Occasionally, producers recognize a work that is both artistically inspiring and commercially sound. "Sweeney Todd," the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, has proved extremely resilient in those areas, beginning with an enormous, lavish production on Broadway 10 years ago.
But it was only earlier this year when Janet Hayes Walker's York Theater put on what amounted to a pocket edition of "Sweeney" that its full texture was clearly revealed. With Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler as the leads, characterizations were altered and motivations that were not readily apparent in the original came into sharper focus.
For example, Gunton's demon barber is murderous, yes, and viciously unforgiving. Yet his vengeance must be seen in context: He was railroaded into jail, his wife turned into the streets and his daughter abducted by the venal judge who sentenced him. Despite Todd's expertise at slicing throats in the barber chair and his increasingly crazed behavior, Gunton's portrayal of him induces a certain sympathy. His Todd retains a spark of compassion left over from the man who once was.
Fowler, too, makes Todd's pie-making accompice, Mrs. Lovett, into a more pitiable soul, more led than leading and desperate for love. Both, incidentally, handle Sondheim's songs with clarity and understanding.
Then there is James Morgan's set design, a grubby 19th-century London street with Sweeney's barbershop and Lovett's human meat-pie factory at one end, the evil Judge Turpin's house at the other. In between stroll the citizens of the town, from the corrupt Beadle and judge to the homeless and street people unwanted by society. It does not require a razor-sharp imagination to see that they reflect the current problems of New York.
The only real disappointment is Jim Walton as the young sailor. His singing range is extremely limited and the voice is continually aquiver.
Gretchen Kingsley is more satisfying as Sweeney's long-lost daughter, as is SuEllen Estey as the half-mad Beggar Woman.
But praise, indeed, for David Barron's despicable Judge Turpin, Michael McCarty's smug Beadle and Eddie Korbich, who sings beautifully with Mrs. Lovett one of the show's most winning songs, "Not While I'm Around."
"Todd" is too long at 2 hours and 55 minutes, but its music and performances are worth it.
Near the end of the first act of "Sweeney Todd," which opened last night at the Circle-in-the-Square (uptown), the villianous Judge is snatched by mischance at the last possible moment from under Sweeney's razor poised at the Judge's throat. "I had him, I had him!" howls Bob Gunton as Sweeney, and then lurches with ferocity toward and almost into the audience, raging at the spectators, particularly the male spectators, including this one, all along the first several rows.
His eyes are black coals. In the recent small superb off-Broadway production at the York Theater, directed then as now by Susan H. Schulman with the same two principal actors - Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler - those coals were extinguished, dead, were in fact dead fish. Here they are seething black fires in a deeply grooved death-mask face, and you can only see them, those eyes, when the action gets up close, as in the instant case. But then they burn, and the show burns.
A moment later - and this is the wonder of "Sweeney Todd" - we are thrust into an equal and opposite emotion, sparked into caustic laughter as the dawn of invention comes up like angel's harps over the amiable phizz of Mrs. Lovett, mistress of the worst meat pies in London. "You know me," says beaming Beth Fowler as that wonderful/terrible lady, "ideas just pop into my head." Her idea is that the remains of Sweeney's victims shall go into her meat pies. Why not? "Business needs a lift / If you get my drift / Think of it as thrift."
The words, of course, are Stephen Sondheim's, as are all the words of all the lyrics, including the demon barber's brilliantly compact response: "How delectable. Also undetectable." And the two launch into one of Sondheim's really wittiest songs on the taste evaluation of the meat pies made from each of the professions starting with Priest ("heavenly") and working through Tinker ("something pinker"), Tailor ("something paler"), Potter ("something hotter"), Butler ("something subtler"), to Locksmith - that one throws even Sweeney, and, tongue in cheek, Sondheim.
And even Sondheim, the master hand at word games, will on occasion overreach himself. "Your virgin cool white arms," sings the rotten old Judge to his ward, the fair young Johanna, which segues instantaneously into the "Alms! Alms!" cackle-cry of the Beggar Woman. There's something just too clever about this.
Here I guess we need a spot of plot, for those who came in late since "Sweeney Todd" first broke upon the world 10 years ago.
It is 19th-century London, the London of "Threepenny Opera" and Mack the Knife, Brecht and Weill, yin and yang, good and evil, rich and poor, love and hate. Sweeney's knife is his razor, so sharply honed as to slice a hair (we see him slice a hair and follow it down with his eyes). Once, Sweeney had a golden young wife named Lucy, and a baby daughter named Johanna. The Judge - "a pious vulture of the law" - had his Beadle, a sort of 19th-century legal flunky with police powers, lure Lucy to a masked ball, where she was raped by the Judge or perhaps gang-raped (effective expressionistic staging, here as before). The Judge had Sweeney framed and transported to Australia as a convict for life.
Now it is 15 years later, and Sweeney is back in London - "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit, the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its name is London," he sings, bitterly. With him is Anthony, a young sailor whose life he saved in a shipwreck. The Beggar Woman - an old hag - haunts the streets, offering her wrecked pleasures to all and sundry. Sweeney meets Mrs. Lovett. She tells him that his Lucy killed herself, that the Judge adopted Johanna. Sweeney enters a shaving contest (an overdone point in the opera, I think) against a mountebank named Pirelli. He bests Pirelli, who turns out to be a blackmailer, and has to be removed - with a red ribbon of blood across the throat, in Sweeney's barber chair, which leads to a chute, which leads to the meat grinder.
Along with the grimness and ferocity and wicked humor, there are lovely fragile songs and at least one very lovely fragile song ("Pretty Women") as counterpoint to sordid murder. Yin and yang. I'm not sure what it all proves, except enormous versatility.
I never realized until now quite how large is the Circle-in-the-Square in the bowels of that office building on 50th Street, and the staging, and the nearness of everything, in the York production in a church on 90th Street, made for a much more crowded London and a more effective impact, on the whole. But on the whole, you will not I think want to miss Gunton and Fowler and Sondheim & Co. in either incarnation.
Of all the powerful moments in the American musical theater, there may be none more perverse than the Act I apex of ''Sweeney Todd.'' That moment has never seemed either more moving or more sick than as played by Bob Gunton, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in the revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical that has arrived at the Circle in the Square.
Let others move us with tales of love among men and women. Mr. Sondheim in this scene writes of the passion of a man for murder. Having spent 15 years in exile on a trumped-up prison charge, Sweeney has just returned to Victorian London to plot revenge on the judge who destroyed him and his family. The chalky-faced Mr. Gunton, his evenly parted hair shot with silver and his raccoon eyes rattling around their red-rimmed sockets, knows that the instruments of that revenge will be his old ''friends'' - the razors with which he has been reunited at long last. Sweeney sings affectionately to his razors, then stands up to raise one to the sky. ''At last my right arm is complete again!'' Mr. Gunton cries in surging, ecstatic voice as his long silver blade glints high in a spotlight, poised to slash through the night.
Homicidal rage may not be a pretty emotion, but who can deny that it is deeply felt? In ''Sweeney Todd,'' Mr. Gunton's soaring anger, the crowning feature of a blazing characterization, seizes us as surely as his razor will have at the throats of his many victims; this actor earns our sympathy even as he threatens to welcome us to the grave. One of the canards about Mr. Sondheim has always been that his musicals are longer on intellect than feeling. In keeping with the performance at its heart, Susan H. Schulman's production of ''Sweeney Todd,'' a remounting of her searing York Theater Company staging of last spring, reveals the nonsense of that assumption. No one writes more passionately for the musical theater than Stephen Sondheim. It's the nature of those passions that makes frightened audiences want to shunt them aside by dismissing them as ''intellectual.'' Mr. Sondheim fearlessly explores psychic caverns where civilized people are not dying to go.
Unlike Harold Prince's original 1979 Broadway production of ''Sweeney Todd'' - which inhabited the huge Gershwin Theater (then the Uris) upstairs from Circle in the Square - Ms. Schulman's won't keep an audience at a safe remove from Sweeney's bloodthirstiness. The director eliminates the physical distance from the executioner's scalding soul by obliterating the proscenium arch and locking us in a gloomy arena set (by James Morgan) that surrounds us with the characters' sooty, squalid nocturnal London. But greater proximity does not alone explain why this ''Sweeney Todd'' is more upsetting than the first. Ms. Schulman's new take on Mr. Sondheim's musical has less to do with her staging - some of which owes a debt to Mr. Prince's in any case - than with her distinctive reading of what the show is about.
Mr. Prince's ''Sweeney Todd,'' amply supported by the Hugh Wheeler-Christopher Bond book as well as by the Sondheim lyrics, emphasized the dehumanizing horror of the Industrial Age. The first thing the audience saw was a front curtain depicting the oppressive British beehive, or social pecking order; the hulking set included part of an actual iron foundry. Sweeney was the victim of Darwinian class struggle; he was a wronged representative of ''the lower zoo'' rising up against ''the privileged few.'' While such sentiments remain in the text, Ms. Schulman has played down the simplistically stated ideology of ''Sweeney Todd'' by removing Mr. Prince's Brechtian theatrical trappings and with them any trace of Brechtian alienation. We are instead asked to identify point-blank with Sweeney and his partner in crime, the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett (Beth Fowler), as tragic figures caught in conundrums of sex and death. The characters' universal internal demons, rather than the remote demons of their Dickensian London, are center stage.
While the original production had some of the tone of ''The Threepenny Opera,'' Ms. Schulman's is more like a penny-dreadful ''Macbeth.'' One misses the savage comic attack of Mr. Prince's version (and of Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett) but receives in exchange a played-for-keeps tale of love and innocence thwarted and twisted into hate and destruction, of cannibalism with a shockingly human face.
Ms. Schulman's route into ''Sweeney'' begins with her superb cast, then blossoms through Mr. Sondheim's score. Ms. Fowler makes us believe in Mrs. Lovett's maternal heart, even as she grinds up Sweeney's victims for meat-pie filling, because we see a lonely woman hopelessly in love with the barber she first met years ago. If Mr. Gunton loves his razors more than the deluded Mrs. Lovett, his longing for his lost wife and his daughter is an overwhelming obsession, finally to reach a rending catharsis in his sobbing embrace of his wife's corpse.
The heated acting, if not always the authenticity of accents, extends to the key supporting players: SuEllen Estey as a feral beggar woman with a secret, David Barron's sadomasochistic Judge Turpin, Michael McCarty's mercurial Beadle and especially Eddie Korbich's forlorn pie-shop assistant. They not only sing well (without amplification) but also infuse the stereotypes of 19th-century melodrama with pathos and madness. Though the strong-voiced young lovers, Jim Walton and Gretchen Kingsley, remain mannequins, they are somewhat shackled by the writing. Mr. Sondheim's forte is not dewy-eyed Romeo-and-Juliet couples (unless he's mocking them, as in ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'').
Thanks to the performances, the larger quarters at Circle in the Square do not entirely dismantle the cheek-by-jowl relationship the show enjoyed with its audience in the York's tiny quarters last spring. The ghostly atmosphere is inevitably dissipated, however, and some of it might have been reclaimed by stronger musical accompaniment. David Crane's clever synthesizer arrangements, effective at the York, lack the presence essential to deliver the score's Bernard Herrmann-like horror effects in the larger house.
Yet the beauty and drama of Mr. Sondheim's songs remain, and Ms. Schulman and company make us listen to them anew. Like his protagonist, Mr. Sondheim hears ''the music that nobody hears'': the music by which people act out their basest grand passions. We're increasingly aware that the plot's ugliest incidents inspire Mr. Sondheim's most gorgeous melodies. Rape comes with a minuet and murder with a rhapsodic ode to ''Pretty Women.'' When Ms. Fowler fantasizes about domestic bliss with Sweeney - in a cozy resort hideaway equally suitable for lovemaking and throat-slitting - she expresses her deranged hopes in a cheery mock-Beatrice Lillie ditty, ''By the Sea.''
By forcing us to face Mr. Sondheim's music and the feelings it contains so intensely, Ms. Schulman doesn't obliterate the Prince production; she creates an alternative. Such is the depth of Mr. Sondheim's achievement that ''Sweeney Todd'' can support radically different interpretations (not to mention intervening assaults by opera companies) and easily hold its own without elaborate stage machinery. Stripped of its giant set, its politics, its orchestra, much of its chorus and its dazzling original stars, this troubling musical still refuses to leave us alone and, if anything, insinuates its way further into the audience's own private darkness. A naked ''Sweeney Todd'' stands revealed as a musical of naked rage, chewing up everyone in its path as it spits out blood and tears.