I’m a great admire of the work of Stephen Sondheim, his output is extraordinary and varied, and his musicals are amongst my favourite (and inspire devotion, bordering on obsession, in many people). Sondheim’s shows are effortlessly witty and far more intelligent than your average musical theatre fare, he has also written in a dizzying array of styles and created some truly groundbreaking musical theatre (I love the musical genre, but I’d say that Sondheim’s shows are more like plays with songs, and he’s also had some pretty brilliant collaborators and book writers to help him along the way). So it is a delight to see three examples of his work within the space of a week.
Firstly Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has finally hit the big screen, in a production that matches Sondheim’s music with the equally singular talents of director Tim Burton. I was going to say ‘grotesque and dark’ director Tim Burton, but the musical is already replete with those qualities in its original stage form. I’ve loved Sweeney since I first heard it, and have enjoyed several stage versions over the years (particularly John Doyle’s actor/musical version a couple of years ago), but seeing Sweeney on a cinema screen is a totally different experience. Firstly, it is much altered from the stage version, with songs (including the ballad, effectively the chilling chorus) totally cut or severely truncated. This works well, and the action moves apace in the 2 hour movie, though of course I do miss my familiar favourites. Actually at times the story moves a bit too fast, and I wonder whether those less familiar with the story will understand the specifics. The world Burton has created is truly Grand Guignol, with slit throats spurting blood almost into the audience, and the dream sequence (By the Sea), in which Mrs Lovett imagines blissful retirement to the coast with her beloved Sweeney, is beautifully realised in vivid colour, as opposed to the grime of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop and a bleak Dickensian London, but the song, and the film as a whole, is also acutely funny. Johnny Depp is a delight as Todd, and you soon get used to his rather strange accent and singing voice (yes, a David Bowie impressionist sound-alike), Helena Bonham Carter is also great as sexually frustrated and ever resourceful Mrs Lovett. The supporting cast is generally in fine voice (better than the leads if I’m honest, but the acting makes up for the slightly weak singing), and Ed Sanders as Toby, Mrs Lovett’s kitchen boy, is a particular delight (he is reportedly 14, but I would have guessed 12. Certainly a great child actor, with a strong voice). Sweeny Todd on screen delivers more gore, close up nuances and a realistically grim setting than the stage can deliver, so be prepared to be immersed in blood for a couple of hours. The film is not perfect, but it is highly enjoyable and a credit ton the original musical.
Over at the Landor Theatre (above a pub in Stockwell), a young company called West 72nd presents Mr Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, which premiered in 1990, but is fondly remembered on this side of the pond for its 1992 Donmar production (I was only 10, so I missed out). Again, this is a show which I love (but have only seen once before in a very decent Sheffield Crucible staging), and this production did not disappoint. The musical is an interlinking tale of the people who have either killed a US President, or tried their hardest to do so, which might sound a difficult premise for a musical, but it works chillingly well. What are these peoples’ motivation asks the show, and the answer seems to be a kind of perverse fame, recognition at any cost, and a desperate desire to prove their worth (the most powerful man in the world being a convenient vehicle to do this), and by the way, it is likely that most of them were insane. Political violence is as old as the hills, but these assassinations were not organised by great political movements or sinister powers, they were carried out by individuals (or small groups) who seem to utterly believe in the malevolence of the president and the rightness of their cause however dotty it may seem to ordinary people, they are angry little people, typically deluded you could say. So the show is ambitious, it is epic, it represents some important moments in American and world history (from Lincoln to JFK’s murder), so staging the show at the tiny Landor might seem foolish, but with most of Sondheim’s shows they adapt very well to intimate stages. A cast of 14 fresh faced performers play the various killers and presidents, directed by Ben Carrick, and they all suit their roles astonishingly well from a physical point of view. Jeff Nicholson and Sebastian Palka stood out for me in particular, portraying Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield in 1881) and Leon Czolgosz (assassin of President McKinley in 1901, and also the subject of a fascinating play Americans, by Eric Schlosser) respectively, both having good acting talent and strong voices (not always a given in musical theatre on the fringe). Mr Nicholson represented the deranged Guiteau with great panache (‘I am going to the Lordy!’) and his singing voice is a distinctive and pleasing instrument. The rest of the ensemble cast were also of good quality (and the actor playing Lee Harvey Oswald is really the spitting image). The production has some slack moments, particularly towards the end, but overall the production is highly entertaining and skilfully performed.
My third Sondheim treat of the week was Merrily We Roll Along, a noted 1981 Broadway flop with a book by George Furth. Staged at the charming and bijou (yes I mean tiny) Watermill Theatre in a picturesque pastoral setting a few miles outside of Newbury, complete with running water and ducks, by John Doyle in one of his now familiar actor/musician production (and I’ve loved many of these staging, including the Sweeney which I mentioned previously, and a 2006 Company on Broadway which had some absolutely spine tingling brilliant moments). This is Sondheim, and indeed Doyle, at their best. The story is of a disaffected composer, Frank, who has sold out his theatrical ideals for a place in Hollywood, and it is told backwards, from a glamorous, but empty party in 1980 to his arrival in New York in 1955, ready to forge the friendships that would shape his life, and with high hopes of artistic fulfilment. It is a brilliantly poignant story about friendship and art, with the imperative of money and success poisoning both. Frank’s story, at first seemingly successful and certainly financially comfortable, becomes more and more interesting and painful as we see how he has ascended to his current position. The acting is first rate, as is the singing, and the music provided by the cast is (as always) surprisingly good, with playing of instruments, acting and singing all coming together to great dramatic effect. Doyle uses the small stage cleverly, with little or no sets or props, and non naturalistic staging (and I don’t mean impressionistic), keeping costumes fixed and ornament to a minimum, it is musical theatre in the raw you might say (no tap numbers, no elaborate costumes or overpowering sets, the acting and emotion speaking for themselves, as well as setting the various scenes). The cast are superbly talented (can you move, act and play an instrument more or less at the same time?), with Sam Kenyon giving a brilliantly coherent and never over acted portrayal of Frank, which genuinely moved me (I should admit that I though Kenyon brilliant, but I didn’t recognise him at first. Now looking at his credits I realise I’ve seen him in several productions, but he finally is allowed to come into his own in this meaty leading role). A fine production and an exceedingly pleasant trip to the countryside (but how it made me want to be in New York City!).