Thursday, 2 December 2021

Sondheim(s) of the Day - "Killers" special: Sweeney Todd, Assassins

Not so much a musical as an opera, truth be told, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - true to its source material in the Victorian "penny dreadfuls" in the UK - is probably one of the bloodthirstiest productions to open on Broadway; although I suppose back in 1979 the "horror genre" [thanks to Hammer Studios, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Omen and so on] was rather popular, so maybe its timing was quite good after all.

Everyone knows the story: psychopathic barber, bent on revenge, pairs up with deranged pie-shop owner who can't get her hands on any tasty fresh meat - with chilling results! Interspersed with a naive love story involving Sweeney's daughter Johanna and the sailor Anthony who rescued him from drowning, and some black-comedy moments involving rival barbers and the simple-minded assistant at the pie shop Toby, it's certainly a tangled web, brimming with wonderful numbers. And, without further ado...Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd!

[Another Sondheim "standard" that has been covered by loads of artistes, in and out of the production, including MegaBabs, Renee Fleming, Michael Feinstein, (ahem) Jamie Cullum, Lea Salonga, Michael Ball with Alfie Boe, Josh Groban and Cleo Laine]

By the way, no surprises; there is no "Happy Ever After" in this tale!

We've never seen the Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter film, but this is another show in Mr Sondheim's estimable repertoire that we've been to see on stage twice - in completely different productions and five years apart. The first was a major "in concert" revival at The Royal Festival Hall way back in 2007, starring the booming Bryn Terfel as "Sweeney Todd" and Maria Friedman as "Mrs Lovett", and also featured Daniel Boys and Philip Quast [NB the format was later revived again in 2014 with Emma Thompson baking the pies]. It was, as one might imagine, very impressive. Bryn Terfel is quite scary when in full voice!

The second version we went to see was the much bigger, well-promoted, and fully staged and dramatised version at the Adelphi Theatre in 2012 - with a surprising and frighteningly convincing Michael Ball in the title role, and Imelda Staunton as "Mrs Lovett". It was utterly mind-blowing! Quite rightly it won three Olivier Awards: Best Show, and one each for Mr Ball and Miss Staunton. We loved it.

All about Sweeney Todd at Everything Sondheim.

Speaking of "loving it", one of Mr Sondheim's lesser-known [and certainly less-often-revived - although a version is apparently currently showing off-Broadway in 2021] creations is a very weird concept indeed...

I mean, how many "artistic types" would think: "I know what would make a great plot for a musical! Every assassin or would-be-assassin of Presidents of the United States of America implausibly gathered in a Scooby-Doo-style sinister abandoned funfair to sing about their deeds, and to join together in harmony to implore Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on JFK? That'd go down well."

But. It. Works.

Assassins has had a bit of a chequered history, for sure - its original off-Broadway production in 1990 closed after just 73 performances, and the London run at The Donmar after a mere 76; its proposed revival was delayed for three years after the 11th September terrorist attacks, but once it finally opened (with Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris), it won a Tony Award. We went to see the 2014 Menier Chocolate Factory version, starring Catherine Tate, the lovely Aaron Tveit, Jamie Parker, Mike McShane and Andy Nyman - where we were in the front row, right in the middle of the action; and we were spooked to bits at having various members of the cast in turn pointing guns in our faces!

It's a twisted idea, but with a helluva score, from which this is merely a soupçon...


A comprehensive analysis of the plot, courtesy of the New Line Theatre site; alternatively read more on Wikipedia.

RIP, Stephen Joshua Sondheim (22nd March 1930 – 26th November 2021)

[One of a series of tributes I will be posting to Mr Sondheim this week.]
Previous "Sondheim of the Day" entries:


  1. Smashing! I just checked - Johnny and Helena did their own singing in the film.

    1. Johnny Depp has quite a good singing voice - he sang in Cry Baby, and has even duetted with Shane McGowan! Jx

    2. Not fond of Depp, but the film is pretty good. Certainly better than A Little Night Music.

    3. I've always loved Mr Depp - but after my sister went to see the film and recoiled at the level of gore, we never bothered to go and see it.

      I've heard/read many bad things about the Liz Taylor vehicle A Little Night Music - although anything with Hermione Gingold in it must have some form of salvation - in particular the fact that one minute she was fat, and then in the next scene she'd lost weight again... I shan't rush to seek out the DVD. Jx

  2. I have yet to see the movie version. I adored Angela Lansbury. For a treat, find a copy of Dear World (beloved Jerry Herman) - she's amazing. Rather like Sweeney. Such good fun. Assassins? And acquired taste. His work waned and I frequently felt he was trying too hard - competing with his past. Assassins was a marvelous concept that needed to remain in the cooker a bit longer. Served up too early, I'm afraid. You are doing a bang up job of this Sondheim tribute. Bravo, dear.

    1. We adore Angela Lansbury! We adore Jerry Herman; our second-favourite musicals maestro after Sondheim! [You may like this, if you've not heard of it before.]. I believe we have Dear World on LP, but never transcribed it to CD (we had/possibly still have but it's probably in a box somewhere a turntable that could record to digital format).

      As for Assassins, I'm not sure which production you saw, but Jamie Lloyd's version for the Menier Chocolate Factory was brilliant, and polished, and certainly didn't give any of us the same impression as you had... Jx

  3. I've had a brief run-through of your blog this week, but am saving for a jolly good wallow, when traffic and phones and bloody dogs are silent.
    You're doing a superb job here, Jon. Dip o' the lid, Sir. xx

    1. Awww, bless yer, Ma'am! It's a labour of love - and I look forward to your feedback after you've had a good ol' wallow... Jx

  4. A Masterpiece of musical theatre !
    Sorry make that
    A Masterpiece of the Theatre !


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