Sweeney Todd: Compare and Contrast

At last night’s opening of Sweeney Todd, at the State
, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the recent film version. This
is what theatergoers do at revivals, right? They consider the present viewing
experience in relation to all previous encounters with a favorite play or musical. And to
be clear: Sweeney is, by far, one of my favorites.

The first thing that struck me last night was that the
performers not only sang; they orchestrated. Johanna played the cello, Tobias the violin. They took turns at the piano. Mrs. Lovett played the freakin’ triangle. I was glad it wasn’t
another of those overblown, over-produced Broadway productions with all manner
of mechanical, remote-controled set elements. You see, when I go to the theater, I don’t want a stage production with an inferiority complex, something that really
wants to be a film. As it turned out, this was a fairly simple, hand-made interpretation reliant only on instruments, a few set pieces, and, most of
all, these actors’ ability to conjure alternate reality.

What’s more, a lot of Sweeney stage adaptations are very
vertical in design; most of the ones I’ve seen have employed some sort of chute
(just like the movie) with which the barber can cleanly dispose of his victims.
This production, on the other hand, was more abstract in its handling of the murders–as well as the disposal of the corpses.
I won’t spoil it by giving anything away, but will say that the stage version
comes off as much, much funnier–much thanks to the fact that it doesn’t resemble
a slasher flick.

On the play’s youngest characters, Johanna and Tobias: Here’s an instance where I
preferred the actors/singers in the
film version. The actress who played Johanna, in particular, had a very pretty but nonetheless
unsophisticated voice that sounded almost white in tone. The stage version, of
course, employs adult actors who, great as are (with plenty of color to their voices),
aren’t quite so fresh-faced–and therefore aren’t as forceful–in their youthful parts.
As for the character of Anthony (played last night by Benjamin Magnuson), he
looked more the part of a brute sailor; whereas in the movie he was a mop-haired,
Victorian-era metrosexual. In other words, in the movie, he looked a lot like an ex-boyfriend, which I didn’t care for.

But the stage version’s most important distinction is that
it doesn’t allow for such moping, brooding portraits of these characters. Sweeney et al. can’t be so internalized in a 2,000-seat house. David Hess, who plays
Sweeney, interprets the barber as more enraged than sociopathic. Mr. Todd therefore appears less the self-pitying, self-isolating freak than, in fact, a blood-thirsty
demon dead set on exacting revenge.