Thursday, December 27, 2012

Attend the Tale...


I came home from Seminary a few months ago and quickly became a little confused.  John was still home.  He left a message on Facebook that I had the day off.  My response was, “I don’t think so.  I've got responsibilities.”  But I went with it.
John had arranged for Kimber to hang out with the little people at my house.  He had arranged for Ray to run Chad around.  All I needed to do was re-arrange a couple lessons I had.
We took off and stopped at Trader Joe’s and then headed into Portland.  John and I don’t always agree with what is considered fun.  I kept thinking of all the lame things he could be taking me.  Finally, we turned down a street in downtown Portland.  I saw the huge poster.  I was going to see SWEENEY TODD!
Yes!  A perfect surprise!
I have loved SWEENEY TODD since I first heard the sound track in the late seventies, early eighties. I love its dark humor, its beautiful score, and the wit of its libretto. SWEENEY TODD is a triumph of musical inventiveness and expressiveness. What truly makes Sweeney Todd unique is its lush and brilliant score. Performed with a symphony orchestra, with the focus placed on the music, Sweeney Todd can be thrilling.  But the story is a melodrama -- a thriller for the stage -- that transforms a "potboiler" story into a scale that resembles grand opera as much as grand guignol. Thrillers are fun, but they also have a message, and if you are a fan of its plot conventions, like I am, Sweeney delivers wicked fun along with its dark warnings.
I like its messages: "attend the tale," of the “haves” and the “have nots”, revenge is never the way, that dark obsessions are commonplace in the world we all share, of fall and redemption, and we must all be wary.  Sondheim is as masterful a lyricist as he is a composer and his libretto is as funny as any "dark comedy."
I think there is a lot of humor in SWEENEY TODD - a dark humor running though the entire piece. Many comic moments are ironical or sarcastic and may easily slip by if one is not paying close attention. The recent movie mostly wiped these moments away and seemed to concentrate on mood and action. I prefer to look to the comedy and the beauty of the score to guide me. 
As a Christian I am sure that many of my fellow Christian friends (including people inside and outside my own religion) don’t understand why I love this near perfect work of Stephan Sondheim.  While certainly on the edge of good taste, SWEENEY TODD is a daring piece of musical theater with which all serious theater students should become familiar. The musical is cited by many as Stephen Sondheim’s greatest score and by others as perhaps one of the best ever written. For me, the show is a little like an onion in that we peel away layer after layer and there is always more to discover.
At its heart, SWEENEY TODD is grounded in good old-fashioned melodrama – not too far removed from the guy in the black hat with the handlebar mustache and the ready train tracks. The good and bad characters are clearly defined . . . and the bad characters are very, very bad. They are motivated by simple things that motivate most of mankind – Todd: revenge; Lovett: money; Johanna the simple, beautiful damsel sought as a partner by both good and evil: fear; Anthony the whistle-clean hero with a pure heart and only the best intentions: love.
I have to state that I believe that theater must be entertaining above all else.  People go to the theater to escape the world they live in.  I don’t believe that the majority of people go to the theater to be lectured.  However, I also believe that theater can and should be used to spread a message – to make the world a better place.
The lessons of SWEENEY TODD are indeed, a bitter pill to swallow.
Todd gets his in the end so there is no reason to fret over lessons learned. He pays his price twice; he must reconcile the fact that he has unknowingly killed his own wife and just about when he is done with that he is cut down by a character representing his own lost innocence. It is not a pretty story but it is a good one with important lessons to be learned.

Start with Todd, which is where the story starts. He tells Anthony his story in song, about the "barber and his wife/And she was beautiful!/A foolish barber and his wife/She was his reason and his life!/And she was beautiful!/And she was virtuous!/And he was naive." The wife catches the eye of the true villain of the story, Judge Turpin; a man who has mistaken lust for love.

When Todd meets Mrs. Lovett, we learn with him more about the Judge's idea of love: after Todd was sent to Australia, Turpin lures her to his house where he rapes her during a costume ball. The party-goers, Mrs. Lovett (don't neglect that name!) tells Todd, thought she must be feeble-minded, and so watch the rape with sophisticated, not to say perverse and evil, delight. Before the play is over, everyone is villain, because everyone misunderstands the true nature of love.

Anthony, of course, sees Johanna, and it is for both of them love at first sight. Judge Turpin notices Anthony's attention and warns him away, but Judge Turpin announces to his beadle his plans to marry his ward, in order to "protect her."

There is more than a little selfishness in this play, which is perhaps the best opposite of love there is. Todd nurses his grief and injustices until he is a perfect monster of revenge. Even as he sings a love song to his razor blades, Mrs. Lovett sings a love song to him, one Todd is oblivious to, and there we see together two misdirected loves. Todd's only "friend" is his set of razor blades; Mrs. Lovett has apparently loved Todd from afar ever since he was the barber Benjamin Barker. Todd mourns Lucy, especially after Mrs. Lovett tells him about her rape and how she took arsenic afterwards, but as Todd has said to Anthony's question about Lucy at the beginning of the story: "All that was many years ago/I doubt that anyone would know." Many years ago, yet he nurses it still. His love for her has perverted into hate for Turpin which, when it seems he has lost his one chance to get Turpin into his barber's chair for vengeance, turns to hatred of all humankind. Todd's love is for Todd's hatred and lust for revenge.

And then there is the young boy, Toby, the assistant to Signor Pirelli who is himself the first victim of Todd's razor, just as Toby will make Todd the last. By the end of the story the boy sees Mrs. Lovett as his salvation, little thinking that she is as responsible for murder and horror as Todd is. He loves her as a child loves his mother, and while she is hardly a mother figure, she's the closest he's ever known. He tells her that: "Nothin's gonna harm you/Not while I'm around," and "Demons are prowlin' everywhere, nowadays/I'll send 'em howlin', I don't care, I got ways," the simple assurance of a child in a world of horrors he almost, but not quite, takes for granted. His is one of the closest to a clear moral vision the story supplies.
All of this misdirected love ends up as it must: Todd murders the beadle and the judge, but also murders his own wife, now a mad street person, and nearly murders his daughter. When he realizes the mad woman was his beloved Lucy, he gives Mrs. Lovett a fitting end, tossing her into the giant oven where she cooks her meat pies. Her young protector, hiding out in the cellar bakery and now himself quite mad, having seen the body parts and realized where the meat for the pies is coming from, slits Todd's throat as the barber grieves over the body of his dead wife.

There is no redemption here, no salvation, no Aristotelian recognition of responsibility, so it isn't even appropriate to call this grim tale a proper tragedy.  In the play, when Toby reappears to slit the throat of a grieving Todd, his hair has turned white, the hoary Victorian chestnut that indicates a frightful shock. 

When Todd meets Mrs. Lovett, we learn with him more about the Judge's idea of love: after Todd was sent to Australia, Turpin lures her to his house where he rapes her during a costume ball. The party-goers, Mrs. Lovett (don't neglect that name!) tells Todd, thought she must be feeble-minded, and so watch the rape with sophisticated, not to say perverse and evil, delight. Before the play is over, everyone is villain, because everyone misunderstands the true nature of love.

Johanna's own ideas of love begin to change. Anthony goes to Fogg's Asylum to rescue Joanna, under pretense of being a wig maker's apprentice looking for blond hair of a certain shade. When Anthony confronts the asylum keeper with a gun, the director senses Anthony's reluctance to shoot, and Anthony drops the gun in despair. Joanna, however, takes it up, shoots, and they make their escape. She has lived the horrors of the asylum, if only for a few days, and she will do what must be done, what innocent Anthony cannot bring himself to do.
"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" serves as the Greek chorus in the play; introducing the story and explaining the feelings of Todd as the story progresses. At the end, the ballad underlines the "moral" of the story:

Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday,

Hugging the blade, waiting the years,
Hearing the music that nobody hears.
Sweeney waits in the parlor hall,
Sweeney leans on the office wall.
No one can help, nothing can hide you--
Isn't that Sweeney there beside you?
Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney's weeping for yesterday,
Is Sweeney!
There he is, it's Sweeney!
Sweeney! Sweeney!
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!
He served a dark and a hungry god!
TODD
(sharply to Mrs. Lovett)
To seek revenge may lead to hell.
MRS. LOVETT
(coldly to him)
But everyone does it, if seldom as well--
TODD AND MRS. LOVETT
--As Sweeney...
GHOSTS
As Sweeney Todd...
The Demon Barber of Fleet...
The ghosts begin to disappear ... fading into the shadows of
the bakehouse ... leaving Todd and Mrs. Lovett alone...
GHOSTS
... Street!



It's a story; it's not the world we live in: but isn't it? It's a story, it can easily produce questions it cannot answer; but is our world any different? The central issue of the play is not love, but where love is directed: to whom, and to what purpose, what end? What do we love, and why? That is the question of "Sweeney Todd." The question should be, of course: who?

And therein lies the dilemma, and the purpose behind the statement. It isn't what we love, or that we love; it is who we love, that most matters.


The play include the tragic elements of a chorus and a seeming acceptance of responsibility by Todd, in both the final scene and the opening and closing ballad. The ballad declares that Todd "serves a dark and a hungry god," with the implicit statement that he accepts the responsibility for such service. While Todd accepts responsibility for his crimes in the play, he is defiant to the end, slamming a heavy metal door on the audience on the final note of the ballad, ending the play in clangor.

The structure of "Sweeney Todd" is what I consider the typical American musical, which is to say: it's a love story. (Quick, think of a great American musical which isn't! I'm sure there are some obscure and bad musicals which have almost nothing to do with romance, but anything notable come to mind? Mine, either.) But the entire story is about misplaced love.
Does man inherit the sins of the fathers?
I think not.  This is a story of repentance and forgiveness.  Really.  As the viewer, the lesson is learned as you leave the theater and contemplate the relationship of hate vs. love and the lesson of peace through repentance and forgiveness.
In Sweeney’s world evil comes from the institutions, from the fact that the history of the world, as Todd sings to Lovett, "is those below serving those up above." Love is genetic. Joanna knows love, not perversion; Anthony, despite having sailed the world, has beheld only its wonders, not "the misery of man" Todd responds he has seen. Anthony is an innocent, even more innocent than his beloved. In this he is like Todd.
Hate, however, is contagious, and Todd catches it from Turpin, as Toby catches it from Todd.
Everyone in this story loves the wrong person, or for the wrong reasons. Todd's love for his wife turns him into a monster; Turpin's lust for sex makes him as monstrous as Todd, and the origin of the evil in the story. Mrs. Lovett loves a man long dead (as Todd declares Benjamin Barker to be), and cannot see past her own fantasies to recognize the monster Toby describes to her when he promises to be her protector. Anthony loves Joanna and the idea of love itself, and while Joanna loves Anthony, she is neither so idealistic, nor so in love with an idea, as he is. Toby's love is closest to Joanna's; having never known a world in which he could dream, he doesn't even have nightmares, just a child's trust and a heart searching for a mother to finally imprint on. When he does love Mrs. Lovett, he doesn't really love her, either, but only what she's done for him, only the relative kindness she has shown him, the first he's ever known. His trust, however, his naivete, keeps him from seeing her for what she is, and like every other character in this story, he loves his idea, rather than the person. This is the fatal error of the story, and leads to the Grand Guignol ending, with Todd kneeling, throat slit and dripping blood, over the similarly bleeding corpse of his wife.
Sweeney wishes the world away,
So Todd becomes "Töd," the angel of death; and Mrs. Lovett makes the first expression of love in the play, but she can only "love it," her idea of Todd, not the person himself (whom she clearly cannot see, not until her final scene, and by then it's too late); and "Lucy," the patron saint of light as Lucia, brings finally to light all the evil Todd has done in his perverted memory of her, while Johanna, a feminine form of John, refuses to believe in signs (semeia) even as she lives her life by them (her love for Anthony is purely "love at first sight," but there is the unanswered question of whether she loves Anthony, or simply sees him as the means for her escape from Turpin, a confusion she may yet puzzle out for herself). Just as Todd ultimately gives up his only begotten child, not for the world's salvation but simply, he thinks for his own. The two questions play themselves off throughout the play: the question of ethics (given that the history of the world is those below serving those up above, how should we then live?) and the question of salvation (if society will not save us, mustn't we save ourselves?). The moral question is never even asked. Even Toby fears only that Mrs. Lovett has made a deal with the devil, a deal which will cost her more than she can pay; as, indeed, she has. But he doesn't represent a moral vision in the story, any more than the guileless and naive Anthony does.
I am a firm believer that we are to love God first… and then to love others.
The production I saw focused on the “haves and have-nots”.  I found it ironic that as we left the theater many passed the people begging on the street without a second glance.  The subtle message seemed to miss the mark.
Todd wants revenge, one of the most primal, natural urges. He fully embraces his vengeful impulse, but rather than finding satisfaction, he becomes a shell of a man who literally destroys everyone in his path. To quote Mr. Sondheim: “To seek revenge may lead to hell. But everyone does it, if seldom as well as Sweeney Todd.” 
If we attend this tale and allow ourselves to feel his rage, his thirst for revenge and the inevitable desolation that follows, we create for ourselves a place to entertain unexpressed desires... without risk or consequence. Through our participation in this story, we experience a dark side of human nature that is simply not practical (or advisable!) to realize, but no less valuable for having happened in our imaginations. Could it be that when we look into the eyes of this killer, we actually feel more alive? My experience says yes. Yes!  This story awakens my soul to the necessity of repentance… or letting go… of forgiveness… of loving for the right reasons.  Love is not the root of all evil.  It is where love is placed that leads us to heaven or leads us to hell.  My experience has changed me.  Hopefully, yours will, too!

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