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“Musicals aren’t very realistic. If they were, there’d be an orchestra starting to play right now, with me saying, ‘Let me tell you something about musicals…'”

Given the embarrassment of riches that Glee had at the Emmy nominations today, it seems like an opportune time to post something I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of weeks now.

June was the occasion for a couple of short road trips on our part; our godchildren Matt and Erin were both Young Artists for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and our friend Benjamin was performing as the title role in a production of Sweeney Todd in Cleveland. Time was a bit tight; Megan was teaching a Summer I course that met Monday through Friday, the final was on Thursday 17 June, and both OTSL and Sweeney closed on Sunday, 27 June. If I didn’t want to have to get a sub for Sunday services, that made our options somewhat limited, but we were determined to make it work, and we decided to head to St. Louis over Friday and Saturday the weekend of the 19th, catching the Saturday matinee of Eugene Onegin, and to Cleveland Wednesday through Friday of the next week for the Thursday evening performance of Sweeney.

We’d never been to St. Louis before, and Matt and Erin showed us a very nice time during our whirlwind visit. Under their tutelage, we experienced two very different kinds of pizza — what was explained to us as “San Francisco-style” deep dish at Pi Pizzeria (yes, as in 3.14 etc.), and then “St. Louis-style” at Imo’s, which has a very thin crust and is made with a peculiar local dairy product called provel. Very different beasts, but worth trying. I recommend getting some reasonably substantial toppings at Imo’s, otherwise the provel tends to be overwhelming; at Pi’s I strongly suggest taking advantage of their “bartender’s choice” option, where you tell the bartender what kind of drinks you usually like, they make you something of their own choosing based on that, and it’s something like two-thirds of what a cocktail would usually cost there. I was introduced to the Blood and Sand as a result, and I think I might have a new favorite bourbon drink.

We were also introduced to Ethiopian food while in St. Louis, and let me tell you, Meskerem on South Grand is absolutely fantastic. The food was delicious, the staff was knowledgable, and we were left wanting to seek out more Ethiopian food when we got home. My only lament was — Ethiopian food, where have you been all my life? (Yes, I know, Ethiopia.)

And, yes, we went up in the Gateway Arch. Won’t be bothering in the future — it’s a long wait, the lift is really cramped, and it’s not exactly like there’s much to do up there besides look out the windows. It’s a more impressive monument from the outside than the inside.

Saturday’s performance of Onegin was definitely worth the trip; Sean Panikkar as Lensky was the standout, to say the least, but the cast was great throughout. The one thing that didn’t work was, frankly, hearing it in English. I’ve been in the chorus for Onegin twice; once in Seattle back in 2002, when we sang it in Russian, and once at IU in 2004, when we sang it in English, using the same translation as OTSL. I also spent some time working on Lensky’s opera back in Seattle with a Russian coach who knew her stuff, and it’s a work that is near and dear to my heart. It’s also music that I associate with a very intensely emotional period of my life, and as a result it’s difficult to hear it and not get a bit of a lump in my throat. Thankfully, the silly English translation that everybody uses manages to clear out the lump pretty quickly; does anybody in real life actually use the word “prosaic” to describe somebody’s face? Would a group of gossiping women really say that somebody is “an odd one, a misanthrope and somewhat mad”? Does it really solve anything to call Tatiana’s name day celebration her “birthday”? I understand the various problems of translating opera librettos so that they match the music, but actually hearing the words in the house left me with the conviction that surely somebody can do better.

The real violence that the translation does is to the poor title character. Onegin is a very difficult man to understand for contemporary American audiences to begin with; he is a product of social expectations of which we have absolutely zero concept, and this particular English translation doesn’t help matters at all, transforming him into a dull bore, the least interesting character in his own story. The duel with Lensky and the underlying protocols that make the situation what it is are incomprehensible, turning Onegin into a cold-blooded monster rather than somebody who has no choice within his societal framework but to carry out the mechanics of the duel to their conclusion.

The difficult thing is that what we might broadly refer to as “sung drama” or “lyric theatre” is itself loaded with social expectations. I’ll get back to that idea, but as I was watching and hearing the performance, I realized that the expectations of the audience OTSL wants to reach are, frankly, operating at cross purposes to what actually makes Eugene Onegin work. The English translation actually obscures much of the psychological drama, it seems to me; by trying to make it “accessible” they manage to make it even more inaccessible. One hopes that a better translation would fix this problem, but then the trouble is matching the translation to what’s in the score, and that’s a totally different kettle of fish. Supertitles (which OTSL used anyway) aren’t a perfect solution by any means, but short of Russian becoming mandatory in American schools, I’m not sure that there is a perfect solution.

Watching the non-musical film of Onegin with Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler a week or so later, the problem was underscored for me even more. Often with only a facial expression, Fiennes is able to convey everything about Onegin that the English translation of the opera obscures for the poor operatic baritone — his ennui, his passive dissatisfaction with the expectations placed on him as a result of his social status, and his resigned compliance with those expectations regardless. He kills Lensky, not because he wants to, not because he’s a cold-blooded killer, but because that’s simply the expected outcome of the process Lensky’s challenge set in motion. Tatiana’s choice to remain faithful to her husband is also more extraordinary, because the film is able to make plain that she understands it would be socially acceptable for her to take a lover as long as she doesn’t embarrass anybody.

I’ll leave Onegin aside for the moment to discuss Sweeney Todd.

I first heard of Sweeney as a senior in high school; my choir director at the time brought it up as an example of how he thought Broadway musicals had largely become immoral trash. Still, when I started running in opera singer circles at Western Washington University, I found myself hearing about it in awed, hushed tones, and in anticipation of it being produced at WWU during my presumptive junior year and hearing all of this anxiety about “needing four tenors”, I finally saw the George Hearn/Angela Lansbury video. The following points were clear to me upon the first viewing:

  • I have great respect for my high school choir director and why he has the opinion he does, but I can’t disagree with him more; to dismiss it as immoral trash is to miss the point of the show.
  • Stephen Sondheim has probably the most morbid sense of humor I’ve ever encountered.
  • No wonder “legit” singers think it’s amazing.
  • There wasn’t a role in it for me.

As it worked out, as a result of various issues, political, artistic, and otherwise, neither the WWU production of Sweeney nor its numerous rumored replacement shows (like City of Angels and Into the Woods) happened until some years after I had dropped out (and then in apparently rapid succession). (Ironically, Sweeney seems to have happened my first year at IU. So, even though it didn’t happen in ’96-’97, it still happened during my junior year as originally concieved.) It nonetheless stuck with me — I watched the Hearn/Lansbury video a number of times, listened to the Cariou/Lansbury original cast recording, watched the Hearn/LuPone PBS broadcast, and with baited breath waited for tickets to go on sale for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production with Bryn Terfel, culminating in my very first trip to Chicago in December of 2002. It goes without saying that when the Tim Burton film was greenlit (rumored since roughly the mid-1990s), I was there the first night. I’ll discuss my reaction to the film shortly.

The Chicago trip was interesting, no less so because my theatre critic buddy, editor-at-large, groomsman, and all-around dear friend Matthew Murray palled along for it, and he brought a very interesting perspective to the proceedings as somebody with a very heightened sense of the expectations of musical theatre as musical theatre, and not the expectations that opera people bring to the table. Certain artistic decisions that are acceptable in opera (like decisions to cut or not to cut certain numbers being up to the discretion of the production, regardless of what was done on opening night of the original production) were anathema to him; the restoration of the Judge’s aria and the tooth-pulling number, for example, were absolutely unacceptable as far as he was concerned. (I argue that, at least in terms of discussing the score as an organic whole, the score is incomplete both musically and dramatically without at least restoring the Judge’s aria, given certain musical quotations and references elsewhere in the show, to say nothing of making the Judge less of a one-note character. Yes, fine, it messes with the pacing, but that’s a problem for the director to solve.) In the musical theatre world, he argued, whatever the show looks like on opening night is what the show is; it doesn’t matter what was written, what was recorded, what was cut at the last second or for whatever reason. Anything other than what was done opening night is something other than the standard version of “the show.”

I’d also say that in general, the very things that made the performance appealing to me as an opera singer were exactly what made it lacking to him as a musical theatre critic. He came away convinced that opera singers should probably stay away from Sweeney Todd; I came away convinced that it’s exactly the kind of repertoire American opera houses should be doing.

Tim Burton and Sweeney Todd was a concept that struck me as a match made in… well, not heaven, exactly, but you get the idea. From the first time I heard his name attached to the project in the mid-’90s, I had an idea of what he could do with it. The show is Tim Burton-y enough on its own; surely there would be no better director.

Maybe the film that Burton would have made in the mid-’90s would have been a different beast from the one he made in 2007. I only saw the film once in theatres; I didn’t think it was horrible, but what he did was nowhere near as compelling as I felt it should have been. I watched it again at home before we headed to Cleveland for the first time since seeing it in theatres, and it seemed to me that Burton threw out a lot of what actually made the piece work, then overdid what was left, making the movie a grotesque half-adaptation. Again, it wasn’t horrible; it’s just that it’s now a Tim Burton Movie like every other Tim Burton Movie, fulfilling the expectations of the genre of the Tim Burton Movie, rather than being the special match of auteur and source material that it should have been. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are fine, I suppose, from a dramatic standpoint, but they just don’t have the range of vocal choices available to them to make the music part of the equation work. It’s as though Burton ultimately decided that he could handle the gore but not the tunes, so he over-emphasized the gore and hoped you wouldn’t notice that he’d reduced the impact of the music. In a lot of ways, the trouble does not lie with the script; there are some smart choices by the screenwriter in terms of conveying information cinematically that the stage version conveys musically, but in the final product, much of what makes the score work as an organic whole has been chopped up. Certainly the movie was not approached as a means to broaden the audience for the stage version; the stage version was approached as material by which to further the Tim Burton brand.

When we got to Cleveland, Ben talked a lot about the challenges he’d had during the rehearsal process. In a nutshell, as somebody who was first and foremost an opera singer working with primarily musical theatre people, he found that despite an intense dramatic focus during his operatic training, what he was doing just wasn’t sufficient for musical theatre purposes. His instincts regarding movement, delivery, presentation, and so on turned out to be virtually wrong in every respect for the purposes of what they were doing. I had had a similar experience ten years ago as Tony in a production of West Side Story, and the conversation that ensued about these musical theatre dabblings was very interesting. Again, it all boils down to expectations — does the drama direct the music, or does the music direct the drama? Is it enough to fit the drama in around the singing of the role, letting the music and libretto do their work, or is it necessary to fit the singing of the role in around the drama? Which has primacy, the text or the music? In musical theatre, the text is essential — in opera, as I found with the English translation of Onegin, the words almost have to be ignored.

And, to drop a hint as to how I’m going to tie this all in to where I started this essay, how do things like Glee wind up changing the audience expectations even more? I’ll get back to that.

The conversation involved playing a number of different clips of different people singing “Epiphany,” including Cariou, Hearn, Depp, Terfel, and even Christopher Lee(!). Terfel, Benjamin asserted, could not be taken seriously as Sweeney; he would get laughed off the stage on Broadway singing the role the way he does. He argued that an opera singer approaching the role needed to do their homework regarding performance tradition and convention just like they would for any other role, and take into account how people like Cariou and Hearn approached the score.

My own sense of the matter is that Terfel’s approach is a perfectly legitimate one, as long as everybody is approaching it the same way he is. In other words, everybody needs to be in the same show, whatever aesthetic the production uses. To give an example of what I mean, I recently saw the movie W., and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice is simply not in the same movie everybody else is. She’s not awful, like a number of reviews claim; she’s actually very good. The trouble is that she is approaching the part as though the film were an SNL sketch, bringing a level of almost cruel, caricaturizing detail to her performance appropriate to that aesthetic, but she’s the only one doing that, and sticks out like a sore thumb as a result. If you’re going to do Sweeney Todd as an opera, do it as an opera, with everybody on the same page about doing it as an opera. If you’re going to do it as musical theatre, do it as musical theatre.

The other interesting thing about what Ben said is that, in effect, an opera singer performing the role of Sweeney with an eye towards musical theatre conventions and traditions is still approaching the role with operatic methodology. This is somewhat borne out it one of the reviews of Ben’s production, which said that at times he calls to mind Cariou and Hearn too much. Matthew Murray once said to me that the difference between being an opera singer and a musical theatre performer is than as an opera singer, you’re going to spend most of your time doing what other people have already done; in musical theatre, the hope is to create something new. Perhaps, then, what a real musical theatre approach would be would less take into account what Hearn and Cariou did and be more interested in what nobody has done before.

But then there’s still the trouble of musical style. The fact of the matter is, whatever happened in the rehearsal process, Ben was one of the two or three most consistent people onstage in that production with respect to faithfully presenting the score and libretto as written, musically and dramatically, and he seemed like he actually belonged in that show. A lot of the cast, to be honest, sounded like they were trying to sing Rent. Watching the Hearn/Lansbury video again, one thing that comes across is that it is very much a product of a previous generation of musical theatre, and has far more in common with Oklahoma! than Avenue Q or Mamma Mia!. To an extent, it almost seems as though you can assemble a cast that will be able to act the show but not sing it in the style for which it was written, or a cast that can sing it but might be toned down dramatically somewhat, because musical theatre people these days are simply trained with a different set of — you guessed it — expectations in mind.

So what does the success of Glee tell us about what the expectations are these days? Is sung drama only workable for today’s audiences if it is self-conscious, flamboyant and ironic, a jukebox show, limits the songs to “source” performances, or some combination thereof? Certainly the musical expressiveness of an opera like Onegin, in which time essentially stops so that the singer may emote, isn’t going to play well to most audience members’ expectations, at least not without a chuckle or two — and ironically, singing it English only seems to elicit more chuckles. We can understand far more easily Ralph Fiennes looking silently with longing at Liv Tyler than a baritone singing about it, no matter how gorgeous the music. “Because it’s actually realistic,” is often the rejoinder, except that 19th century Russian aristocracy didn’t speak or write letters in English in their homes or in the court, and if they did, it wasn’t with Fiennes’ cultured Suffolk accent. Whither “realism” in that case? “Well, that’s suspension of disbelief for a cinematic convention,” one might reply. Fine, so people will draw the line somewhere.

Even Sweeney, a product of the late 1970s, seems to overdo it for 2010 audiences — I read a review of Burton’s Sweeney that said, essentially, this would be an interesting movie if the songs didn’t keep interrupting the actors from actually telling the story. I suppose that this person’s response to analyses of how the music and songs actually do tell the story (the Beggar Woman’s melodic material being quoted in “Poor Thing,” for example — whoops, the Beggar Woman’s stuff was mostly cut, so I guess that won’t work) would likely be something like, “Well, that just doesn’t work for today’s audiences.”

I’m strongly tempted to see a correlation between this point of view and the transformation of musical experience from being communal and live to individual and canned (or at least processed). How do most people listen to music these days? Are they singing with their friends around a piano, or at least listening to CDs on a stereo with a group of people? No, they’re sitting on the bus with earbuds in, and their iPod is probably at least in part a way of shutting out any kind of communal contact. Are they listening to it live, in a room intended for that purpose? No, it’s probably at least autotuned and amplified, if not prerecorded. If the music is communal, they’re probably not paying any attention to it beyond its function as background noise anyway. If the music is live, then it is likely they’re singing along so loudly it doesn’t matter what the performers are doing, turning being an audience member into ritual self-indulgence.

Bottom line, I suppose, is that sung drama perhaps presupposes a social context in which music is experienced socially. That doesn’t really exist in the present day, beyond karaoke and concerts where everything is prerecorded and/or the audience isn’t really listening to the performance. Without that context, doubtless musicals and operas aren’t going to make much sense. The rise of the jukebox show was perhaps inevitable after Moulin Rouge!, but I have to think it’s a snake that will eat its own tail eventually. What then? Is it just not an artistic idiom that will survive in a world that can only tolerate anything less than hyper-realism if it has a gallon of self-aware irony on top?

I don’t know. But I don’t think I’m going to tune in to Glee anytime soon, Emmy nominations or no Emmy nominations.

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14 Responses to ““Musicals aren’t very realistic. If they were, there’d be an orchestra starting to play right now, with me saying, ‘Let me tell you something about musicals…'””


  1. 1 slavicpolymath 8 July 2010 at 7:36 pm

    As far as cut material in <Sweeney goes, I agree that the Judge’s aria is essential. But one of the bits that’s most often ignored is the Beggar Woman’s lullaby. On the Cariou/Lansbury recording it skips straight from “Beedle deedle deedle” to Todd’s entrance (“YOU!”); the full unabridged score calls for a gorgeous interlude of brief lucidity (“And why should you weep then, my jo, my jing?”) that fleshes her out as a character with a past for a bitterly short moment. (I really don’t care about the tooth-pulling sequence, except for the terrific lyric-writing.) How familiar are you with John Doyle’s 2006 staging and its devices, etc?

    • 2 Richard Barrett 8 July 2010 at 8:03 pm

      I seem to recall reading somewhere that the Beggar Woman’s Lullaby was written for a revival somewhere along the way. I know they did it in Chicago (which was another of my friend’s objections). I agree that it’s important and oft-ignored.

      I am not altogether familiar with the Doyle staging. I’ve seen clips here and ther and have not felt totally compelled to expose myself to it more fully, let’s say that.

  2. 3 Ole Kern 9 July 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Re: Pizza

    I am highly suspect of the existence of this “so-called” San Francisco-style Deep Dish pizza you had/saw in St. Louis. Yes, it might exist in St. Louis, but I doubt it does in the San Francisco area. The two places in the greater Bay Area that do a deep-dish pizza make it Chicago-style – they are Zachary’s (Berkeley and other east bay locations) and Old Chicago (Petaluma in the north bay) of which Old Chicago edges out Zachary’s (which is still quite good). Of course, this place in St. Louis is welcome to call their own product whatever they want – just that it is likely a misnomer.

    • 4 Richard Barrett 9 July 2010 at 2:17 pm

      The way it was explained to me is that it was “San Francisco style” rather than “Chicago style” because the crust is made from cornmeal. You guys would know better than I would.

  3. 5 Matthew Murray 11 July 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I hope “better late than never” applies to this discussion. Since I’m actually a part of it, I think it’s best that I weigh in on several important issues. First, I have no problem with pizza with cornmeal crust. It’s very different, and I wouldn’t want it with every kind of topping, but I’ve eaten and enjoyed it on a number of occasions.

    Before I address Richard’s various points, I think I should point out that I’m not quite the same person I was in 2002, when Richard, Megan, and I saw Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I have a couple of thousand more shows under my belt, I’ve (hopefully) grown as a person a bit, and I’ve (hopefully) refined my critical eye and evaluation abilities.

    That said, I still think that was not the world’s best production of Sweeney Todd, though for reasons—now, at any rate—that are completely unrelated to Bryn Terfel. To me, it was not directed in a way that supported the story. The concept was that it was set in Fogg’s Mental Asylum (that actor even did the pre-show “turn off your cellphones” speech as if he were talking to his “children”), but aside from the fact that it mostly obviated the need for sets, there wasn’t much clue given as to why this was. It resulted in a lot of ghoulish makeup for the actors; a little girl (Sweeney’s memory of Johanna as he left her, as I recall) running around; someone walking around inside their jail cell, pushing it around on wheels; and an ending scene with Sweeney (and the girl) inside the padded walls of solitary confinement. But a concept that doesn’t add to the appreciation or intake of the drama usually tends to get in the way, especially if there’s anything in the script or score that contradicts it. And in Sweeney Todd there is: When Anthony rescues Johanna from the asylum, he shoots Fogg and all the inmates run out into the streets, suggesting the final breakdown of a civilized and ordered society. If a director is setting up the notion that his entire production is set in Fogg’s asylum, he simply must have a way to cope with this moment, when its walls are, metaphorically if not literally, torn down. And this director didn’t—the production went on exactly as it had, except that it completely lost me because it represents directorial laziness, which I cannot abide.

    Regarding changes to the material, I’ve mellowed on that a bit, if only because I’ve come to understand that part of the reason that kind of thing bothers me so much is because I’m also a writer, and I believe that a writer’s words should be respected in the theatre. It is the job of the librettist, composer, and lyricist to write the show and the director to interpret what they’ve written—that’s all. When the director begins to assume that he understands the work better than the writers, that’s when my “Oh no you don’t” red flags grow up. I see plays and musicals directed by some of the most talented and well-respected theatre artists in the musicals, and it is almost never the case. I can’t think of one time off the top of my head it has been, to give you an idea. But what I know now that I might not have known then is that the tooth-pulling scene and the Judge’s “Johanna” are options in the rental materials, and thus I don’t have a problem with any company doing them from a legal standpoint. But, from an artistic standpoint, one must remember that in the original production, Harold Prince cut them, and that it’s perhaps wise to ask why. Aside from a bit of elaboration on the Pirelli-Tobias relationship, the tooth-pulling scene adds no new information or new music; it’s basically a beat-by-beat repeat of the shaving sequence that finished some five seconds earlier. While I don’t personally believe the Judge’s “Johanna” enlightens us any more about his character, either, that’s an easier case to make. But I personally agree with the audience members who streamed out of the theatre in droves when it was in previews on Broadway: that it’s enormously uninteresting (I’m very tempted to say “bad”) musically and lyrically, and that a thoughtful, engaged director can get across its one or two points of interest in other ways. There’s better way to use the time both of these numbers suck up, I think. That said, I’ve seen many Sweeney Todds since Chicago, all of which (if memory serves) have used the Judge’s “Johanna” and none of which have used the tooth-pulling scene. Make of that what you will.

    Regarding the Beggar Woman’s lullaby… I can’t recall the exact history of the song right now, so I don’t know if it was originally in the show and cut or written later (I suspect the latter). In either case, I think it spoils the surprise of the Beggar Woman’s identity (to the extent that it even is a surprise these days), and again conveys nothing new of consequence. Sweeney Todd is already a long show, and the second act is a bit on the dry side anyway, so I don’t see the point in pushing the action even further back. I’m personally of the school of theatrical thought that believes everything that happens onstage should really mean something to the audience, and if a song or scene doesn’t add to the texture of the evening, it can—and probably should—go.

    Complain as I might about the Lyric Opera Sweeney Todd it was the original company of My Fair Lady compared to John Doyle’s production, which I considered a true travesty. It was gimmicky above and beyond anything the Lyric Opera director could have dreamed of. It, too, was set in Fogg’s Asylum (apparently in the present day), with the only “real” character being Tobias—everyone else were doctors or other administrators who were helping him act out the story in his head. Why? No reason was given. By forcing the performers to play their own instruments, Doyle was forcing himself to (a) reduce the musical feast to a midnight snack at an ill-stocked 7-11, and (b) cast people who could both sort of act and sort of play the instruments, which meant he couldn’t get anyone who was truly good at doing either. Because Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone were the stars, they basically didn’t instruments at all (LuPone bleated on a tuba a bit as part of a “joke” in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”), which means the 27 instruments of Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestration were reduced to, effectively, eight, which further means the score sounded like… garbage (I’m in a nice mood right now). But, again, there were problems with the conception. Is this mental asylum supposed to be real? If so, where did the instruments come from? And why, in the second act, did Patti LuPone spend all of a song (“By the Sea” or “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You,” I can’t remember) fondling implements of death like rusty wrenches and meat hooks? If the entire thing was in Tobias’s imagination, why did Sweeney spend half the freaking show lugging around a child-size white coffin? Why, oh why, was Patti LuPone wearing fishnet stockings and a padded posterior? Why did Michael Cerveris never alter his tone of voice, why did the Tobias “act” by blinking about 50 times per minute, why was there a woman playing Pirelli (giving, by the way, what I think I’ve decided is the worst performance I’ve ever seen a professional actress—with major credits—give in a musical), why did Doyle not understand how to stage the show’s final minute, despite its being about the easiest-to-understand thing in the entire show? The questions just kept coming and coming, and none of them were ever answered. Almost everyone I know who actually cares about Sweeney Todd hated the production, and absolutely no one I’ve talked to (even those people who liked it) have been able to explain it.

    The big problem with it, though, was that it had been designed for a theatre in England that seats 200 people, where the actors-playing-instruments thing was a requirement. But when you’re in a thousand-seat Broadway theater with an orchestra pit, it becomes a gimmick, a crutch, and a diversion from the story and music that are really the entire point of Sweeney Todd in the first place. Someone I know, who’s about a million times smarter and more creative than John Doyle, said that if you’re going to go that route, the way to do it is to have every actor stop playing accompaniment when his or her primary character dies, so that the fabric of the music is intimately connected with the fabric of the story. That is a concept. What Doyle did was pretentious, insulting hackwork.

    To your greater question: Yes, there are people out there who can still sing this stuff appropriately, but I don’t think most directors know enough to demand it (even if they know more than Doyle, which isn’t hard). Sweeney Todd can’t be approached as if it were Rent, but it also can’t be approached as if it were Carousel or Naughty Marietta. It’s a true musical-theatre opera, without many easy things to compare it to (The Most Happy Fella, perhaps, though I see a lot of musical comedy in that; or perhaps Marie Christine; or some of the more ambitious Weill or Blitzstein shows. However you cut it, Mrs. Lovett really isn’t an operatic role: she’s music hall, and any other approach is not really going to be right. Just as Sweeney is basically operatic baritone and Johanna is lyric soprano and Anthony is naif tenor—roles in the musical theatre, just as in opera, have certain requirements, and they’re ignored at the production’s peril. As I recall, I didn’t mind Terfel as much from a musical standpoint as a dramatic standpoint, but he was playing a concept that didn’t make an actual character easy, so who could really blame him?

    Ideally, the director and the cast members and the designer will all be working from the same script, with the same storytelling goal in mind: to give as much glory as possible to what the writers have written. That’s why you need to write off whatever critic wrote that thing about Sweeney Todd is an idiot. The problem isn’t with the script or the songs, it’s with a director who’s overwhelming the material with his vision—which means his vision isn’t serving the material, which means he was the wrong person to approach the project. (I think this happens with Tim Burton a lot, personally.)

    It’s also why I don’t like Glee and have no intention of watching it. The thing that so attracts me to theatre songs is their component as drama, even more than the music. And separated from the dramatic context, they interest me very little. That’s why I almost never listen to covers of any musical song, and very rarely listen to recordings made by casts other than the original: I want to be spoken to, and the more barriers there are to that, the less I like it. Glee is all about stripping away the context I care about. Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele were on the Tony Awards doing truly horrific performances of songs; Michele, in particular (who, like Morrison, has real Broadway bona fides) was an embarrassment doing a song from Funny Girl, showing off her (completely wrong) vocal chops but ignoring the lyrics—which, as Richard points out, are what matter to me. The biggest Broadway stars of all time have flourished because they connect with the words and that indescribable other of “presence” that takes earthly words and notes and makes them into a soul. Glee, like John Doyle’s productions, is about stripping the soul away.

    Mamma Mia!, Avenue Q, and hundreds of other shows I could name don’t have it because it’s too hard, and the audiences they go after wouldn’t care (or can’t discern) anyway. But it is, ultimately, all there really is, and what ultimately does tie Sweeney Todd to the earlier generation, that of Oklahoma! and Carousel and My Fair Lady and West Side Story, even if nothing else does. It’s what I look for every time I go to the theatre. Frequently, I find it lacking. But not always. It does exist. Some people do still know how to summon it up. Those people, alas, are not working on Glee, or the John Doyle or Lyric Opera Sweeney Todd. That’s not to say they’ll never reach that level; I do believe the artistic cream always does rise to the top eventually. Unfortunately, I’ve spent way too much of the last eight years waiting.

  4. 6 Richard Barrett 13 July 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Very glad to have you chime in, Matt! I only have a couple of things to add.

    1) The “City on Fire” sequence in Act 2 is actually, to me, a far bigger structural problem for Sweeney Todd than “Johanna.” I frankly have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, and no production I’ve seen has ever made it totally make sense. If it’s a metaphorical representation of the breakdown of civilized society, why there and then, and what it is the relationship to the rest of what’s happening in the show? If it’s something that is literally happening, again, what is the relationship to the rest of the show, and why do I care? I get that in the Hal Prince production the whole point is that industrialization has taken us to a place where we’re all loonies eating each other, but this really is unlike anything else we see in the show, and it’s hard to see what exactly it’s trying to tell us.

    2) “Johanna” and the tooth-pulling scene (can’t remember about the Beggar Woman’s lullaby) are both in the full piano/vocal score, with performance notes (at least the edition I purchased in 1998). If I recall correctly, “Johanna” is in the appendix and the tooth-pulling scene is in the body of the score. I can’t speak to the relationship of the purchasable piano/vocal score to the rental materials, since I’ve never been in the show and thus have never seen the rental books, but my assumption is that it’s a similar relationship to the section of “The Jet Song” that’s usually cut in West Side Story. That part isn’t even the appendix, but rather in the body of the score and the rental materials (at least as of 1994). (And it was part of Leonard Bernstein’s full recording of the score. Whatever else you might say about Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa, Leonard Bernstein’s presence has to legitimize the choices they made, at least to some extent.)

    In any case, where I’m going with this is that your appeal to Prince’s decision to cut wouldn’t necessarily be compelling in the operatic world. There’s not really the same view of the first stage director as having a huge share of the initial creative vision of the piece. The composer and the librettist are seen as the principal auteurs. While there are “standard cuts” here and there (getting Marriage of Figaro from 4 hours down to 3.5, for example), opera people tend to be completists where the score is concerned, seeing the score as the organic whole that has to be preserved. I have a decent amount of sympathy for the point of view that sees the score as a whole intended to include “Johanna.” It’s certainly hard to get around its inclusion on the OCR (and in dramatic sequence, not as an appendix), and it’s also hard to get around the way it interacts with the rest of the score (such as the Judge’s final “Johanna, Johanna” as he gets into Sweeney’s chair for the last time). From the standpoint of the opera world, it doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to give Hal Prince the same authority as Sondheim regarding what Sweeney Todd is. He may have staged the original production, but he’s still considered a stage director rather than the composer.

    I’m with you on being unhappy with directors imposing their “concept” on a show to the extent that violence winds up being done to the spirit of the work. I don’t agree, however, that including things that the composer actually wrote and that somebody else cut rises to that level. I think what you describe as having become the habitual inclusion of “Johanna” perhaps speaks to the possibility that Prince wasn’t necessarily 100% right, at least not nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum, and that as the show’s place in the repertoire has solidified, that’s become clear.

    For my part, I’m of the opinion that in general musical theatre has gone someplace these days that I’m not particularly interested in following. I don’t need songs I already know repackaged, I don’t need a form of sung drama that appears to seek principally to prance self-consciously, and I don’t need “source” performances done with an ironic twist. If that’s all we’ve got, and to have all of that be electronically over-processed to boot, count me out.

  5. 7 Matthew Murray 14 July 2010 at 8:11 am

    (1) Structurally, I think “City on Fire” exists primarily to make it easier for the story to flip back and forth between the numerous different areas it has to at that point in the show. It’s basically a transitional device, and not much more than that. I think it has thematic relevance to the rest of what’s happening in the show at that point, but I agree with you that in terms of dramatic necessity, it’s a bit lacking. My only defense (and I’m not saying it’s a good one) is that onstage, the number works as a sort of glue to bind together elements that otherwise would probably fall apart. It doesn’t mean it’s a good song, anymore than it means that the Judge’s “Johanna” is a good song. 🙂 Speaking of which…

    (2) Yes, the Judge’s “Johanna” (I hate having to call it that time and time again, but there are three songs in the score with that name, and they are ALL completely different) is in the appendix, and I believe that the tooth-pulling sequence is represented much as that section you’re referring to from West Side Story, with a note that it was cut in the original production. But it shouldn’t surprise you that it was on Leonard Bernstein’s complete recording—of course the composer is going to want all of his music preserved, and of course he’s going to want you to hear all of it exactly the way he wants, which accounts for the lugubrious tempos so often associated with recordings of that nature. But while I understand your point that in the opera world, more deference is given to the composer, please remember: I don’t come from that world. There is more to Sweeney Todd (or any show) than just the score. There’s also a book and a complete experience that goes beyond what’s merely printed on the page. My sympathies lie more with Prince, I admit, because like he was I’m focused on the bigger picture of the show, and if a piece of music—even if it’s the most beautiful song ever written—does not contribute something to the overall progression of the drama, it has to go. Prince made that decision with the tooth-pulling scene and the Judge’s “Johanna.” No, it doesn’t mean he was right. But it also doesn’t mean that he was wrong. It was the choice he made that he felt best served the production for that audience at that point of time, and because he was in charge, that’s what happened. That I agree with him is more or less beside the point—the show ultimately “belongs” to Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, not to me. But were I ever directing the show, I would never include the Judge’s “Johanna” for pretty much the same reasons Prince kicked it out over 30 years ago. But everything else in the score and book proper (including, probably, the tooth-pulling scene I don’t much care for) I would do, specifically because I generally trust that the writers know what they’re doing, and think their vision does deserve proper presentation. I realize that my position on this is weird and kind of hard to explain, but it just sort of goes back to what I said before: It’s not about me, it’s about the show, and I wouldn’t take on a show I didn’t believe in wholeheartedly. I would probably never do the revised Merrily We Roll Along, for example, because I don’t think it makes any sense. And I would never do Pacific Overtures because I hate it. But do I think directors should screw with what’s there? No. But I also don’t think that because a score contains an appendix of eight numbers that were in the production at some point but never made it on Broadway that every single one should be included just because the composer wanted them there, nor do I think that any excuses justify jettisoning what is there based on a misreading of past history. (I’m going to throw things if I hear anyone ever say again that “The Highest Judge of All” exists as nothing but a reason to cover a scene change, as if its themes about salvation and retribution have nothing at all to do with the rest of Carousel. “Ol’ Man River” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” were written to cover scene changes, too—does that mean they should be cut from Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun?) I would also posit that, despite the show’s place in the canon, you are almost guaranteed to not find the Judge’s “Johanna” on anyone’s list of their five favorite songs from Sweeney Todd—including, probably, Stephen Sondheim’s. Even Oklahoma! has “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” (which I think is vital to the spirit of the show, but come on).

    (3) I agree with you about the general direction of the musical theatre, but would only note that what shows up on Broadway these days is almost never representative of the best of what’s happening in the form. Most of the best musicals I see are ones that are either Off- or Off-Off-Broadway, where the lack of $10+ million budgets free people to be a bit more creative and adventurous. Some really good work is still be done out there, it just doesn’t get a lot of publicity.

  6. 8 Richard Barrett 14 July 2010 at 10:23 am

    I don’t exactly walk out of a performance of Sweeney humming “Johanna,” either (and it would be kind of creepy if I did), but I think dramatically it ultimately serves the function of allowing the devil to explain himself, as it were. The Judge is pretty one-note and cardboard if it isn’t there, in my opinion. The song actually shows us what we’re otherwise only told — “Even he ‘ad a conscience”. Obviously it doesn’t quite get the better of him, but I find his “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maaaaaaaaaxima culpa” to be a powerful moment for the character, and I think something important is missing without it. YMMV.

  7. 9 Richard Barrett 14 July 2010 at 11:19 am

    One other thought — yes, musicals are more than just the score. And perhaps this is a difference between musicals and opera — in other words, maybe the kind of organic unity I’m talking about actually winds up working against musicals, because members of the creative team who aren’t the composer need to be able to cut things without it being disastrous. Maybe in musicals, the score needs to not be “too good”, if you know what I mean.

    If you’re paying attention, the score in Sweeney Todd tells you a lot more than the words do about the impact of what happened on both the Beggar Woman and the Judge. Lucy’s, uh, “propositions” use the same melodic material as the party music in “Poor Thing,” perhaps suggesting that it was the rape that drove her nuts, not the arsenic, and definitely implying that the rape is something that keeps playing out in her head. The descending line of “Hey! Don’t I… know you… mister?” is also quoted in the “hot… red… devil…” part of “Johanna,” suggesting that the scene is constantly replaying in the Judge’s head, too, and communicating musically to us that he’s trying to use his obsession with Johanna to redeem himself for what he did to Lucy (something that isn’t really clear otherwise; he just comes off as a dirty old man without it). Then, when he repeats “Johanna, Johanna” at the end, we know exactly what he’s thinking.

    Now, perhaps, for the needs of musical theatre, all of those concerns are simply too much weight for the score to be able to bear and still stick to the needs of the “big picture.” Nonetheless, from my perspective coming from the opera world, that’s just plain not extraneous material that can be removed willy-nilly. It’s too interwoven with everything else. Maybe Prince made the decision he had to make for that audience at that point in time, and I suppose that it can be argued whether or not any of that is necessary dramatically, informative though it may be about the characters, since the show is about Sweeney and not the Judge. Nonetheless, from a musical standpoint, of course you wouldn’t cut it, and the mindset would be that the dramatic problem is for a stage director to solve with the score as presented, not with a pair of scissors.

  8. 10 Matthew Murray 14 July 2010 at 11:50 am

    Sweeney Todd is essentially a melodrama. The devil doesn’t have to explain himself. His scene with the Beadle allows him to explain, in his own words, what his intentions are and what he believes his motives are for them. His version of “Johanna” basically is a chance to watch the actor playing the Judge whip himself onstage, and frankly, I can live without that, especially since the song just isn’t that compelling. I understand why productions want to include it, not least because the Judge has very little to sing otherwise, but it still doesn’t strike me as necessary, and because the quality of the song is not at the level of every other number in the score, I’m less willing to endure it.

    As for your other point, about the interwoven nature of the music, you are of course right. But again, at what point does the score become more important than the show? Or the book? If the book says something and then the score says the same thing five minutes later (or vice versa), which should be cut? Either? Neither? I think Sweeney Todd is rather unique for a Sondheim show in that its book comes very close to the level of the songs as a piece writing, something that isn’t true of the books to Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, or Into the Woods (I think A Little Night Music more or less gets things right, but there’s some real clunkiness in there, too). It’s the job of a director, in the original production of a show on Broadway, to reconcile these things, to find the balance, specifically because if you left everything up to Sondheim and Wheeler, the show could well have been four hours long with 30-minute dialogue scenes and 500 songs that were no better than the Judge’s “Johanna.”

    When it comes to musicals, I just don’t think you can give free reign to any member of the creative team, because the goal is different. The point of opera, from my perspective, is to sell the music. The point of traditional plays or musicals, from my perspective, is to sell the story. Obviously, the director is going to play a greater role if that’s the case, and that’s as it should be. In operas, the person in charge is usually the conductor, because that’s what matters to that form, but the conductor/musical director of a Broadway musical is and has always been a relative bit player.

    The ultimate question of any work that transcends the boundaries between “musical” and “opera,” then, is probably: Should the power behind the scenes shift as well? If there’s a production of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, where the director is calling all the shots, is it somehow automatically inferior to another Sweeney Todd at an opera house where the conductor is basically in charge and the “stage director” is the functionary? I don’t know. I would probably say yes, because I think the story can only suffer as a result. But you would probably say no, because to you the music is really where it’s at. Who’s right? Who knows?

    And, really, who cares? As long as good shows are being done, it doesn’t really matter to me, provided the “stage directors” of opera are at least competent at dealing with the works’ dramatic challenges. (Which, even if you believe they’re subsidiary to the music, have to be addressed somehow.) But stuff like this is the reason that I’m not generally inclined to attend opera-house productions of musicals, because I feel like I don’t get what I need from them. If you, or others, do, that’s great. But it’s also why I don’t attend many opera-house productions of operas: If what’s happening onstage is happening in another language, it’s not communicating to me, and to me the whole point is communication. I could, frankly, care less about the music, which I can listen to on CD or the Zune or whatever. I want the complete dramatic experience. I’ve found that I’m personally more apt to get that at a “play” than an “opera.”

    Unless it’s the John Doyle Sweeney Todd, in which case I get neither.

    • 11 Richard Barrett 14 July 2010 at 2:13 pm

      …at what point does the score become more important than the show?

      Better question: at what point can you really separate the score from the show? Between this and your “Well, Bernstein was the composer, so OF COURSE he’d do it that way…” comment, I almost get a idea of the music as a necessary evil, rather than what distinguishes musical theatre from a theatrical experience like, say, American Buffalo. This gets back to my questions in the original post — is the music the engine that drives the drama, or vice versa? Is the score just a shell that overlays the theatrical experience, or does it transform the experience?

      Sometimes the sense that I get from these kinds of conversations is that shows that transcend the boundaries between musical and opera, as you put it, are perhaps better left unwritten. Rather than bridge gaps, they seem rather to reinforce the differences between the two so-close-and-yet-so-far media. I suspect the days of somebody like Giorgio Tozzi being able to appear on Broadway in South Pacific are long over anyway, but it sometimes seems like the whole idea of trying to transcend those boundaries is one that would be largely unwelcome to partisans on both sides. That may just be the reality of the contemporary needs and (to get back to an earlier point) expectations of both genres, but there’s still something about it that to me seems too bad in the end.

      • 12 Matthew Murray 14 July 2010 at 2:50 pm

        I don’t consider music “a necessary evil” at all. I do consider it something that transforms the experience of a straight play, but I still see it as part of the whole—not the whole. A musical wouldn’t be a musical without it, but without strong underlying stories, characters, and (in most cases) dialogue, a musical wouldn’t be a musical, either. It’s the symbiosis that makes the form work. My perception of opera is that that kind of symbiosis is largely absent, because the music is given so much power. Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s a thing in the world wrong with that. But it’s a very different approach, and one that’s not always immediately compatible with musical-theatre storytelling.

        My comment about Bernstein was related to his putting out a complete recording of West Side Story that matched his specifications—but all he did was write the music. Someone else wrote the lyrics (at least most of them) and someone else wrote the book. West Side Story is more than Leonard Bernstein. At least in Sondheim’s case, he wrote all the songs by himself. I’m just usually a little bit distrustful of composers or orchestrators who want to preserve their own material in that way, because they tend to do it in a way that’s reverential bordering on the lethargic. They want us to hear everything, and we do—but hearing and experiencing are two different things. Do you know how many songs Bernstein wrote for Candide? Do you think they should all be in every production of that show? I’ve seen several different versions of Candide, and I think it’s really one of those cases where more isn’t necessarily better—there supposedly exists a “complete” version of that that’s exactly what Bernstein wanted, but I don’t know a person who can get through it. (I’ve never listened to it, but I’m not inclined to seek out Candide recordings anyway. It’s not my type of thing in the first place, I’m not especially interested if the Hellman book isn’t attached, and so many dozens of lyricists and librettists have been involved over the last five and a half decades I think that whatever the show was supposed to be has been lost many times over. But again, that’s me. In this case, though, what makes Bernstein any more of an authority? Merely because he composed the music? That’s only a part of what Candide is, regardless of the nature of the achievement involved. And, yes, I basically feel the same way about Sweeney Todd. I want to hear the music with the book—with the exception of a couple of tracks of the original Merrily We Roll Along, I almost never listen to any Sondheim cast recording. To me, the exercise is basically meaningless. But in the theatre, it’s an entirely different thing.

        As for the Broadway-opera crossover with regard to performers, I think that’s something else altogether. Paulo Szot was/is in the recent revival of South Pacific, and he’s been rightly acclaimed for his work there. Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth are about as big as Broadway stars can be these days, and their voices are about as legit-operatic as they come. The main reason someone like Ezio Pinza wouldn’t appear in a new musical today is just because the music isn’t generally written for that kind of voice. But if it were, I think they actually would appear. Broadway does welcome opera singers when it’s necessary—but how often is it?—or if like McDonald and Chenoweth they’re really good at adapting. But I wouldn’t want to see Szot in, for instance, The Producers, any more than I’d want to see Nancy Anderson do The Magic Flute at the Met. They’re just not right for the roles. But McDonald and Chenoweth have done major operas at major venues (and Chenoweth was slated for the Met at one point, but had to pull out for some reason I’ve now forgotten) have proven that it can and still does happen.

        In any case, I generally don’t care too much about genres as long as the work in question is good. By any standards, I think Carousel, The Most Happy Fella, and Sweeney Todd have to be considered musicals—but all three contain highly operatic elements that would not be out of place in an opera house under the right situation. And as has been proven before, there has long been room on Broadway for things like La Boheme and The Pirates of Penzance, which aren’t exactly traditional “theatre” offerings. I don’t think it’s correct to say that the forms can never share anything, just that they need to be careful what they do share.


  1. 1 Diy Funny Life Trackback on 10 July 2010 at 6:20 pm
  2. 2 An opera singer, a public intellectual, and a talk show host walk into a bar… | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 14 August 2013 at 12:11 am

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