Outstanding and sophisticated … the talk of the town.
After years in exile for a crime he didn’t commit, Sweeney Todd returns to London to find his wife dead and his daughter in the hands of the judge that falsely condemned him. He vows revenge on the judge; but once Todd realizes that everyone deserves to die, countless throats start to be slit…
Sweeney Todd was the first production that I directed in Seoul (I was the only non-Korean involved). The show won several awards there, including Best Production, and was the most nominated show of the season.
Given that Sweeney Todd is set in London and was first staged in New York, it was fascinating to discover that some aspects of the story could have deeper resonances in Korea than elsewhere. For instance, when Todd sings My Friends to his razors, it’s like an incantation. In seductive tones, he wills the tools to become part of his own self, part of his soul. (After all, when he returns home, these razors are all that he has to hold from his previous life.) This action seems much closer to Korean shamanistic rituals and dances with knives than anything contained in Western culture.
But why do people all over the world choose to watch Sweeney Todd? A tale that revolves around brutal murders and cannibalism doesn’t sound like ideal mass-market entertainment. Yet, as with any tale of revenge, it’s extraordinary to experience the drive of a character that is determined to reach their goal at any cost.
Todd is a wronged man, an unstoppable force who is powered onwards by past events, by actions that can never be altered. Fifteen years earlier, he lost everything – his livelihood, his wife and his one-year-old child. Now every aspect of him has changed – his looks, his personality, and even his name. Yet, no matter what he alters, he cannot forget what he has lost, who he was before. Mrs Lovett is looking for a future with him, and tells Todd many times that he has to move on. But Todd is incapable of shaking off the sorrow; his life has no meaning without it.
Sondheim’s lyrics have several references to the mechanisms of revenge: “Sweeney began the engines turning”; “like a perfect machine he planned”. Initially, designer Seung Ho Jeong and I wanted to show the mechanism of the barber’s chair in detail – Todd slits a throat, then pulls a lever to send the body hurtling down a chute; this causes an oven door to pop open and a tray to tip out, filled with freshly-baked meat pies that are swiftly sold. This idea then expanded until the stage represented a vast machine, including a four storey-high portal around the proscenium arch that was covered in cogs. This approach highlighted the helplessness of the general populus in this society – as an enraged Todd expresses in “Epiphany”, each person has their “proper place”.
Sondheim wants Sweeney Todd to embrace both humour and horror. At the end of the first act, the idea of turning people into pies provides laughter. But we end up in a dark basement where buckets of flour and butter have turned into blood. Early on in Act Two of our production, Mrs Lovett tied a bundle of shoes to a rope and then winched the package up into the air, where it was stored inside a huge container. Later in the Act, Toby accidentally unlatched the opening to this container, and hundreds of shoes cascaded to the ground. It seemed necessary to remind the audience that, for all the entertainment Todd’s acts might be providing, countless people were being viciously slain.
During each of the ballads, an ensemble of workers kept screwing light bulbs into sockets. In the final minutes of the story, Toby, after killing Todd, began to turn the handle of a mighty meat grinder. Suddenly, all the wheels, cogs and gears of the set started spinning at last; the bulbs flickered into life, lighting up the audience’s faces and illuminating a sea of bodies that were scattered across the stage. Then, with the final ballad, the cast completed this ritual of revenge by washing the blood from their hands.
A final thought…
I regard Sweeney Todd as a genuine masterpiece. But there was one detail of the plot that puzzled me. In Act Two, when Anthony is preparing to rescue Johanna from the asylum, Todd gives him a pistol. But where has this weapon come from? Why does Todd have it? Todd’s true companions are his razors, after all…
The solution that we found was as follows:
In Act One, Pirelli comes to Todd’s barber shop. Todd kills him – his first murder. As Todd desperately struggles to conceal the body in a trunk, a pistol falls out of Pirelli’s pocket. Clearly, Pirelli had planned to draw this on Todd. The sight of the weapon unnerves Todd even more, he’s unused to handling firearms, so quickly he conceals it in a drawer. And it stays hidden in that drawer until the opportunity arrives to hand it over to Anthony during Act Two.