Monday, November 17, 2008

there was a barber and his wife...

But his wife was not really important.

We saw Sweeney Todd at the Fox on Saturday night. I have been a total grump all week. My burns are no longer excruciating, but they are decidedly uncomfortable. And having them wrapped up restricts my movement (don't want the bandages coming loose, believe me) and limits my clothing options and is generally irritating. So although I love going to the Fox, dressing up and leaving the house wasn't actually sounding that fun. And instead of wearing the darling sleeveless sequined top that I bought months ago on clearance and had been planning to wear, I wore a turtleneck.

But aside from my personal injury and wardrobe malfunction, the show was great. It was very different from the movie (and I'm a big fan of the Tim Burton movie). The most remarkable thing was that the actors onstage were also the orchestra. It was amazing. Everyone was onstage all of the time and they each played a different instrument and all of the movement was choreographed with their instruments -- Joanna's cello, Mrs. Lovett's baritone, Toby's violin, the beadle was on keyboard. It was pretty amazing because they managed to do it without the instruments distracting from the story -- they would either set them aside for certain scenes, or use the instrument as a sort of prop. The setting was pretty sparse and they used red lighting and dramatic music instead of blood for the murder scenes, and it was still creepy and vengeful.
Warning: plot spoilers ahead.

So afterward, the show inspired a conversation between D and me about the plight of women in nineteenth-century England (of course it did, you're saying to yourselves). I mean, even the spunky Mrs. Lovett pins her entire future on a relationship with a demented barber. And I am far from convinced that Sweeney Todd's motives have very much to do with his poor wife's unfortunate fall. As I proclaimed to D, this is not a love story. Mrs. Lovett wants it to be, but Sweeney Todd is far more worried about Judge Turpin than he is about Lucy (his wife, who he believes is dead) or Johanna (his daughter, now Judge Turpin's ward). For all his grief about Lucy's fate, he quickly channels into rage against Mrs. Lovett for misleading him. Yes, she lied to him. But what were her options? And what would have become of Lucy in any case? Even more pressing -- what kept Sweeney from discovering the lie? Why didn't he seek out her grave if he were truly the mourning Victorian he claims to be (the type whom, I imagine, wears a ring with a lock of her hair in it and keeps her letters folded in his pocket)? Sweeney doesn't discover that Lucy is still alive, because he is not motivated by his love for Lucy. Instead, he is obsessed with revenge. Judge Turpin emasculates Benjamin Barker and Benjamin Barker comes back to kill him. That's the real story. The women are just pawns to give it all a little pathos. Johanna goes from being Judge Turpin's ward to being stolen away by a strange sailor. We are to believe he's saving her, but his own lyrics, "I'll steal you, Johanna" suggest otherwise.

So I'm not saying these are flaws in the story. I think it is a masterful tale of vengeance and obsession and I really like the movie and the play. I just think that what could masquerade as a tragic love story is really not about love at all. What Sweeney Todd cannot forgive is not the loss of his wife and daughter. It's the loss of his manhood. It's the Judge taking Sweeney's manhood (symbolized not-very-subtly by raping Lucy and sending Benjamin Barker to prison far away), and leaving him powerless. So if the Judge metaphorically castrates Benjamin Barker, Sweeney Todd will return to metaphorically castrate the Judge. By cutting off his head. The ladies -- even Mrs. Lovett, who steals the show (at least in the version we saw at the Fox, although Helena Bonham Carter does give Johnny Depp a run for his money) and sings my favorite song in the score, "Nothin's gonna harm you, not while I'm around" -- are just collateral damage.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Brooke! gNat sent me a link to your blogspot... hope all is well! I enjoyed catching up the other day, and as always I enjoy killing an afternoon snooping through other people's blogs:) Anyways, I liked this post because I adore Sweeney Todd and I've had the rare good fortune to perform it twice.

    I thought you might enjoy this clip, if you haven't seen it before-

    It's not a fully staged show, but the cast is phenomenal, particularly Sweeney.

    I just wanted to say I totally agree this is not a love story-- I haven't actually seen the film version of this yet (I've been quite trepidatious, to be honest... I love the staged version so much) but I have no doubt that the Hollywood guys might have been inclined to overplay the love story.

    To me the show is about the extreme discord between the ideals of the Victorian age and the violence and desperation in which they actually live. Sweeney clings to this "love" for his wife because it is central to the Victorian ideal world that he cherishes above all else, a world that is "beautiful, virtuous, and naïve", and an idealized past that probably never existed in the first place.

    Sweeney's obsession with killing the man who corrupted the innocence of his world seems justifiable to him as the only way to reconcile his perceived past with the violent reality of the present. (and i agree, his manhood is also in the balance ;)

    When he sees that he's killed his wife with his own hands, the illusion is shattered. Here is the very symbol of his idealism in the flesh, a madwoman and a beggar, and there he is, not a righteous avenger, but a depraved monster, brought down like all the other characters in the show by the evil in the world. Nothing left to live for, he bares his neck to his own razor.

    I could watch that clip of the last scene all night and not get bored of it... the acting is really powerful! Actually, the whole thing is on Youtube in 16 parts and it's all great. Sondheim's music is genius.

    I don't even know where to start with Mrs. Lovett. She seems to me way more complex than Sweeney, but then I guess she would have to be, because she is 100% of this world, and not off in dream-land. I do think that she is in love with Sweeney, although it seems fairly clear that he doesn't reciprocate the sentiment. (but that all depends on the production, and like I said, I haven't seen Johnny Depp yet) But real love too, is nothing like ideal love -- it can be jealous, self-interested and opportunistic as well as nurturing and protecting, and I think Mrs. Lovett's love is all of those and more. She and poor dimwitted Toby make an interesting real-world foil to Sweeney's imaginary-past family.

    I never really thought about the Johanna subplot much until you mentioned it, and you're right, it's also a little seamy when you think about it... a poor hostage girl improving her lot by running away with a sailor? At least they have Love :)

    Anyways, ramble complete. Time to get back to practicing! Hope you're well!