In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
If Sweeney Todd isn’t Stephen Sondheim’s best musical score—and I would argue it is, even if Sunday In The Park With George is my favorite of his shows—it’s certainly his most traditionally tuneful, even with all the steam whistles and atonal stings floating around the edges of the thing. But that tunefulness disguises the true intent of the show’s prettier melodies. Sweeney’s the story of a vengeful, wrongly accused criminal who returns to London after a stint in an Australian prison colony. Naturally, he takes up shop as a barber, begins slitting his patients’ throats indiscriminately (after realizing the throat he really wants to slit won’t be so easily sliced), then signs on to his neighbor’s plan to bake the bodies he generates into meat pies. Like you do.
What’s amazing about Sweeney is the way that Sondheim’s score more or less accustoms the audience to these ideas. It actually gets more melodic the darker it gets, providing some of its most tuneful moments in the second act, when all hell is breaking loose. The music underlying the “Ballad” of the title character features a troubled string part that stops just short of resolving, but the musical resolution listeners’ ears naturally crave is all over Act Two. Sondheim is making the audience complicit in Sweeney’s crimes by giving it exactly what it wants, tying murder to aural satisfaction. This musical resolution tells the story subtly, too; as the characters are able to move past the darkness of the past, their music begins to resolve. As a contrast, the eternally troubled Beggar Woman never finds her resolution before her death late in the play, constantly singing in an atonal caterwaul that acts as a dissonance against everything else.
Sweeney is about a great deal more than just its penny-dreadful plot. It’s about unjust imprisonment, the emptiness of revenge, and the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Age. (In its review of the 2005 revival, The New York Times suggested that just as Chicago had finally found its era in the tabloid-saturated ’90s, Sweeney Todd, one of the most famous “Why hasn’t this show ever been bigger?” musicals in theater history, had found its era in the blood and revenge-stricken ’00s.) In the midst of the chaos and irresolution of the first act, though, Sondheim drops in a pair of young lovers who sing traditional ballads. The guy, Anthony, has come to London as a sailor, befriending Sweeney on the boat in. The girl, Johanna, is Sweeney’s long-lost daughter. Naturally, Anthony falls in love with her, and the ballad he sings, “Johanna,” is one of Sondheim’s most beautiful songs, as well as a ray of light in the musical darkness of the first half of the first act.
In Act Two, though, Sondheim reprises the song, with a brief reminder of the original melody (sung in the original Broadway cast recording by Victor Garber), which is quickly swept away by the newly purposeful Sweeney (sung here by the great Len Cariou). With his new business flourishing, Johanna is the one piece of his past Sweeney can’t quite put away, and the reprise encapsulates the games Sondheim plays with resolution throughout the musical in miniature. Sweeney’s melody, which never quite resolves, plays against Anthony’s, which the audience already knows resolves but doesn’t just yet, with the Beggar Woman coming in every so often to offer up her own irresolution. (Eventually, Johanna herself joins in.) The strings chug along. Sweeney tries to put the past behind him. But he can’t any more than any of the rest of us can.
The resolution only comes at the very end, as Sweeney accepts his new situation and sings out to his now gone-to-him daughter, “We learn, Johanna, to say goodbye.” Sweeney’s voice and Anthony’s voice finally come perfectly together, now in tune with the strings. Sweeney’s melody reaches the resolution the ear craves, and all seems well. Until the final chord of the piece, played only by the orchestra, a quietly discordant sound, off-key, not right. The past is never behind Sweeney, just as it’s never behind any of us. And by the end of the show, that past will rise up and devour him whole.