ACD Test Wordpress

Just another WordPress.com weblog

More On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 28, 2004

More On Sweeney Todd

As I noted here a week ago after arriving at the party a full quarter-century late, I’m much taken with Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and spent the last week engrossed in a sort of saturation involvement with the work. I first came to it several weeks ago via a TV version done originally for the Entertainment Channel with George Hearn in the title role, and the incomparable Angela Lansbury — about whose stellar performance I cannot even begin to speak without sounding like a gibbering groupie or movie fan — as the very creepy but curiously charming Mrs. Lovett.

Although I could see instantly this was no ordinary Broadway musical (an art form I find vapid and tiresome and have little patience with, even with the best of its examples), I was at first confused by that TV production because something important was missing; something I sensed (but of course couldn’t know) was essential. And what was missing, I decided, was the orchestra, which in this TV production is barely audible. For the typical Broadway musical that would not be a serious problem (as opposed to being merely a problem) as the orchestra for such is not much more than fill accompaniment, much like the orchestra in a typical Italian opera. For both, it’s the songs and singers that are important, and as long as they’re fully intact, and the stagework what it should be, all is well.

Not the case with Sweeney Todd, I conjectured.

And I conjectured correctly, for after purchasing the original cast CD album (also starring Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, but with Len Cariou in the title role), and for the first time being able to hear that orchestra, I understood at once just how important it is to the work, which is to say Wagnerian-important, as I remarked previously. The very heart of the work’s narrative, emotional, and dramatic core is contained within the orchestral music in Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestration, and a comprehensible Sweeney even partially absent that orchestral music is to me inconceivable.

More generally, Sondheim’s music for Sweeney, melodically and harmonically, is even today atypically avant-garde for the Broadway stage (and the choral writing especially complex), and utilizes forms ranging from the Dies Irae of the Gregorian Requiem Mass (a prominent idée fixe cum leitmotif in the Sweeney score) to love ballads sacred, profane, and perverse — the “Johanna” ballads sung by Anthony (sacred) and Judge Turpin (profane and perverse), “My Friends” (perverse), “Wait” (sacred, in a Mrs. Lovett creepy way), “Not While I’m Around” (sacred when sung by Tobias; perverse (and creepy) when sung by Mrs. Lovett) — to Broadway “jump tunes” (“By the Sea”), as I’ve heard this form referred to by Broadway mavens, to the big Broadway production number (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, “God, That’s Good!”), to extended Broadway comic numbers (“The Worst Pies in London”, “A Little Priest”), and even to Old English folk ballads (“Parlor Songs”), and a kind of Chanson (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Thanks to Sondheim’s and Tunick’s rare and original treatment, however (and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics which everywhere are pure magic), all these familiar forms take on a character and coloring markedly unlike that which their provenance would suggest.

And both Sondheim and Tunick are not above, um, “borrowing,” at times almost verbatim, from the music of composers such as Bernard Hermann (from the scores of the movies Cape Fear and Psycho) and Gian Carlo Menotti (from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors), to name just two that I recognized immediately.

In all, a rich and veritable musical smorgasbord almost without parallel in the Broadway musical theater — at least as far as it’s known to me.

To thoroughly familiarize myself with this new-to-me work, I began by following my usual procedure with any new musical work, which is to first listen several times through to get the work’s overall shape. Having done that, I proceeded to embark on my usual next step: a study of the full score — and was stopped dead in my tracks. It seems there’s no full score to be had, the only score available for purchase being the piano (vocal) score; almost useless for the study of a work such as Sweeney. Worse, it seems that in all probability there’s no full score even extant — for purchase, rent, or otherwise — or so I was informed by a professional acquaintance of mine with many years experience conducting non-Broadway productions of Broadway musicals (he informs me, for instance, that not until the mid-1980s was there available a full score for even so classic a Broadway musical as Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story(!)).

For a classical musician, such a state of affairs is both astonishing and incomprehensible. How, for instance, does one prepare for a performance absent a full score? And absent a full score how is the original orchestration preserved across performances in various venues?

The answer, it seems, is the rental of a copy of the original handwritten(!) full score from the designated agent, from whom all the orchestral parts must also be rented, and all that available only to a theater company that intends actually producing the work. It seems the matter of copyright infringement (i.e., performances unauthorized and/or unpaid for) is the specter ostensibly being protected against by this misguided practice (misguided because, especially today, there’s nothing to prevent unauthorized copy of such rented material. And even if only the parts were rentable, nothing to prevent utilizing them to readily “reverse-engineer” a full score).

But as in all things, old practices don’t go easily or willingly into that good night, and in the meantime seriously interested amateurs such as myself (not to speak of genuine students who want to make the Broadway musical theater their life’s work) are royally screwed, and have no choice but to make do with a piano score, as totally inadequate as it most decidedly is for a work as complex as Sweeney Todd.

Major bummer.

Anyway, more on Sweeney to come anon. But for now, enough.

Advertisements

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

 
%d bloggers like this: