The Unraveling of Sweeney Todd
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Our first musical introduction to a character is always crucial. Think, for instance, how much we learn about Nellie Forbush from "Cockeyed Optimist" or how "You've Got Trouble" really solidifies our impression of Harold Hill. Most musical theatre composers take great care with their introductory numbers, often choosing to reveal key information about their characters through music. In the case of Sweeney Todd, composer Stephen Sondheim delivers not only a fascinating peek at our titular character in the opening number but also a wealth of information about the themes of the show and Sweeney's ultimate character trajectory. Let's take a look.
Although the action of the story is launched with "No Place Like London," we actually first meet Sweeney in the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd." This ballad is an interesting choice of opening number. It functions as a narrative tool: a way to prepare the audience for what is to come and as an introduction to some of the core themes of the show. The music itself is brooding and unsettling. We begin in the key of F# minor but the undulating accompaniment rests more on the dissonant G# than the tonic F#. (G#-A-G#-C#-G#-A is a musical figure we hear a LOT in this number.) F# and G# do not work well together - this is an intentional dissonance that serves to amplify the audience's discomfort in this moment.
As the piece progresses, we are continually met with dissonance and chromaticism. To add to the sinister tone, Sondheim even incorporates the famous "Dies Irae" - a motive borrowed from the Latin Requiem Mass that has become synonymous with evil and death. (To learn more about the "Dies Irae" and its appearance in Sweeney Todd, check out this article.) Things deteriorate further when the chorus launches into a new musical idea at measure 102. "Inconspicuous Sweeney was, quick and quiet and clean 'e was," sing the sopranos and altos. In unison, the chorus fully fleshes out the tune, all the way through "Sweeney would blink and the rats would scuttle." However, at measure 118, an interesting thing happens - the chorus fractures. Tenors and basses enter with "Inconspicuous Sweeney was," while the baritones go straight to "Sweeney was smooth. Sweeney was subtle." Both the altos and the sopranos also begin with "Sweeney was smooth" on their entrances, but by the time we get to those entrances the other voices have moved on. It's almost a round (think "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"), but possibly the most complex round you've ever heard. By measure 124, we have five parts singing this one melody but none of them are together. Meanwhile, the name Sweeney has been building in intensity underneath the melody until finally we reach a climax at measure 130, capped by a high C# from the sopranos.
So what is happening here? Essentially, we have a chorus that has descended into madness. Listen to the progression of the entire piece as it moves from the understated opening measures (a single narrative voice) to this cacophony of sound at measure 130. It's as though the chorus has lost its mind. The chaotic nature of the chorus in this moment is especially significant when you consider what comes next. Next, we get to meet Sweeney.
One might expect more of the same upon the introduction of a man we already know is going to be a mass-murderer, but instead Sondheim flips the script. Rather than chaos, we are met with discipline and precision. Sweeney actually brings order back to the chorus, as they strictly repeat his words back to him. Even in the accompaniment, we are greeted with this tightly controlled string figure. Everything about this entrance gives us the impression that Sweeney is a man of immense control. Surprising, perhaps, for a guy who likes to slit people's throats in his spare time.
It's also important to acknowledge that the chorus in Sweeney Todd in some ways functions as a Greek Chorus, existing to comment on the action and in some cases to help us understand what various characters are thinking or feeling. In this instance, it's possible that the chorus has just given us a glimpse of the protagonist's journey in miniature. If we accept the idea that the chorus in the opening number represents Sweeney himself, then the progression it makes from control to chaos before Sweeney's entrance could in fact be a reflection of Sweeney's ultimate trajectory throughout the show. This would indicate that Sweeney Todd is NOT simply a good old-fashioned tale of a madman on a killing spree, but rather the story of one man's descent from carefully controlled rage to utter madness.
Sweeney's entrance in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" may be all about control, but that doesn't mean that this man is in any way less of a threat. We get a sense of Sweeney's true nature early on when Sondheim makes a slight but crucial adjustment to one of Anthony's phrases. Filled with bitterness, Sweeney mimics Anthony's hopeful refrain, "There's no place like London," and, in the process, lowers the final note. That lowered scale degree, a single note out of place, changes everything about the phrase. Sweeney's version is corrupted, more sinister, a better reflection of who he really is.
In the course of Sweeney and Anthony's conversation, we are also introduced to the Beggar Woman. This character is crucial to the show in terms of both plot and musical structure. It is the Beggar Woman who first introduces us to what I like to call "The Language of Insanity." Consider the Beggar Woman's musical profile. She essentially has two frequencies: "Alms, alms for a mis'rable woman" and "'Ow would you like a little muff, dear. A little jig jig." You don't need a degree in music to understand that these two musical ideas are WILDLY different. More than that, the abrupt transitions between these two identities (pitiful and lewd) help us to grasp the idea that this woman is not simply an eccentric beggar, but legitimately insane.
Fresh from our encounter with the Beggar Woman and our introduction to the
language of insanity, we get to meet Mrs. Lovett and what a first impression she makes. Anyone who has ever attempted to sing "The Worst Pies in London" can tell you that this is a tricky piece. To start with, most phrases simply run straight into the next with little to no break. This means there are very few opportunities to breathe. It's an odd way to write a song, but there's actually a reason for that. As Sondheim explains, "Patterned metrical approaches and evenly periodic rhymes, the staples of most musical theater songs, would not bespeak an aimless, unpredictable mind like Mrs. Lovett's." 1 The fast pace, the emphasis on the off-beats (see TheoryWorks sidebar below), the way that some sentences are broken in the middle while others run straight into the next – these are all reflections of the character herself and the chaos that surrounds her. Moreover, Mrs. Lovett has a habit of changing the tone with very little warning. Consider, for instance, the following text:
Heaven knows I try, sir! Yich!
But there's no one comes in even to inhale! Tsk!
Right you are, sir, would you like a drop of ale?
Mind you I can hardly blame them.
These are probably the worst pies in London.
The sudden shift to the gentler B section at "These are probably the worst pies in London" seems like it could be the beginning of a new song, and the return to the faster paced A section is just as unexpected when it arrives. Do these swift changes of pace remind you of anyone? This is a quality that Mrs. Lovett shares with the Beggar Woman and it is a clear indication that the character tends toward madness.
What about Sweeney? Does our central character exhibit the same tendencies? On the contrary. Sweeney's music throughout the first act (with one major exception and we'll get to that soon enough) indicates an incredible sense of control. For a fantastic example of this, take a look at "My Friends." Here are the lyrics to the first stanza, and there's something a little unusual about them:
These are my friends
See how they glisten
See this one shine
How he smiles in the light
My faithful friend
Sondheim has always been revered for his lyrics, and the level of care he takes with his choice of words is truly unparalleled. But look at what is happening here. This stanza doesn't rhyme. Not a single rhyming couplet. Nada. Zip. What is going on? Well, let's look at stanza two.
Speak to me, friend
Whisper, I'll listen
I know, I know
You've been locked out of sight
All these years
Like me, my friend
Glisten/listen, light/sight. The first stanza doesn't rhyme on its own - it rhymes with the second. This is no accident. It is a musical representation of Sweeney's incredible sense of control. It indicates forethought and deadly precision. This is a dangerous man - all the more so because he is in full control of his rage.
This incredible self control is on display once again in "Pretty Women." Following some questionable (and self-serving) advice from Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney chooses to delay the moment of the judge's death, instead toying with his would-be victim. The song is measured and calm - in stark contrast to the violent death that awaits Judge Turpin. A veneer of friendship masks Sweeney's sinister intentions, and yet, the music betrays a hint of the intended violence. While Sweeney and Judge Turpin sing sweetly in the key of G major, an A pulses in the accompaniment. This A is not only a clear dissonance in the middle of our established key, but its persistence betrays a single-mindedness of purpose. In contrast to the abrupt changes of tone and pace exhibited by Mrs. Lovett and the Beggar Woman, Sweeney's music is deliberate, consistent. The language of insanity is not a part of his musical lexicon even as violence looms on the horizon.
Unfortunately for Sweeney (or perhaps fortunately for the Judge), they are interrupted by Anthony, and Judge Turpin escapes his would-be-murderer's clutches. Enraged at this turn of events, Sweeney undergoes a major transformation. Coincidentally, Sweeney's mental break in "Epiphany" coincides with an extreme musical shift. Gone are the measured tones, the self-control, the precision. To better understand Sweeney's musical transformation, consider the following progression:
No, we all deserve to die Even you, Mrs. Lovett, Even I. Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief For the rest of us death will be a relief We all deserve to die. And I'll never see Johanna No I'll never hug my girl to me - finished! Alright! You sir, how about a shave? Come and visit your good friend Sweeney. You sir, too sir? Welcome to the grave.
There are at least four separate musical ideas happening here: the drawn-out declaration "We all deserve to die," the quick-paced "lives of the wicked" portion, the plaintive "Johanna" theme (I actually usually call this the Lucy theme since it plays more often in connection with the mother than the daughter), and then ultimately, the positively threatening invitation to "come and visit your good friend, Sweeney." All that in only 19 measures! Contrast this with the steady, calculating Sweeney of "My Friends" or even "Pretty Women" (which, by the way, wasn't even that long ago). This transformation is incredibly significant in terms of musical development - it is an indication that something has broken within him. Now he is speaking the language of insanity.
Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd.
Considering the extreme transformation Sweeney undergoes in "Epiphany," it's interesting to compare this new musical profile with the music of the second act. One might expect this mental break to signal a permanent shift in his musical language, but this is actually not the case. Sweeney's music in the "Johanna Quartet," for instance, is written in a similar style to his pre-"Epiphany" music. This melody is all about constraint, evenness - Sweeney has pulled himself together again.
The "Johanna Quartet" from the original Broadway Cast Recording of Sweeney Todd.
Or has he? The interesting thing about the "Johanna Quartet" is how the music and the action are at odds with one another. Sweeney is slitting throats left and right and somehow also singing calmly about his daughter at the same time. And the text is fascinating too. "Goodbye, Johanna," he sings, "You're gone, and yet you're mine. I'm fine, Johanna. I'm fine." Okay, first of all Sweeney is obviously not fine. People who are fine don't murder their customers. But more importantly, Johanna is not dead. Sweeney is talking about her as though she is gone forever, but that's simply not true. He could be out there looking for her (in fact, that's what Anthony is literally doing at this moment), but instead he has chosen this path of violence. Sweeney is so obsessed with revenge that he has lost sight of the fact that he is doing this for a beloved wife and daughter - a daughter who is 100% alive and could use his help right about now. The music may harken back to the old days of constraint, but the text and the action of this scene expose the instability within.
The final fifteen minutes or so of Sweeney Todd are so complex that it's almost impossible to break it into individual numbers. Most people simply refer to this as the "Final Sequence" and basically it's a rapid-fire selection of the Greatest Hits of Sweeney Todd. Let's break it down ourselves and see if we can make sense of what melodies are revived where and why that might be significant.
This final sequence is launched with "City on Fire." Coincidentally, this number happens to include a small reprise of "Kiss Me." Then, in the process of searching for Toby, Mrs. Lovett revives little pieces of "Not While I'm Around." Next we get the "Ah, Miss Reprise" which happens to also work in a few stanzas of "No Place Like London." An instrumental version of "A Barber and His Wife" plays as the Beggar Woman enters Sweeney's shop, and the "Beggar Woman's Lullaby" that follows is a retooled version of the Minuet that played while Lucy was being raped in "Poor Thing." Sweeney enters and murders the Beggar Woman, but not before she repeats her Act I query: "Don't I know you, mister?" Then, at the moment of her death, the Lucy theme from "Epiphany" plays in the orchestra. We then are treated to a reprise of "Pretty Women" just before the murder of Judge Turpin. Satisfied at last, Sweeney reprises "My Friends" and the ensemble sings a rousing chorus of "Swing your razor high, Sweeney" (if you'll recall, this is the "Dies Irae" motive from the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd.") As Sweeney discovers the truth of the Beggar Woman's identity, Mrs. Lovett makes excuses with an agitated reprise of "Poor Thing." This transitions directly into the "history of the world" section from "Little Priest." Mrs. Lovett interjects a frantic few measures of "By the Sea" into the waltz, but she cannot win back Sweeney's trust. Once he has disposed of Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney reprises "A Barber and His Wife." Toby slits Sweeney's throat, the steam whistle sounds, and we conclude with a final reprise of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."
Okay, why is any of this important? Well, I have a theory that the final sequence of Sweeney Todd is a musical representation of Sweeney's ultimate unraveling. To understand what I mean by that, take a look at the order of these reprises.
City on Fire
Not While I'm Around
Ah Miss Reprise
No Place Like London
Instrumental quote: A Barber and His Wife
Beggar Woman's Lullaby (Minuet)
Hey Don't I Know You Mister
Instrumental quote: Epiphany
Lift Your Razor High, Sweeney
By the Sea
A Barber and His Wife
Ballad of Sweeney Todd
(The selections in bold are the musical portions in which Sweeney is directly involved. I include the quoted section of "Epiphany" among these selections, not because it is sung by Sweeney - in fact it's instrumental and not sung by anyone - but because this musical moment directly accompanies his action.)
Do you notice anything usual about Sweeney's musical reprises in the final sequence? If you examine the order of these pieces (with the exception of "Little Priest") it appears that Sweeney is actually moving through the show in reverse. Sweeney Todd, a man who once prized discipline and control, is unraveling before our eyes.
And so, the language of insanity has infiltrated Sweeney's musical identity once and for all. Moreover, the rapid transitions between musical ideas in the final sequence prove that not just Sweeney, but the entire ensemble has descended into madness. The Sweeney Todd score is complex, and we could talk about the musical structure at length, but in a sense it all comes down to this: it is the story of man haunted by his past, clinging desperately to some semblance of order and discipline, but who ultimately succumbs to the chaos that surrounds him.