At last, sex and death, and not an instant too soon. New York theater lately has felt—even by its own mopey standards—bereft of thrills and passion. Now two musicals stoke our primal urges, basking in perversion. Squint your eyes just so, and the place doesn’t look like an overpriced waxworks after all.
The news that a British director had dared to stage Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s bloody masterpiece, with just ten actors playing all the roles—and all the musical instruments—left me dubious, the scars from earlier transatlantic updates of American classics still fresh. In less than 60 seconds, John Doyle’s production dispels all fears.
Our hero makes his first appearance by rising from a black six-sided coffin. Michael Cerveris glowers in a knee-length black leather coat, bald head gleaming; from someplace deep and murky, he unleashes a booming baritone: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd / He served a dark and a vengeful god.” As he sings, beams of light erupt through the wall behind him. It is as badass as a Broadway entrance gets.
The coffin, we notice, is in the middle of a seedy lunatic asylum infested with crazies and doctors in lab coats. By setting the show’s action here, with no scene changes and few props, Doyle is transparently ripping off Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade—and it works. After all, the musical’s about a pair of psychos: Todd, the “demon barber of Fleet Street,” sings to his silver razors as he plots how to rescue his long-lost daughter and seek revenge on her captor, the vile Judge Turpin; his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett (Patti LuPone), wants him to give up his vengeance-mongering to live an honest life, killing drifters and serving them as meat pies in her shop downstairs.
But the asylum frame, and the wonderfully bizarre idea to have the actors double as the orchestra, also captures the show’s giddy theatricality. From his coffin, Todd continues, “What happened then—well, that’s the play / And he wouldn’t want us to give it away.” As the barber slices and dices his way toward the brutal finale, Doyle’s spare production pops off gruesome laughs and potent stage images—for instance, the small white casket that serves as the barber chair and, when cradled by Todd, the memory of his baby daughter: Patently the man is in love with death.
Doyle has had to compromise here and there, sacrificing a singing voice or two for the sake of instrumental skill. Also, the compact staging robs the show of the broad social underpinnings evoked by the grand machinery of Harold Prince’s original 1979 production. Still, the show’s actor-singer-musicians remind us that theater’s allure lies in the chance to witness firsthand not just talent but practiced prowess. The Judge (Mark Jacoby) and the Beadle (Alexander Gemignani) are captivating when they round off the phrases they’ve been trading on their trumpets to resume planning the seduction of young Johanna. Particularly impressive is Manoel Felciano, who proves as adept on the violin, clarinet, and piano as he does in the role of gentle, unstable Tobias, the servant boy who becomes newly focal in Doyle’s production. Though Marxists will miss the class-war angle of Prince’s production, Doyle does evoke an acute private terror. Cerveris’s Sweeney Todd is a monster, but one with a wounded look—a fallen angel.
The tiny orchestra may spell bad news for people who like their Sondheim tunes bombastic, but the restrained, spare scoring is a fortune for those of us who revere his lyrical genius. Savor every syllable as the funny LuPone sings, “We have some shepherd’s pie peppered / with actual shepherd / on top.” Thanks to Sarah Travis’s inspired orchestration, the second-act reprise of the ballad “Johanna” remains achingly lovely. Sondheim has been knocked for decades as cerebral and chilly, a reputation that may need a fresh look. In recent years, no two Broadway musicals have been more viscerally and emotionally satisfying than last season’s unnerving Assassins and this sanguinary gem. His crown should fit more snugly now.
The final mark of Doyle’s triumph is a payoff that owes more to The Usual Suspects than to Marat/Sade. You realize in the end the asylum setting isn’t just a cute device; it’s a way to evoke the very heart of the work. From Todd’s bravura entrance on, Doyle illustrates how, in madmen’s brains, the dead still walk—an inspired description of Todd’s vengeful mind. Not that Sondheim (and librettist Hugh Wheeler) need the help, but Doyle’s last grace note, one I won’t give away, perfectly illustrates the show’s closing condemnation of its audience. The gesture, like all that precedes it, sends you out into the night spooked and elated.
Forty blocks away, the Public Theater has likewise fallen into the clutches of Eros and Thanatos. There you can see two vignettes set in medieval Japan, in which cheating lovers kill each other as they climax. These vignettes are short, which is good, because they don’t make any sense.