Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Crossword Puzzle Of Musical Gestures

Yesterday Joshua and I drove all the way into downtown Minneapolis to work, taking my father to work as well.

In the very late afternoon, my mother drove downtown, too, and we all had an early dinner downtown. Afterward, we proceeded to the State Theater to attend a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Sweeney Todd”.

The State Theater is one of the grand old buildings in Minneapolis, and Joshua had never visited it before.

The architect was J.E.O. Pridmore, a noted architect from Chicago, who designed many theaters in his home city. The State Theater opened in 1921, and its original construction cost $1 million, an enormous sum at the time. At the time of its opening, the State Theater was the most technologically advanced—and elaborate—theater in the United States.

The theater featured the first air-conditioning system in Minneapolis. Pumps, pipes and vents delivered cool air from an artesian well 840 feet underground, keeping the temperature in the theater auditorium a constant 72 degrees.

The auditorium still is decorated with its six original chandeliers, along with its original murals and statues. The proscenium spans the full width of the auditorium, curving to a height 100 feet above the stage floor. The auditorium seats 2150 patrons.

The State Theater is a magnificent venue today, but the building did not enjoy a happy history for much of its life.

Erected for stage shows and concerts, the State Theater was turned into a movie palace in 1925. It remained a movie theater through 1958. It long featured the largest movie screen west of the Mississippi River.

The theater closed in 1958, and the building remained ill-used until 1978, when a local church bought the building and used the crumbling auditorium for worship services.

The City Of Minneapolis acquired the building in early 1989 and spent $9 million restoring the theater to its original splendor. The theater reopened in late 1991, and today it is used primarily for touring Broadway productions.

The State Theater is a fun period building to explore, and Josh liked it very much.

“Sweeney Todd”, on the other hand, was not quite such a success.

The production we saw is the National Touring Company production of the 2005 Broadway staging, directed by John Doyle. This is the stripped-down production that uses only ten actors, all of whom are required to play musical instruments onstage.

In 2004, my middle brother and I almost attended a performance of this stripped-down “Sweeney Todd” in London, where this production originated before it transferred to New York. However, my brother and I elected to see Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” that night instead.

Last night I found this John Doyle production to be unsuccessful. Requiring actors to play musical instruments onstage was a gimmick, and nothing more. It detracted from the performances of the actors, and offered an unsatisfactory musical accompaniment to boot.

It also took the audience’s attention away from the story. While audience members were marveling that an actor could play a trumpet or a tuba, however badly, they were not paying attention to the heart of the show.

That the gimmick did not destroy the show does not signify that the gimmick was successful. I suppose it would be possible to stage “Sweeney Todd” on stilts and not destroy the show, or perform it in clown costumes and not destroy the show, or pretend that the onstage characters are blind and not destroy the show. However, is this the standard to be applied? That a gimmick does not destroy a show does not mean that the gimmick remains anything other than a gimmick.

The pared-down nature of the show was further hampered by setting the action in an asylum for the insane, a most tired and unilluminating device, as well as poor costuming—“this pudding has no theme”—and performances that simply were not strong enough to carry the weight of the material.

Head and shoulders above everyone else on stage was Judy Kaye, a natural stage actor and a strong singer. Simply put, she stole the show. However, she portrayed Mrs. Lovett as a Jewish mother, which was a gross miscalculation, and surely not what the role requires. She wrung lots of laughs from the material, and camped it up no end, but her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett involved a wholesale re-tooling of the role into a burlesque stunt. It was a bizarre portrayal, and fatally unbalanced the show.

Josh and I had never seen a live production of “Sweeney Todd” until last night. For the last month and more, Josh and I had been talking about going to see the movie version of “Sweeney Todd”, but we had not had time to make it to a screening. Now, having seen a stage version, we no longer want to see the film version.

My parents saw “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway during its original run. In fact, they thought the show so intriguing that they went to see it twice, on successive nights. They fully recognized the merits of the show on the first viewing, but they also contend, to this day, that the original production would have been very grim indeed had it not been for the presence of Angela Lansbury, who completely stole the show as Mrs. Lovett.

The role of Mrs. Lovett is the best role in the show, beautifully written and beautifully composed (for a singer with a limited range). My parents insist that Angela Lansbury was a miracle, finding all the laughs but never devolving into caricature, creating a Mrs. Lovett who was witty, charming and warm, selfish, cunning and frightening, all at the same time. Perhaps it is inevitable that Mrs. Lovett steals the show in any production of “Sweeney Todd”.

“Sweeney Todd” is probably Sondheim’s most enduring show. It features a strong and fascinating story, numerous characters that come fully to life, and a supremely well-shaped plot and book.

The musical score, however, is not Sondheim’s finest, despite the fact that it is his only through-composed score. “Sweeney Todd” lacks the musical richness and musical imagination of “Pacific Overtures”, Sondheim’s most original and wondrous score. Although every possible musical device is borrowed from the genre of opera—and “Sweeney Todd” is, above all, a work of operatic technique and operatic scope, epic in scale—“Sweeney Todd” lacks the musical richness and musical conviction and musical depth and musical character and sheer musical invention that define even the weakest efforts in the genre. “Sweeney Todd” is a masterpiece of operatic construction, but a masterpiece in which the quality of the musical invention itself is paltry if not paper-thin. It is a score curiously short on substance. The score has always struck me as Benjamin Britten diluted with water, an effect only heightened when shorn of its original orchestrations, as in the current production.

Many of the numbers are, melodically, entirely feeble. Pirelli’s song, Mrs. Lovett’s parlor songs and ditties, the comic numbers involving Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: all these numbers perform their dramatic functions beautifully, but all lack musical distinction and musical interest. The concertante numbers are especially disappointing, primarily because Sondheim had demonstrated a distinct mastery of concertante writing in “A Little Night Music”. Moreover, the music has no depth of feeling, which ultimately relegates “Sweeny Todd” eternally to the world of entertainment, not art—and this is so even though the work is very, very artfully crafted.

Every time I hear the score to “Sweeney Todd”, I always regret that another, better composer did not compose the score. Sondheim, even at his very best, never surmounts the hurdle of second-rate, and most of the time he operates on a level substantially below that standard.

As a wordsmith, Sondheim is a genius. As a composer, he is a polymath, a composer of pastiche, capable of writing acid-tinged romanticism, faux-chic inanities dripping with faux-chic sophistication, Broadway showstoppers and eleven o’clock numbers, all whipped into an unpleasant and cynical brew, a crossword puzzle of musical gestures, composed without soul.

Ultimately, it all amounts to very little.


  1. Hey, Andrew.

    Just a quick "Hello".

    I'll read you later...

    Stay warm. It is snowing here in Chicago right this very minute as I type this.


  2. Hey, fella.

    How ya doin'?

    I saw the movie version of "Swiney Toad". It stunk.

  3. J.R.:

    You know, it is actually not too bad here today, at least for Minneapolis. It is actually over 20 degrees Fahrenheit this afternoon! It is almost a treat!

    This coming weekend is supposed to be brutal, however. The high temperature is predicted to be just slightly above zero.

    Keep warm, and stay safe.


  4. Paul, seeing a stage presentation of "Sweeney Todd" last night totally turned us off the prospect of seeing the movie, too.

    Initially, we thought it might be sort of fun to see both a stage presentation and the movie in close succession.

    Now, however, we don't want to go near "Sweeney Todd" for a long time.

    Josh and my parents hated last night's production even more than I did. My father said that he would have walked out if he had been there by himself.

  5. Can you believe I have never seen "Sweeney Todd"?

    The movie does not appeal to me, either, and I never bothered.

    I agree with you about the score, which I know from the original RCA recording. The show is constructed very well, but the music doesn't match the quality of the construction.

    Sondheim is very inconsistent. In each of his shows, even the good ones, there are several bad songs. Some of his shows have no good songs at all. I am thinking of "Merrily" and "Passion".

    After he split with Harold Prince, his work has been worthless, other than Act I of "Into The Woods". Even "Sunday" is a dog of a show, despite all the prizes.

    The only original Sondheim shows I saw on Broadway were "Sunday" and "Woods", and I hated them both.

    However, I love the cast albums for "Follies" and "Night Music" and "Pacific Overtures". Those are his best scores.

  6. I like "Pacific Overtures," too, but my favorite Sondheim is "Company," even though I think that it is musically inferior.


  7. Dan:

    I know all the Sondheim scores, but I never saw a Sondheim show live until Monday night.

    I generally do not go to musicals, primarily because they are miked and because they use synthesizer orchestras.

    Nevertheless, it is pretty amazing that "Sweeney Todd" was my first experience seeing a Sondheim show in the theater.


  8. Dane:

    I have never seen a staged performance of "Company", although I know the score from the original cast album as well as the cast album from a London production sometime in the 1990's.


  9. I have never been able to figure out Stephen Sondheim.

    He is talented, but he is not a composer of genius. I am not even sure he is an important composer.

    I'm trying to think what Sondheim musicals I've seen: "Company", "Follies", "A Little Night Music", "Pacific Overtures" (at the ENO), "Sweeney Todd" (at Covent Garden), "Sunday In The Park With George", and "Into The Woods".

    That means I've missed "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum", "Anyone Can Whistle", "Merrily We Roll Along", "Assassins" and "Passion".

    Am I missing any?

    I agree with you: the best show, overall, is "Sweeney Todd", although "Follies" is my personal favorite. However, I think "Follies" and "A Little Night Music" have the best scores, not "Pacific Overtures".

    There's something missing in Sondheim. Is it "soul", as you mention? Is this just another way of saying Sondheim lacks humanity?

    I thought "Sunday In The Park With George" and "Into The Woods" were very unsuccessful musicals. I also thought "Pacific Overtures" was unsuccessful, probably because there were no characters with whom the audience could identify. I think "Company" is dated.

    That leaves "Follies", "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd" as his most enduring shows. "Follies" is too expensive to stage, which truly only leaves two shows with hopes of surviving.

    Not that much for a life's work.

    Is this because there is an emptiness, a void, at the center of a Sondheim show?

    That is my impression, but I admit I have not given all that much thought to the matter.

  10. Drew, I am sure you know that old F. Scott Fitzgerald line, "There are no second acts in American lives".

    Well, there are no second acts in Sondheim musicals, except for "Sweeney Todd". "Sunday In The Park With George" and "Into The Woods" totally collapse in the second act. The second act of "A Little Night Music" does not live up to the promise of its first act. The second act of "Pacific Overtures" is a mess. "Follies" and "Company" are both journeys that go nowhere.

  11. Calvin, from what I have been told, you very well may be right about the second acts in Sondheim musicals.

    I am not especially interested in Broadway musicals, all things considered, but I have always kept up with the scores of Sondheim musicals through the cast albums.

    I think Sondheim was written out by the age of fifty, which is always the hazard for second-rank composers. All of the scores for his shows written in the 1970's are quite good. None of the scores for the shows written in the 1980's and 1990's measures up to what had come before, although I have a slight fondness for the score of "Into The Woods".

    My father attended a performance of "Follies" during its original New York run, and he said the show was fascinating, and incredibly opulent. He also said, however, that the show was cold and cynical, and that he could fully understand why it was not a commercial success.

    My parents attended a performance of "A Little Night Music" in Chicago, part of that show's initial national tour, with the same cast that was to go on to open the show in London. My parents say the same thing about "A Little Night Music": the show was ultimately cold, and lacked heart.

    My parents attended the first New York runs of "Sweeney Todd", "Sunday In The Park With George" and "Into The Woods". They appreciated "Sweeney Todd", but they thought that "Into The Woods" should have ended after the first act, and they thought that "Sunday In The Park With George" was a bad joke gone awry, with a second act that was terrifyingly bad.

    I don't think they've kept up with Sondheim ever since.

    As for me, I wish that I could have seen the original Broadway production of "Pacific Overtures". I am told that the original production was incredibly imaginative, and opulent, too, but that audiences simply could not get into the show.

    I still think, purely in terms of the score, that "Pacific Overtures" is Sondheim's masterpiece.

    Ultimately, the Sondheim shows that survive will all move into the opera house, I believe.

    Perhaps Act I of "Sunday In The Park With George" and Act I of "Into The Woods" would make a satisfying evening in the opera house. I also think "Pacific Overtures" would also make a satisfying evening in the opera house, although the book may need retooling, and a couple of numbers added to the score. In fact, I have always been surprised that Sondheim did not tinker around with "Pacific Overtures", and try to salvage the show.

    In my view, from purely a musical standpoint, "Pacific Overtures" should be divided into three acts. The first act should focus purely on the American arrival in Japan, ending with "Welcome To Kanagawa". The second act should be built around "Someone In A Tree" and the multi-national production number, and focus on the opening of Japan to all nations. The third act should focus on bringing the story up to the present, but the third act would need two more numbers to do so in a musically-satisfying way.

    If Sondheim would do more work on "Pacific Overtures", I think it might become a semi-staple in the world's opera houses.

    The other works, however, probably have little chance of success beyond English-speaking houses. I cannot see them ever going over well in Italy or Germany or France or Russia.

  12. Andrew:

    You so eloquently and compellingly expressed what I think of Stephen Sondheim's oeuvre.

    There is nothing left to say.

    My jaw just dropped.

    Your most avid fan,

  13. J.R.:

    How are you?

    Thank you, but you are far too kind.

    You know another thing that bothers me about Sondheim? He is a trained, academic composer, but he does not write his own orchestrations. I think this is inexcusable for a serious composer.

    I hope your weekend was a nice one.


  14. Good, interesting remarks here.

    Who was it who wrote that Sondheim had written the American musical theater into a dead end? There must be something to that. The following generations have come up with nothing.

    Sorry I'm so late to the discussion.