‘Sweeney Todd’: A conversation with Director Walter Sutcliffe, Conductor Sinead Hayes and Designer Dorota Karolczak
The gruesome tale of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ has frightened and fascinated generations since it first emerged in the mid-19th century. What has drawn you to this piece?
WS: I was very excited to present this piece as early as possible in my tenure at NI Opera. I think that this version of Sweeney Todd will always be relevant, because it transcends the period it was written in. The Christopher Bond play (1973), which Sondheim and Wheeler used as their model, is very of its time in its framing of the narrative as a social critique. Bond uses the theatre to comment on the oppressive mechanisms of a capitalist society, in which Sweeney is the victim of his circumstances. If the musical was only about that, I don’t think it would have the same draw as it does. I have a feeling that Sweeney Todd has the capacity to have the same longevity as some of the core operatic repertoire. Like other pieces that have entered the canon of classics, it asks us questions rather than providing answers, and it does so in thought-provoking, often opaque ways.
There has been much debate about the genre identity of Sweeney Todd. It has been described as a melodrama, even an opera. What makes it so difficult to classify this work?
SH: I think this dilemma has to do with the quality of how the score is put together. The score is very well constructed and demands a certain level of artistry, security with pitch and rhythm, and confidence in those moments when the music invites the singer to be flexible and spontaneous. These are characteristics that could be described as operatic.
The challenge for us as performers is to use that flexibility to the greatest possible effect and make the piece sound fresh every night. Having said that, we need to make sure to have internalised the tempi, which are almost Mozartian in their precision.
Perhaps the dramatic cohesion of the music would also point towards an identification as opera?
SH: Yes, we could almost compare Sondheim’s use of Leitmotiv to Wagner. Take for example the Beggar Woman. She has a split personality, and accordingly we have two very contrasting musical motifs. One is the elegiac “alms, alms”, which sounds immediately portentous, and then we have this brusque dance music, which is related to the scene which reveals her abuse by The Judge. For Sweeney’s music, Sondheim was inspired by the Gregorian chant “Dies Irae”, an ancient hymn about Judgement Day. He takes the material, twists and turns it, with reminiscences even emerging in Anthony’s “Johanna”, which on the surface seems to be completely removed from Sweeney’s sound world. The ways in which the musical numbers are interrelated is genius!
How do you treat the chorus, which seems to be if not exactly encouraging Sweeney in his killings, then at least sympathetic to his predicament?
WS: A problem with the original production by Hal Prince is the choice it makes about how to present the chorus. Since then, the crowd has habitually been treated as the “townsfolk”, basically just the people that populate the show and serve as a narrative voice. I think it goes further. I would suggest that Sondheim has added this chorus, which doesn’t exist in the Christopher Bond play, in the capacity of a Greek chorus – with a similar dramatic weight.
Right at the beginning of the show, the chorus warns us that Sweeney Todd will mercilessly kill “those who moralise”. What is the significance of this statement?
WS: The chorus are passing comment on the action but they also serve as a bridge between the audience and the action on stage. I have always found it strange when productions have presented them to exist on the narrative level only. I think their purpose is multi-layered. In my understanding, the comment about moralisers steers the focus in two different directions: not only inwardly on the piece, but also outwardly to the consumers of the show. There is also another side to this. Interestingly, Sondheim has written about Sweeney as a projection of himself. By his own account, he somehow feels close to a character driven by a destructive mania and obsessed with taking revenge on the world around him. It’s not that far of a leap to conceive Sweeney’s traits as metaphorical and understand Sondheim as having a slightly conflicted relationship with the audience – as all theatre people arguably do.
The narrative presents us with complex moral dilemmas. Do Sweeney’s motives justify his cruel actions, and who has the right to judge over others? Is Sondheim playing with our discomfort of having to decide between right and wrong?
WS: The writing in most of the ensemble numbers is quite playful, and funny. The macabre humour takes the chorus out of the play and engages us in a way that makes it tricky to form clear judgements because we can be simultaneously repelled and entertained. The chorus members arguably share that enjoyment with the audience. I think the social critique that results from this reading is much sharper than what the Christopher Bond version achieves. His play hopes to elevate the audience by showing that capitalist mechanisms are destructive. He presents the theatre as a place of moral and spiritual betterment. I think Sondheim and Wheeler question that interpretation and place it in an ironic context. They rather seem to suggest that the audience, simply by being in the theatre, becomes a moral actor. We assume that the piece invites us to make judgements about who is right or wrong, but the satire and even the accusation is on the audience rather than the characters.
In your stage sets, we see a continuation of the Lyric auditorium aesthetic. The boundaries that clearly distinguish between “them” and “us” blur. Why did you choose this device?
DK: There are several ideas behind this. On the one hand we wanted to play with the relationship between the viewer and the protagonists. On the other hand we thought about Sondheim’s play with the nature of the theatre itself, and the audience’s role within it. Is the theatre a place of judgement or is it really a fun house or ghost train ride? This set plays with this idea and enables us to transit quickly between both worlds.
Does the theatre become reality, or are we all trapped in a huge theatrical display?
DK: That is a nice idea, and both are true, because these stories also exist in our subconscious and we don’t leave them behind when we leave the theatre. We already bring the desire for the grotesque and the grisly humour into the building with us — this is part of our human condition.
As the audience, are we guilty for laughing at the cannibalism and enjoying the gory pies from the safety of our seats?
WS: I think that’s the trick of the piece. It is a sophisticated exploration of the Grand Guignol tradition, and I hope we can do it justice. The very first number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, is telling us that the action is going to reconstruct something that has already happened. We are in fact at the end of the play at this point. The implication is that we will be invited to pass judgement, only that this judgement is gradually replaced with comedy and entertainment. Ideally, as an audience we will at some stage catch ourselves laughing at the macabre spectacle. We are trying to make the audience feel conscious about the consumption of a product. The question about the complicity is important. I guess it was a bigger issue for the Romans when they went to the arena, but it applies here also: how do we process instincts that we have had for millennia? Sweeney is a piece that asks fundamental questions about what an audience is, and by extension about what it means to be human. I like the idea of theatre levelling us all out.
The Sweeney Todd music is eclectic in many ways. Could you for example comment on “By the Sea”, in which Sondheim surprises us with presenting the usually practical Mrs Lovett as having a sentimental side and dreaming of an idealised, almost paper-cut future life?
SH: He does so by using a burlesque music-hall style song, which wonderfully captures Mrs. Lovett’s naïve daydreaming at this point. There are other places where Sondheim chooses quasi-pastiche writing to highlight character traits; for example the harmonium “Parlor Songs”, which sound like they could have been written in the 18th century, or Pirelli’s fake-Italianate music.
Sweeney’s discovery of the Beggar Woman’s true identity as his long-lost wife is a dramatically crucial moment.
How is this realised musically?
SH: It is done very cleverly. As soon as Sweeney realises who the Beggar Woman is, we hear a reminiscence of her “alms, alms” music. A light bulb moment for Sweeney, in the worst possible way, at the worst possible time. As he discovers Mrs. Lovett’s lie, the light-hearted music they shared previously returns, now used as a cynical accusation. Their memories are now twisted, and so is the music.
How do your costume choices reflect the characters’ internal development throughout the narrative?
DK: The clothes they wear show us a couple of things. They show us a character’s material circumstances, and these may change over the piece, but they also show us how a character feels about themselves, and what sort of image they try to project: just like clothes in real life. But, by reducing the colour scheme we have tried to add a degree of artificiality and emphasize the drama.
How important are the references to Victorian England in your vision of the story?
DK: It was important for us to maintain a link with the Victorian period since it is an important basis for the piece, with the idea of convict transportations being central to the narrative. Of course it would be possible to make a totally contemporary show, but this would miss the point a little. The narrative is a fantasy. It is not a piece of ‘realism’. And maintaining this Victorian element is very helpful in creating the fantasy world of the main story.
Questions by Judith Wiemers, NI Opera’s Dramaturg
Sweeney Todd runs 2 – 23 Feb. Find out more here: https://www.niopera.com/events/sweeney-todd/