Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is about to end its season tomorrow night, with Stephen Sondheim's and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd as the closer. No, 3CM isn't planning to go (he's seen it), and this diary isn't going to address the issue of whether it belongs in the opera house, or whether it's an opera or a musical. Instead, it's a bit more like random ruminations on how simultaneously engrossed and detached one can become when involved in a difficult endeavor. Now, if that reallly pretentious prose doesn't turn you off......
Sondheim once described Sweeney Todd thus, in a 2004 interview in the Telegraph with Sarah Crompton, after the first London production closed after 157 performances:
'Sondheim has always been hurt by this reception. "It was my love letter to London."If you know the story of Sweeney Todd, you might go "Huh????". Charles Spencer, in another Telegraph article not long after Crompton's feature, responded the same way:
"Reeling from the theatre after an orgy of mass murder, cannibalism, rape, insanity and institutional corruption, one can only feverishly speculate as to what kind of letter Sondheim would write if he took a serious dislike to some place or someone."But this gets back to my point about being immersed so much in an activity that you lose perspective. Sondheim was undoubtedly sincere in stating that Sweeney Todd is his "love letter to London". In the first number in Act I, Anthony Hope sings that "There's no place like London!", in a totally fresh-faced, open-hearted manner.
In a 2003 article in The Guardian, Michael Billington characterized Sweeney Todd thus, with help from reading Meryle Seecrist's bio of Sondheim:
"....above all, this is a work about destructive obsession and seems to spring from some dark, expressive need in Sondheim himself.In the pre-concert talk between Sondheim and BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny at the 80th birthday Prom for Sondheim on July 31, 2010 (which, amazingly, almost 2 years after the concert, is still available here), Sondheim further expressed his love of London:
'I hardly know the man but, according to Secrest's biography, he is - or at least was - emotionally reclusive, slightly "scary" (even to his best friends) and known to bear grudges. This is not to say that Sondheim is Sweeney; but only a fiercely driven individual could have so convincingly created a hero who misanthropically argues that "We all deserve to die" and "The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat."'
"Trelawny: 'You love London? You're....'The initial reviews for Sweeney Todd weren't so good. Years later, Sondheim got a possible explanation as to why, per Billington's Guardian article:
Sondheim: 'I've been an Anglophile since I was 20 years old, since my first visit, absolutely.'
Trelawny: 'You got good reviews here for Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'
Sondheim: 'You really know, yes. They were the first good reviews I ever got, were in London.'"
'But now, he thinks he understands. "A friend of mine, the playwright John Guare, said that it was as if the British had come to the States and done a serious musical of I Love Lucy.In his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim still maintains an emotional detachment in his assessment of this work, considered by many to be his single greatest achievement:
"And we would think, Don't they know that's a silly comedy? Well, I think maybe, with Sweeney Todd, people thought that the Americans were taking a melodrama just too seriously. How pretentious!"
".....if you give an audience a good story, especially an extravagant one, they'll accept it with pleasure, no matter how bizarre and idiosyncratic it may be."If you want to read a bit more, there's:
Citation: Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, Alfred A. Knopf (New York City), p. 376 (2010).
"Attend SNLC protocol
Loser stories from one and all...."