thu 25/07/2024

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 3 - 'Johanna' (Quartet Version) | reviews, news & interviews

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 3 - 'Johanna' (Quartet Version)

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 3 - 'Johanna' (Quartet Version)

Sublime ensemble number from Act Two of 'Sweeney Todd'

God, that's good: Len Cariou in 'Sweeney Todd'

Along with many others, my first exposure to Stephen Sondheim’s art was through watching the film of Bernstein’s West Side Story as a child. The song which still floors me is the Quintet near the end of Act 1. Bernstein’s ecstatic, dynamic music is  splendid in itself, but the number’s perfection is sealed by Sondheim’s lyrics, each character distinctly voiced, the rhythms and rhymes flawless. “Sperm to worm,” still makes me grin.

That ability to articulate different voices, to overlay disparate musical styles is a trademark. Think of the long opening sequence from Into the Woods, almost an act in itself, introducing each character and seamlessly jump-cutting between them.

I’ve opted for the reprise of “Johanna” near the beginning of Sweeney Todd’s second act, another moment where everything clicks. Anthony’s “I feel you, Johanna,” is a terrific Broadway melody, the perfect counterpoint to Todd’s “And are you beautiful and pale, with yellow hair?” sounding like an aria from a 19th century Italian opera and accompanied by a splendid oompah bass line. All glorious, especially in stagings which use Jonathan Tunick’s idiomatic pit arrangements, a stinging handstopped horn note introducing the Beggar Woman’s warning. Poor Sweeney can’t hear any of it, not even his daughter Johanna’s poignant reference to Act One's "Kiss Me". The whole thing is beautiful, harrowing and technically brilliant.

 And while I’m fond of Johnny Depp’s Bowie-esque delivery in Tim Burton’s film, and of Michael Cerveris in the 2005 revival recording, nothing beats Len Cariou’s snarling turn in the original 1979 cast album, replete with graphic sound effects. His Sweeney alone really does sound like a man who’s been dragged to the colonies and back, the rage fully justified.


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