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.