Theatre yesterday and today



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Honestly, I find it hard to believe that thirty-eight years ago tonight marks the opening of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler-Harold Prince production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. How is that possible? I saw it at one of its last previews in the final week of February heading into March and it feels like yesterday. This date also marks the move-in date of my first New York apartment when I was a twenty-two year old emboldened to begin my career as an actor. In the words of another character in a Sondheim show: “I was younger then.”

At one of those last Sweeney previews I even got to hear sung a different second-to-last-line to the musical. According to Sondheim, a couple of weeks into the run he changed his mind about it. The one I heard was “To kill for love is such a thrill you don’t even notice you lose what you kill,” directly referring to Sweeney (SPOILER ALERT!) unknowingly murdering his wife; the very person he was doing all the other murdering to avenge. I guess the first one is a bit too on the nose and Sondheim did too, as he wrote in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat: “It was both forced and irrelevant.” He replaced it with “To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it if seldom as well,” which is the way it’s been sung ever since.

Angela Lansbury & Len Cariou in “Sweeney Todd” (1979)

Otherwise, everything I saw for the first time on February 22nd, the week before its opening night, is pretty close to how the show is seen and heard today. Sondheim’s done a few other tweaks with lyrics over the years, and some productions now add the Judge’s solo in Act I, which was presented at the first few previews and then dropped, although it was included on the original cast album, magnificently produced by Thomas Z. Shepard. By its being cut, the Judge was left as the only leading character without a musical introduction, which is one of the reasons Sondheim fought hard for it in the first place and why it’s on the album. Again from Finishing the Hat: “Just as I had hoped with ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ to be the first songwriter in Broadway history to use ‘Fuck you’ in a lyric, so I had hoped to be the first to have a character reach an orgasm in the middle of a song.” Yes, this is the number forever subtitled “The Whipping Song,” as it involves self-flagulation for a sexual thrill. But that’s Sondheim for you; forever pushing the outside of the envelope.

This was an album, by the way, that I practically wore through (both discs of it’s two-record set). I guess it does prove that this was all nearly 50 years ago, as I would have friends come over to my new apartment and I would play cuts off the record to give them a sense of what was going on at the then-Uris Theatre (renamed the Gershwin four years later). I had no other means at my disposal except to act it out, which wasn’t really an option as not only isn’t Sweeney Todd in my vocal range, I don’t think it’s in the vicinity of my acting range.

Frank Verlizzo (or “Fraver’s”) extraordinary artwork of the original production’s window card.

And what acting there was in Sweeney! First and foremost, there was the performance of Len Cariou in the title role, unquestionably an actor at the peak of his powers and relishing every moment of it. In an interview with Michael Portantiere from 2013 and just published in the first edition of the new magazine Everything Sondheim , Cariou describes what he thought when an outline, not a script, arrived in the mail in Winnipeg, Canada (where he was from — and where he was getting ready to play Cyrano de Bergerac). Terribly busy with the demands of that enormous role, Cariou only glanced at what was sent and promptly thought to himself, “What the fuck is this?”

Which pretty much sums it up, right? The story of a murderous barber lashing out against the world who, with a willing accomplice, kills innocent people while she disposes of the bodies by baking them into meat pies, serving to bolster her failing business. Cannibalization? And it was a musical?

But the outline was by Hugh Wheeler, who had written Cariou’s previous Broadway outing, A Little Night Music, directed by Harold Prince who was to be in charge of Sweeney Todd as well. And with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the trust that Cariou had to put in this endeavor (though a somewhat blind one), was not altogether the toughest bet in the world. Gentlemen of this caliber would undoubtedly provide a horse worth riding, no matter how challenging the odds.

Sweeney Keening

Later, when Cariou looked at what was sent to him with a keener eye, he told the interviewer, “If Stephen writes a really romantic score for this, it could work. The guy’s a genius, so he must know what he’s doing.”

Adding to Cariou’s decision-making process, was the knowledge that Angela Lansbury had been signed to play Mrs. Lovett, the somewhat peculiar proprietress of a pie shop that had seen better days. No stranger to Sondheim, she had been the star of Anyone Can Whistle in 1965 during its one-week run and, in the intervening years, had become the toast of Broadway three times over, winning Tonys for Mame, Dear World and the 1975 revival of Gypsy, another Sondheim musical, in which he provided the lyrics to Jule Styne’s memorable score. Together, she and Cariou would make Sweeney Todd memorable in their own distinct fashion. And though I have seen many productions over the years (including the film with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter), attempts to topple those memories of Angela and Len is a mighty task I don’t envy the acting world. Certainly I’ve watched the video shot in Los Angeles at the end of the first national tour which starred Lansbury and the great George Hearn countless times. I love Hearn. Really, I do. But there was something about Len Cariou… it’s hard to put it into words. His physicality (and Lansbury’s) not only made them an ideal pair, but the humor they brought to the roles was … well, again … hard to put into words. You had to be there. And luckily I was. I paid to see it four times.

Not coincidentally (no, not at all), today’s anniversary marks the opening night of ANOTHER Sweeney Todd: this time a London import premiering in American this evening at the Barrow Street Theatre, downtown in the West Village. Directed by Bill Bruckhurst for the Tooting Arts Club’s “immersive,” this staging received excellent notices when it opened in London last year (the audience sits unconventionally at tables, customers of Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop). This Off-Broadway version is starring the British actors Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy from that production who, in six weeks time, will be succeeded by a delicious pairing: Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello. Having seen each of these excellent Tony nominated actors in so many shows give so many fine performances, I can’t wait to see what they bring to these characters.

Siobhan McCarthy and Jeremy Secomb in “Sweeney Todd.”

Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are a little bit like Mount Everest, don’t you think? Roles which demand to be climbed, but like the shadow of Sir Edmund Hillary, must reckon with someone having got there first. And if there were something of a Broadway Musical Mount Rushmore dedicated somewhere in America, wouldn’t it be fitting and proper for the heads of Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury to be among the first two chiseled in stone?

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.