The tale of Sweeney Todd – the ‘demon barber of Fleet Street’ who slit the throats of his victims and then passed on their corpses to Mrs Lovett, who turned them into meat pies – was first published in a Victorian serialised novel or ‘penny dreadful’ called ‘The String of Pearls’, and almost immediately turned into a stage melodrama.
It rapidly became the stuff of urban legend; subsequent versions included a 1936 silent horror film (starring the deliciously named Tod Slaughter) and various stage adaptations of the original story, including a 1973 play by Christopher Bond (whose subsequent adaptations include The Beggar’s Opera, A Tale of Two Cities and Dracula), which in turn provided the source for Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical.
Bond’s play transformed the plot into a revenge tragedy by providing Sweeney with a motive (or at least a psychopathological explanation) for his crimes: his wrongful conviction and transportation to Australia at the hands of the unscrupulous Judge Turpin, who rapes Sweeney’s wife (who in turn goes mad) and adopts his daughter for his future perverse sexual enjoyment.
Sondheim seized on Bond’s play as the basis for his most complex work of musical theatre – or some would say opera, depending on the theatrical context and musical forces employed. The composer himself called it a ‘musical thriller’ or ‘black operetta’, and insisted that it was a psychological study in ‘obsession’.
Hal Prince’s original Broadway production, however, emphasised the story’s origins in the Industrial Revolution by setting it on a stage dominated by a huge reconstructed iron foundry (a staging which has some parallels with the Boulez/Chereau interpretation of Wagner’s Ring a few years earlier). As such, Prince drew attention to the social-historical dimensions of the work, which Sondheim himself denied, but are arguably latent in the libretto and score: the former invokes a strong sense of social injustice, while the latter includes factory whistles as well as pounding rhythms and whirling ostinati that recall the primitivism of early Stravinsky and Bartok, the minimalism of John Adams and the film scores of Bernard Hermann.
The WA Opera remount of Stuart Maunder’s production (originally staged by Victorian Opera in 2015) follows in the footsteps of the Broadway original, with Roger Kirk’s set design featuring a looming 19th Century industrial cityscape of painted brick. A movable two-storey structure places Lovett’s cramped pie-shop beneath Sweeney’s upstairs barbershop; a trap-door beneath the barber’s chair opens onto a central chute like a gullet down which his victims plunge to the bakehouse in the basement. To one side of the stage another towering structure represents Judge Turpin’s house, where Sweeney’s daughter Joanna appears trapped on the balcony like a fairytale princess.
Antoinette Halloran steals the show with an interpretation of Mrs Lovett that manages to be grotesque, witty, sentimental and tragic in her greed, lust, intelligence and ultimately doomed love for Sweeney.
The Victorian Gothic atmosphere extends to the whole stage when the architecture is cleared away to make room for the picaresque Soho street-scenes, Fogg’s lunatic asylum, or the subterranean bakehouse with its meat-grinder and fiery oven. All of this is spectacularly lit by Philip Lethlean, with green fingers of light spreading out through the haze beyond the proscenium like a Hammer horror film come to life, especially in the venerable Edwardian splendour of His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth.
All of this is given added punch by the considerable forces of the WA Symphony Orchestra, the WA Opera Chorus and the principle singers, including both operatic and more music-theatre-trained voices. Antoinette Halloran in particular steals the show by making the leap from opera to musical theatre, with an interpretation of Mrs Lovett that manages to be grotesque, witty, sentimental and tragic in her greed, lust, intelligence and ultimately doomed love for Sweeney; baritone James Clayton is both fearsome and pitiable as an almost Scarpia-like Judge Turpin; and recent WAAPA Music Theatre graduate Joshua Reckless is initially touching and later spooky as Mrs Lovett’s devoted but eventually deranged apprentice Tobias.
The big let-down for me was Ben Mingay in the leading role. Sweeney is a complex character, and needs to be both sympathetic and genuinely terrifying. Mingay simply didn’t have the acting chops to embody this, and his mellifluous voice remained safely in the realm of Romantic opera, without ever taking on the raw edge of sheer madness required by the role.
To be sure, in this respect it has something in common with certain operatic roles (Wozzeck, Peter Grimes); and certain opera singers who are also actors could certainly go there (James Clayton for one); but for me, in all its penny-dreadful, cheap, messy, sensational glory, Sweeney Todd still belongs in the realm of musical theatre rather than opera; and in the end, there was something a little too neat and tidy about this production, for all its undoubted musical and dramatic pleasures.
Sweeney Todd played at His Majesty’s in Perth on the 13th, 16th, 18thand 20thof July
Image of Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett and company in Sweeney Todd by Jeff Busby