(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/26; via Pam Green; Photo: Dark and vengeful: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford and ensemble members in the new Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)
Sondheim’s masterpiece, restored to its proper size and sung to the hilt by Josh Groban, makes a welcome Broadway return.
How do you like your “Sweeney Todd” done?
Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the score, favored the musical thriller take: the one that focuses on gore and shock. Blood spouts everywhere when Sweeney, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” slits the throats of his customers; when his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, grinds the corpses into meat pies, you wince at every crunch.
Also rather nice: the social critique version promoted by Harold Prince, the director of the original production in 1979. In that one, Sweeney, seen as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, isn’t so much a villain as a victim. The greed of the overlord class, mimicked by the grasping Mrs. Lovett, is what makes mincemeat of the proletariat.
Or perhaps you prefer your “Sweeney” intimate, with razors so close you recoil. Or psychological and stripped to the bone, with barely a set and Mrs. Lovett on tuba.
If there are so many worthy “Sweeney” options, that’s because the show isn’t just one of the greatest American musicals but several. Sondheim’s score, a homage to the sinister soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann, cannibalizes the book (by Hugh Wheeler) and the book’s remoter sources (a 1970 play by Christopher Bond, a 19th-century penny dreadful) until only their bones remain. But in return you get arias so beautiful, and musical scenes so intricately layered, that every possible genre seems to be baked inside.
Now comes a new special on the menu: the ravishingly sung, deeply emotional and strangely hilarious “Sweeney” revival that opened on Sunday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, and directed by Thomas Kail, it has a rictus on its face and a scar in its heart.