Rachael Powles is an incoming junior at Sauquoit Valley High School, where she is co-editor of her school newspaper as well as an active member of the drama club. This is her first production with The Glimmerglass Festival.
Imagine a once prominent barber returning home after years of exile, filled with hate for the “honorable” judge who robbed him of his precious wife and daughter. With prompting from the flirtatious owner of the pie shop next door, the barber sets out for revenge against those who have done him wrong, spurring an addiction to blood that ultimately threatens any innocent civilian who wanders in for a shave. As if this weren’t enough, the barber’s victims are transported to a pie shop whose secret to success is a…special ingredient.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.
The Glimmerglass Festival has long been known for its stunning opera productions; since 2011, a musical has been included in its annual offerings. “There are a lot more words in musicals, especially in shows by Stephen Sondheim, than in opera,” said Harry Greenleaf, who plays one of Sweeney’s leading men, sailor Anthony Hope. “The music is written in a way to highlight the cleverness of the text.” In Sweeney Todd, the line between opera and musical is blurred. The story is primarily told through song rather than dialogue, there are minimal props and bubbly dance numbers are less prevalent. On the subject of Sweeney Todd’s dance style, choreographer Eric Sean Fogel states, “All of the movement is naturalistic. It’s about crafting that mood of the chorus and helping the actors express their style.”
The questions at the heart of the show—our expectations of society, the ignorance of the public, our role in deciding the fate of others—may be deep, but Sweeney Todd is not purely a story of death and destruction set to music. Sondheim uses language in such unique ways, it is impossible to keep a straight face through the tongue-in-cheek humor. Audiences will no doubt find themselves laughing as the crafty Mrs. Lovett makes cannibals out of the naive customers who visit her pie shop. The finale of the first act, a song titled “A Little Priest,” is essentially a song of puns. The fluid nature of the score allows for these hilariously gruesome moments to transition into bittersweet ballads in seconds. Take Harry Greenleaf’s character, Anthony. He falls madly in love with Todd’s daughter, Johanna. While Todd and Mrs. Lovett are knee-deep in their revenge plot, Anthony works to free his lover from the clutches of Judge Turpin. “He’s just living his life and suddenly he sees this girl that’s so beautiful that he wants nothing else but to do whatever he can for her,” Greenleaf says about his role.
The mood of the piece breaks the stereotype that a musical is mindless entertainment. As Greenleaf says, “It requires the audience to be smart. They have to fill in some gaps and they have to draw connections. If the audience can trust us, I think that we will give them something good.”
Whether you prefer opera or musical theater, Sweeney Todd will stick with you. It grapples with issues at the core of the human experience and contains gorgeous music while remaining lighthearted. Following the show’s shocking conclusion, you may find yourself asking who the real villain is: the murderer or those who inspired him to murder in the first place? As Fogel put it, “Everyone can expect a great evening at the theater that entertains them and also makes them think.”