sun 21/07/2024

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 2 - 'Epiphany'/'A Little Priest' | reviews, news & interviews

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 2 - 'Epiphany'/'A Little Priest'

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 2 - 'Epiphany'/'A Little Priest'

Is there a better climax to a musical first act than the terror-plus-wit in 'Sweeney Todd'?

Playbill and LP cover design for the world premiere production of 'Sweeney Todd'

Two numbers, one hair-raising slice of music-theatre. When Sondheim's paying homage to the older, revue type of musical, you can extract a string of top hits: Follies, from which Marianka Swain chose "I'm Still Here" yesterday, could yield at least half a dozen more choices, Company almost as many.

When his aim is a more through-composed kind of story-telling, with leading motifs recurring and transformed, "highlights" are less easily detached. Sweeney Todd (1979) was his first high watermark in that art, Into the Woods (1986) the next; later shows attempted a more minimalistic palette, with varying degrees of success.

So it's the savage tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and the climactic double-finale of its first act, on which I've settled. Attachment is personal: like theartsdesk's theatre editor Matt Wolf, my teenage obsession was bound up with the premiere – in his case it was the Broadway experience with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (in action below), in mine the first London production with Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock. I'd seen and loved a repertory theatre performance of Side by Side by Sondheim; what turned me on to this was a South Bank Show special.

There was all the sickly fascination I'd experienced with Strauss's Salome (my acquaintance with Britten was yet to come – at university, a friend played me his LPs of Peter Grimes in return for my Sweeney cassette sessions). I couldn't believe my ears when I heard orchestration for a musical of the level Jonathan Tunick achieved. He also does wonders, incidentally, in underscoring for the interesting if not wholly successful film starring Jonny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, casting against the grain that works on its own terms. And there on the documentary was the already indisputably great man explaining some of his numbers, "Epiphany" included. Luckily someone has preserved his exposition of this number, albeit with a dreadful picture, on YouTube. What more do you need to know before watching this if you haven't seen the show? That Benjamin Barker, back from Australia to which he was deported on a trumped-up charge and seeking revenge upon his persecutors, has hoped to lure them to his barber shop under the new name of Sweeney Todd, abetted by wretched pie-maker Mrs Lovett, and, having despatched a blackmailed, failed to cut the throat of his first intended victim. Such a masterclass, this, and what a pianist (though he would insist he's not a great player).

So it was that I dragged my only fellow Sixth Former vaguely interested in the subject to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and was knocked for six. How could I ever share the general criticism that the London production was too ungainly? I only knew that for the first time I was seeing a masterpiece at its inception (the next time that happened was with Adams's Nixon in China at its UK premiere), that I was encountering gripping performances and a full orchestra delivering the kind of thrills I'd only experienced in the opera house. I always found myself disappointed by smaller bands – at the Half Moon Theatre, in the National Theatre incarnations – and had to wait until enterprising students of the Royal Academy of Music revived the full-scale aspect, and brilliantly, for the instrumental frissons to return.

There was bound to be a time when opera companies braved this hybrid, the early problems with which, I'm still convinced, had more to do with musical-lovers finding it too operatic, and opera-lovers (if they went at all) disconcerted by Broadway tropes. It came, from the Royal Opera, Welsh National Opera and Opera North, with varying degrees of success, and only when Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel took on the title role did the two worlds properly meet at the highest level.

Even so, we haven't yet seen Terfel in quite the ideal complete presentation. A hastily-assembled semi-staging only showed that you need a long rehearsal period if the singers aren't to be tripped up by Sondheim's rhythmic tricks and manners (Terfel was, along with his Mrs Lovett on that occasion, Maria Friedman – but both are on top form in the BBC Proms rendition above, part of the exhilarating 80th birthday concert which also saw Judi Dench consummate in "Send in the Clowns"). English National Opera put Sweeney into its Easter musical slot, with imported chorenes and horrendous over-amplification. Nevertheless Terfel is as truly terrifying as Broadway stars Len Cariou or George Hearn in "Epiphany". Thus Cariou on the original soundtrack recording (you can follow up with Lansbury joining him in "A Little Priest" on another track):

But that's not the end of Act One. Mrs Lovett brings her beloved Barker halfway back through the looking glass with practicalities, as always; having popped pussies into pies for so long, why shouldn't she make use of people instead, with his help? And so we slide into the waltz-finale. As at this stage the victims are fantastically envisaged with humorous, vaudevillian panache – I remember all reviews of the London premiere citing "shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd/on top" – but the eerie refrain of those "crunching sounds invading the air" that are "man devouring man" keeps the edge of "Epiphany" still in mind. Here's a more Broadway showbiz-y approach for "A Little Priest" in another 80th birthday special, a kind of "Two Sweeneys" number for Patti LuPone's Mrs Lovett, flanked by the greatest of them all, George Hearn – not available in a decent enough version on YouTube in his prime – and Michael Cerveris.

So yes, if your audience knows the piece inside out, "A Little Priest" can be semi-detachable. But it's always better after "Epiphany" and, indeed, a devastatingly inventive rest of act. No musical dramatist ever worked towards a stronger curtain – terrorising us, then making us laugh.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters