti LuPone, this particular film also provides us with several selections that were cut from the 2007 Tim Burton film version, most particularly the opening "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd," which runs like a thread throughout the play. It is also, in my opinion, considerably more comic than the film, which tends to underplay comedy in favor of a still greater show of blood. Whatever the case, if you are a fan of the story, this is the legendary Broadway show on tour, and it is a knock-out. Recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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