Sweeney Todd’s Unsustainable Business Model on Display at the Vagabonds

By: Oct. 10, 2010
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Dr. Samuel Johnson, in the mood to deliver an outrageous insult, is reported to have remarked: "Sir, your wife, under pretense of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods." As one watches Stephen Sondheim's 1979 retelling of the Sweeney Todd story, now in revival at Vagabond Players in Baltimore, one is struck by a similar discontinuity between appearance and reality in Mr. Todd's business model: under pretense of running a barber shop, he maintains a baking establishment. The tragic flaw in the business model is that there remains yet another layer: the whole thing is merely a front for Todd's drive to exact revenge. His barber's tragedy that is really a baker's tragedy is really (with a tip of the hat to Thomas Middleton) a revenger's tragedy. And all those contradictions cannot be sustained.

Historians doubt there was a real Sweeney Todd in 19th Century or in England at any other time; he was most likely an urban legend, conjured up to explain what Frank Zappa offered a prayer concerning at the end of 200 Motels, asking the "Lord [to] have mercy on the people in England for the terrible food these people must eat." British meat pies can be pretty ghastly - almost as if (perish the thought!) there were human flesh inside. And so, in the urban legend of Sweeney Todd, there actually is.

From the kernel of a grim gastronomical joke the legend grew of a barber in league with a baker. He kills, she bakes. Sondheim quickly seizes upon the economic implications of this: the shaving is the loss leader (return customers being scarce): the pies are the thing. And the baker, the widow Mrs. Lovett, tries to exploit the initial success of the enterprise to try to rise in the unforgiving society of Victorian England. If only Sweeney would view her as something more than a business partner! But alas, his deepest agenda is revenge, which of course leads to his own undoing - not to mention hers and those of the corpses littering the stage at the end.

For Sweeney, as Sondheim and the book's author Hugh Wheeler establish from the outset, was robbed of the happy home that should have been his by a covetous judge, emblematic of the arrogant and amoral powers ruling over Victoria's class-stratified England. Having found his way back from transportation to Botany Bay, Sweeney tries first for revenge on the judge, and then, foiled in that, decides to take on all humanity, becoming an indiscriminate horror movie killer until circumstances bring the judge back into his sights. And then Sweeney decides to go for one final, conclusive killing. Good luck with that, of course.

Authors could play this fundamental plot a number of different ways: as horror, as camp, as social statement, even as serious tragedy. Or they could decide to take something from each column and risk having the enterprise founder from a lack of consistent tone. Sondheim and Wheeler were clearly feeling lucky, and went for broke, in the hopes that fracturing the moods and approaches would pay off. Mostly it does. But some parts are more telling than others.

Let's face it, for instance: it's not been much of a revelation, at least since the novels of Charles Dickens, that there were social injustices and arrogant power in Victorian England. We've seen pious tyrants like the judge often enough so he's just a type (Measure for Measure, anyone?). Likewise, a barber slitting throat after throat can be horror-worthy only for a repetition or two, particularly if (like the Vagabonds) one goes light on the blood. The real payoffs are to be found in the camp and the tragedy. The camp, a baker brandishing a rolling pin used to create pastry sarcophagi and a barber with a deadly razor strutting around exulting in their murderous activities, is naturally so delightfully over the top that you can get away with doing a lot of it - but it does detract from the power of any more serious tragedy attempting to occupy the same stage at the same time.

And there is no question that the tragedy ought to be the heart of the show. As a tragic hero, as one who has been driven to perpetrate the unspeakable by first having been the victim of the unspeakable, and by losing everything because he cannot set aside his compulsions even when their ultimate futility is literally staring him in the face, Sweeney Todd is very much in line with tragic heroes through the ages, particularly those in Jacobean revenge tragedies.

Fortunately, that is the direction director Eric Potter has tried to steer it. Of course, it's not a naturalistic tragedy. Nothing Arthur Miller-ish about a man who kicks back against unjust fate by slitting people's throats to build a meat pie empire. But Potter directs Sweeney (Edward J. Peters) in such fashion that he seldom becomes such a ghoul he ceases to be human. Freddy Kreuger has a back story, but he's not a tragic hero because of it; Sweeney is.

The Vagabonds do a creditable job with this material. They're not professionals, in fact they proudly proclaim they are the oldest continuously operating "little theater" in the land. And they're not performing in a space large enough to accommodate a musical this size comfortably, or with a full orchestra. But this show is a heavy lift, and they do, to their credit, keep it aloft. The score, which has great depth and from which much can be wrung, is challenging just to sing on key and on cue. Although approximately 80% of the show is sung, the easy structure of a conventional song with verses and choruses only fits some of it, maybe half. Everyone has to maintain one or another flavor of British accent. There are nine primary roles. They may not knock it out of the park, but they hit their marks, and they do okay.

I was particularly impressed with the leads, Peters as Sweeney and Liz Boyer Hunnicutt as Mrs. Lovett. Peters gives us a clear window into not only the menace but also the pathos in his character. And Hunnicutt (whom I admired in the recent Cockpit production of Curtains) mingles a maternal manner and suppressed bourgeois longings with the presence of mind to do what her business model calls for. She nails her big comic number, "By the Sea," in which Lovett tries to imagine a way to build a life of normality and domesticity on the foundation of her murderous times with Todd. And I should also note Tom Burns as Anthony Hope, the young romantic lead, who is given some of the loveliest music to sing, including "Johanna," and never disappoints. Some of the others are not up to this standard.

So: not the most polished Sweeney you'll ever see, but well worth the evening out.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, through November 7. The Vagabond Players, 833 South Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21231. 410-563-9135. www.vagabondplayers.org. Tickets $20. Language, violence, sexual references.




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