You know how some things just rub you up the wrong way?
I saw a production of Sweeney Todd this afternoon, at the Octagon in Bolton. It’s not the first production I’ve seen, of course – I’ve seen, probably, eight or nine, plus two versions on DVD, in the past twenty years or so – but it’s the first one I’ve seen for a while (the last one I saw in the theatre, I think, was John Doyle‘s staging at the New Ambassadors in London), and the show is a favourite of mine, so I was looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, I got to the theatre a little early and had time to read most of the programme before the show started (having paid £3.00 for it – a sum which constitutes gouging – I felt obliged to read at least some of it). And it irritated me. Oh, how it irritated me.
After a page of bios of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, who wrote it, we pitch straight into a three-page transcribed conversation between Elizabeth Newman, the director, and Amanda Collins, her assistant, in which it takes Ms. Newman approximately a third of a page to turn the smug up to eleven. Ms. Newman, apparently, is “striving to make musical instruments part of the visual narrative, so they play the same part as lighting, design and costume, as well as being the ultimate creators and vessels of musical sound.” Gosh. What that means is that the production can’t afford to pay actors and an orchestra, so we need to find some artistic justification for the fact that several of the actors will spend most of the show toting instruments they haven’t touched since university (if we’re lucky) or the sixth form (if we’re not).
It gets better. Ms. Newman goes on to explain to her assistant (and, by extension, to us) that she believes “human beings have created two wondrous things that sit in opposition – musical instruments and weapons.” Ms. Newman makes no mention of what might happen when a musical instrument is used as a weapon. Trust me, we will be getting to that later, and in more than one sense. You may wish to draw a polite veil over the bit where she explains to us that Mrs. Lovett is a dominatrix and Sweeney Todd is a sub. It’s not a bad idea, but some subtext doesn’t need to be explained.
Next, we have two pages of interviews with the production’s (unpaid) “community chorus”, an ensemble of non-professional performers who, in this production, sing most of the chorus material – and there’s quite a lot of chorus material. They all talk about what a rewarding experience the production has been, and they mean it. It’s important for regional theatres to build links to their communities; it’s easy to be cynical about something that looks suspiciously like getting chorus singers for free, but I think this is a genuinely worthwhile project, and it’s worth noting that the community chorus performers were absolutely terrific.
Then it gets good, but not in a good way. We have a page of discussion from two forensic scientists, who try and make some kind of tenuous leap between the world of the play and the world of CSI. Yes, sadly, I do mean the television series. This is odd partly because nobody, during the course of the play, actually investigates any of Sweeney’s murders (Beadle Bamford tries, though he thinks he’s simply investigating a bad smell, and only gets close to the crime scene when he becomes part of the crime), and partly because this production opts for symbolism over fake blood anyway.
And, of course, the programme saves the best for last – a three-page transcribed conversation between Ms. Newman and the production’s musical director, Tom Atwood, that’s partly about the genius of Sondheim and the healing power of art, and partly about the genius of themselves, in the process turning the smug up from eleven to roughly infinity. Ms. Newman even sees fit to spend roughly half a page telling us all about how, when directing a musical, the lyrics should be approached and interrogated as part of the scene, and that they have to be “psychologically and mentally understood in the same way as if you were speaking it.” Bless her, she actually seems to believe that this is a new idea. Mr. Attwood, for his part, chooses to inform us that he believes that “a spectator or audience member should be required to bring their imagination along to the theatre.” Condescending much?
There’s no list of musical numbers in the programme. OK, not that important, but would have been nice. What we do have is the standard-issue list of billing credits from the original production on the left panel of the centre pages of the programme (cast and production team are on the right), ending with “Orchestrations by JONATHAN TUNICK” (the capitals are the programme’s, not mine). The original Broadway production did indeed have orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; you can hear them on the cast recording, and they are magnificent. I assume the billing is contractual, because they’re not being used here; what we have instead is essentially the piano/vocal score with other instruments joining in. That’s what happens in actor-musician productions, and I’m not, in fact, militantly against either reduced orchestrations (at least in smaller theatres like the Octagon, which seats 300-400 depending on how it’s configured) or actor-musicians – but please, don’t pretend we’re getting something we aren’t, and don’t assume the audience doesn’t know the difference.
[Edit: My friend John Baxindine, who is an encyclopaedia of such things, reminds me that Tunick also created a nine-player orchestration for the 1994 production at the National Theatre in London, which was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 2 - something I should have remembered, given that I saw it twice and listened to the broadcast. I'm fairly certain - and this video , on which you can hear some of that production's orchestrations, seems to back me up - that those reduced orchestrations, also, are not what is being offered here.]
So, yes, the programme irritated me, which isn’t a good way to start off watching a show. The production that followed also often irritated me, but it was also intermittently thrilling. It was, in fact, a quite startling mix of genuinely good and genuinely misbegotten.
On the good side, we have -
Gerald Beer as Sweeney. Gets better as the evening progresses, but he sings his difficult role very, very well indeed, plays the violin creditably well, and by the second half of Act Two he’s wonderful. He’s also about ten years too young for his role.
Using a violin bow (not the one he uses to play the violin) in place of a razor works beautifully, and is probably the best example I’ve seen of an actor-musician production finding a way to make the instrument into an extension of an actor’s character, which (ack!) somewhat justifies the obnoxiously smug programme notes on the subject. But only somewhat.
Ruth Alexander Rubin’s Mrs. Lovett. She’s also at least ten years too young, but she is absolutely superb – earthy, ruthless, funny, hard, surprisingly emotional (she finds colours in “Not While I’m Around” that I’ve never seen before), simultaneously warm and scary, and a wonderful singer. Plus she plays clarinet, keyboard, trombone and (like, gag me with a spoon) keytar, and manages the latter without dying of embarrassment, a fate that should be reserved for whichever individual decided to insert a keytar into Act Two of Sweeney Todd. Fortunately it’s only in one scene.
Adam Barlow and Barbara Hockaday as (respectively) Tobias and the Beggar Woman. They’re both excellent, and she’s also a mean bass player.
Lucy Sierra’s set (industrial minimalist) and Mary Horan’s period-indeterminate, slightly Steampunk costumes. The show looks good all the way through.
Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad, and Clara Darcy’s Pirelli is very, very, very bad. She clearly has a formidably powerful voice; here, she mostly uses it to screech, which doesn’t do much for either the humour or the music. No, I can’t tell you why Pirelli is being played by a woman either, except that Ms. Newman tells us in one of the smug programme conversations that John Doyle did it (I know, I saw his production, thanks) and it was kind of cool (my phrase, and no it wasn’t). The presence of the community chorus means that Doyle’s excuse of needing another soprano voice to balance out the vocal ensemble doesn’t apply. If it was a good performance, I’d buy it, but it isn’t a good performance.
At any given time when they are onstage, two or three members of the community chorus are carrying hand mikes, and they look stupid, particularly since they’re very lightly miked and could probably manage without them.
Lloyd Gorman as the Beadle was presumably not present during the bits of rehearsal in which Ms. Newman sought to bring the psychological truth of spoken dialogue to his lyrics. Ms. Newman, for her part, perhaps does not realise that you’re supposed to do this for all the characters, not just the leads.
Ms. Newman’s blocking fudges a couple of significant moments. Mrs. Lovett’s “So it is you! Benjamin Barker!” in the first act is drowned out by members of the chorus clattering down a metal staircase. It’s an important line, we need to hear it, and we don’t.
Putting a keytar onstage at all, even in a period-unspecific, slightly modern-dress production like this one, looks stupid. Having Mrs. Lovett and the Beadle sing the Parlour Songs to the accompaniment of one of the keytar’s cheesy 80s-sounding autoprogrammed rhythm/chord patterns isn’t innovative, clever or funny. It’s pissing all over the score, and Ms. Newman and Mr. Attwood deserve to be spanked for allowing it.
But, I’m afraid, the biggest problem with this production is something that has afflicted, to a greater or lesser extent, every single actor-musician production I’ve ever seen, and it’s very simple: MOST ACTORS DO NOT PLAY INSTRUMENTS AT THE SAME LEVEL AS PROFESSIONAL MUSICIANS. This is a relatively difficult score, and it does not emerge unscathed from this production. Some of the playing, as noted elsewhere, is surprisingly good; some of it, however, is awful, and the worst offenders are the loudest: the actors cast as Anthony and Pirelli both play trumpet very badly indeed (the brass-heavy opening chords in “God, That’s Good” are particularly excruciating – mistimed, wobbly, and when they finally arrived they were the wrong notes). Most of the singing is genuinely good, but the orchestrations get very short shrift. In the hands of some actors, musical instruments are essentially assault weapons.
And here’s where we (finally!) get back to those smug programme notes. If I hadn’t read all of that stuff before the show started, I wouldn’t have reacted as strongly to the lapses in musicianship or the occasional duff performance (I would, however, still have wanted to waterboard whoever came up with the keytar). I’m open to the idea of actor-musician productions, I get that economic realities mean that they’re not going to go away, and I’ve even enjoyed some of them – including John Doyle’s London Sweeney Todd, which was nothing like as well sung as this is, and whose staging, in some ways, was considerably odder. And I booked my ticket in advance, paid full price, and went out wanting to enjoy the show. I did enjoy some of it – but I’m afraid reading half a dozen pages of patronising bullshit about the production before the lights went down left me more inclined to pick holes than I might have been, and it’s not as if the holes weren’t visible anyway. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
And if you tell me in the programme that I’ll be getting Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, and then give me, essentially, the piano score with brass, wind, woodwind, violin and percussion embellishments, in which not every instrumental part is even played competently, I’ll be more than just irritated, particularly if I’m already irritated by your programme notes. That’s bait-and-switch, and it’s fundamentally dishonest.