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Howard Sherman: Why the thrills and chills of Sweeney Todd still speak (and sing) to me

Thom Sesma and Sall Ann Triplett in Sweeney Todd at Barrow Street Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus Thom Sesma and Sall Ann Triplett in Sweeney Todd at Barrow Street Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus
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When the Tooting Arts Club set up its immersive Sweeney Todd at Harrington’s Pie and Mash in 2014, I doubt it was expecting the production to become the longest-running professional production of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece. But that’s what happened, with the New York incarnation having recently passed 558 performances on its way to a total of 636 when it closes in August. If you tack on the London runs, it has lasted even longer.

Nit-pickers can say that the so-called Tiny Todd only had to fill 130 seats per performance in Manhattan, while the original Broadway run at the Uris, now Gershwin, Theatre had 1,800 or more (seating in the venue has been altered over time). But the record is for longevity, not admissions. After all, no one quibbles with shows like Theatre de la Huchette’s The Bald Soprano, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, or The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse over their house size. Instead they applaud in amazement at their longevity.

For a die-hard Sweeney fan like myself – it has been, without question, my favourite musical since I first saw the original Broadway production late in its run – it’s heartwarming to know that for the past year and half, the mad barber has been wielding his razor in Greenwich Village eight times a week. It is a nightly affirmation of my own affection.

When Sweeney was new, my adoration of it struck some as downright odd. During my first year at university, my roommate must have been convinced that I too, like the musical’s title character, was a bit off, so obsessively did I play the original cast recording (especially side two of the first disc in that two-record vinyl set).

Sweeney Todd review at Barrow Street Theatre, New York – ‘intense and intimate’

My father was utterly mystified until he saw the show almost two decades later and admitted that he now understood its appeal for me. Like many, he couldn’t fathom a musical with such a sanguinary plot.

To brandish my bona fides, as well as the original Broadway production, I have also seen Sweeney on its first national tour, its first New York City Opera production, its first Broadway revival (a transfer from the Off-Broadway York Theatre known by aficionados as Teeny Todd), the Goodspeed Opera House production for which I was general manager, John Doyle’s Watermill production at Trafalgar Studios, Doyle’s Broadway production with Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, Jonathan Kent’s production with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball, and the Tooting Arts version at the Barrow Street Theatre, which I plan to see once more before it closes. I’ve probably forgotten a couple.

I have also seen several secondary school productions, including one in New Hampshire where I helped faculty, parents, and students get the show back on the schedule after it had been cancelled by school administrators. One of the greatest joys of my professional life was reading aloud to the cast of that restored production, without them knowing until the very end who their correspondent was, a letter from Stephen Sondheim, praising them for their perseverance.

I have long known that my unswerving dedication to Sweeney puts me in a minority compared to those among my generation who cite A Chorus Line, Les Miserables, or The Lion King – and those of all generations who now declare Hamilton – as their favourite.

To a degree, loving Sweeney Todd deeply is a cult choice – not so obscure as say 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but hardly as mainstream as The Music Man. The things we love aren’t predicated necessarily on what others think. Rather, they are about what affects and appeals to us alone, what moves us, and somehow Sweeney spoke (and sang) to me, and hasn’t stopped in 38 years.

It is the very dissonance between my personality and the show that suggests why it might have a hold on me. There is something unknowable about Sweeney Todd, that makes some of us watch its Grand Guignol repeatedly, tapping a dark part of our heart perpetually, both horrified and thrilled, adjudicating and complicit.

If Sweeney Todd is the musical theatre’s equivalent of a violent film or video game, American Psycho notwithstanding, I should point out that it has never made me violent or even desirous of revenge. What I take from it is the beauty of its music, the propulsion of its plot and the brilliance of its construction. You may not want to get me started on how the musical contains three different songs called Johanna, which reveal more about the men who sing them than the woman about whom they supposedly sing.

Having seen many Sweeney Todds, the Teeny Todd, and the Tiny Todd – the latter two part of an ongoing de-escalation of scale for a work of soaring emotion and drama – I cannot help but expect that a one-actor version of the show may yet be on the horizon. That might sound facetious, but don’t rule it out. After all, Sondheim has allowed many variants on Sweeney, including a prog-metal version and alt-folk version among them. So long as the script and score stay intact, it appears Sweeney can wreak his havoc in many different arrangements, both physical and musical.

When I return to the Tooting Arts Club Sweeney at Barrow Street once more in the next few weeks, I will again savour a meat pie before the show, opting for the chicken rather than the vegetarian version. Indeed, tasty as the pies are, they are also my only disappointment from that production, because there wasn’t a beef option on the menu when I first saw it. After all, when having a meat pie at Sweeney Todd, one wants its juices to run bright red – and not from the presence of beets inside, if you know what I mean.

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