Monday, April 17, 2023

Musical Revivals II: Sweeney Todd and Camelot

Annaleigh Ashford and Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd.

Despite the intermittently brilliant Stephen Sondheim score and a superb cast headed by Len Cariou and an unforgettable Angela Lansbury, I had a medium cool experience with the original 1979 Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. It felt inflated, overproduced (a response I have had to a few other Prince shows), and determined to make a statement competitive with that of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which was the obvious inspiration for Sondheim, book writer Hugh Wheeler and Prince. But the material, a grisly horror derived from Christopher Bond’s 1973 rewrite of a mid-Victorian melodrama, is thin. At the end of the first act, thinking he’s missed his chance to murder the  corrupt Judge Turpin, who trumped up a charge against him and had him transported so he could get his mitts on Sweeney’s innocent wife Lucy, Sweeney, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” sings “Epiphany,” in which he decides that he’s going to visit his frustrated revenge on his customers because “they all deserve to die.” And Mrs. Lovett, his landlady, who runs a pathetic pie shop with the only stringy meat she can afford, comes up with the scheme of using the corpses to make her wares sweeter and juicier.  Todd loves the idea, so they become business partners. In the first-act finale, “A Little Priest,” he argues that since society is built on men devouring each other, he and Mrs. Lovett might as well make the metaphor literal. “A Little Priest” is a wonderful burlesque-style novelty number constructed on a series of increasingly funny puns about their imagined victims. But it’s not exactly “The Second Threepenny Finale” (“What keeps a man alive? He lives on others”). Sweeney Todd is a cleverly devised penny dreadful, not a social satire.

What turned me around about the musical was the 2005 Broadway revival, directed by John Doyle, which had begun life in the West End. Starring Michael Cerveris as Sweeney and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, it was leaner and tighter than the original, with ingenious Brechtian effects – and it made no attempt to sell itself as profound social commentary. The new Sweeney Todd, directed by Thomas Kail, with musical direction by Alec Lacamoire – both Hamilton alumni – is almost as good as Doyle’s. And it has an even better Mrs. Lovett than LuPone, Annaleigh Ashford, whom I loved in Dogfight and the 2014 revival of You Can’t Take It with You (with James Earl Jones) and the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park with George (where she played opposite Jake Gyllenhaal). She’s amazing. Slighter and more kinetic than her predecessors, Ashford looks like a devilish rag doll, and every physical choice she makes – and many of her vocal ones (like switching keys twice in the middle of her show-stopping first song, “The Worst Pies in London”) – is inspired. When she played this role Lansbury embodied the play’s music-hall origins, while LuPone’s numbers were like Brecht and Weill done as punk rock. Ashford is lighter on her feet and loonier, and her performance harks back to revue comedy – specifically to Imogene Coca, who partnered Sid Caesar so sublimely in the live TV days.

Her Sweeney is Josh Groban. For almost all of act one I thought he was adequate – considerably more than adequate when he sang, but with a limited expressive range. “Epiphany” may be pretentious, a big-boned musical-theatre solo masquerading as an aria, but it had power when Len Cariou performed it and even more power when Michael Cerveris did; in this version, Groban’s vocal finesse has to compensate for what he doesn’t have the acting chops to deliver. But when Ashford shifts them into the duet by hinting, ever more broadly, about what she has in mind for his victims, and suddenly he figures it out, Groban’s dropped jaw and dazed facial expression are explosively funny. Of course it’s Kail who figured out how to stage this moment for maximum effect, but it’s Groban who has to carry it off, and he sure as hell does. “A Little Priest” is joyously, exuberantly enjoyable: the two stars perform it like a pair of old-pro vaudevillians who still know how to catch each other off guard and crack each other up. To be fair, Ashford springs most of the surprises, but he looks blissful, as if he’s having more fun than he ever dreamed possible. And in act two, when she serenades him with “By the Sea,” desperate to sell him on wedded bliss (she’s lusted after him for years), her sexual forthrightness makes our eyes pop. She even gives him a lap dance.

I’ve never been as aware as in this production of Todd and Lovett and Tobias – who moves into her house after his boss, the second-rate barber Pirelli (skillfully played by Nicholas Christopher), recognizes the escaped convict and makes the fatal error of trying to blackmail him – as a fucked-up edition of a family. Mrs. L. practically drags Mr. T. into bed, but he barely seems to notice; only the thought of revenge, on Judge Turpin (a mediocre Jamie Jackson) and his right-hand man Beadle Bamford (a marvelous John Rapson), seems to be able to give him an erection. And as Toby, Gaten Matarazzo, of the TV series Stranger Things, is distinctly creepy: when he sings “Not While I’m Around” to Mrs. Lovett, whom he’s taken to like the mother he never had, his aggressive protectiveness sends chills up your spine. (And for all her maternal affection, she’s more than willing to send him to his doom when he starts to suspect that his old employer met an unnatural end.)

Ruthie Ann Miles sings the mad Beggar Woman’s music in a lower octave than expected, and the result is that her ejaculations aren’t so piercing and tiresome. Miles is very good, and so is Maria Bilbao as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter, who became the judge’s ward while he was in prison – and whom he intends for his bride, locking her up in an asylum when she makes other plans with the sailor Anthony, who saved Todd’s life on the high seas. As Anthony, Jordan Fisher has neither the vocal gifts nor the affability the part demands, and my memories of the young Victor Garber in 1979 and Benjamin Magnuson in 2005 are very strong. My only other criticism of this version of Sweeney Todd concerns Steven Hoggett’s choreography, which works well in the “God, That’s Good!” ensemble number at the top of the second act but looks sloppy and affected everywhere else. It’s a pity that Andy Blankenbuehler couldn’t join his Hamilton associates this time around. Visually the show is simply magnificent – Mimi Lien’s sets, Emilio Sosa’s costumes and especially Natasha Katz’s lighting keep faith with Kail’s notion to make the musical look like a German expressionist movie (Murnau’s Nosferatu is the one that comes most readily to mind). His Sweeney Todd is the best kind of crowd pleaser.

Phillipa Soo and Andrew Burnap in Camelot. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I might have guessed the fate of the Lincoln Center revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1960 Camelot, given that the musicals of Broadway’s golden age have been the special target of the woke movement in contemporary American theatre and everything I’ve read in the last couple of months about the original version has been so stupid. The self-proclaimed arbiter of woke, New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green, penned a “think piece” about the problematic portrayal of leaders on stage in which he conveniently rewrote the plot of Camelot to make his argument work. A profile of Aaron Sorkin, who has rewritten Lerner’s book, in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago alluded to the challenges of restaging a musical with a more-or-less misogynistic song, “How to Handle a Woman,” and a more-or-less classist one, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?,” though the first isn’t misogynistic and the second isn’t classist – unless you think that any acknowledgement of class divisions in Medieval England is inherently offensive, in which case perhaps you shouldn’t bother reading history. And much as I love Sorkin’s best work, on The West Wing and in his back-to-back movies, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Being the Ricardos, in his last collaboration with the director Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird, he couldn’t resist the temptation of making explicit everything that Harper Lee deliberately didn’t. Sher’s production was terrific, but Sorkin’s emendations were overstated and anachronistic. Still, hope springs eternal. I love Camelot, which I saw on Broadway with the original cast and have never forgotten, and I love what Sher did with South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady.

And if it isn’t everything one might have wished for, for the first act, at least, the show, which I saw a few days before the end of previews, is quite entertaining. The scene where the young King Arthur (Andrew Burnap) and the French Princess Guenevere (Phillipa Soo) meet – she, having been offered by her father in marriage to Arthur in order to end a war, runs away from her carriage and happens upon her intended without knowing who he is – is as charming as it was sixty-three years ago (Sorkin has left it pretty much as Lerner conceived it), and it’s clear by its conclusion that, much to both her surprise and his, they’ve fallen in love. Dakin Matthews, double cast as Arthur’s tutor Merlyn and the aging quester Pellinore (who becomes his adviser and confidant), is at his ticklish best. Jordan Danica, cast as Lancelot, wasn’t in the performance I saw, but his standby, Matías de la Flor, sang “C’est Moi” with just the right blend of earnestness and oblivious vanity. And Soo is a splendid Guenevere: saucy, tart, in every way her royal husband’s match in wits, and sexy into the bargain. Her singing is lush and dramatic – hardly news to Hamilton fans – and she leads the dance in “The Lusty Month of May” (nicely choreographed by Byron Easley) expertly.

But you do take note of the problems, which worsen exponentially after intermission. One is the inescapable challenge of producing a huge, expensive golden age musical in 2023, especially on the immense Vivian Beaumont stage. Sher has a cast of twenty-two, and he needs forty. It’s hard to believe we’re in Camelot during the age of the Round Table when there are exactly nine knights and six ladies in the ensemble. Michael Yeargan, who has collaborated with Sher on all his musicals, has opted this time for a pared-down scenic design, and though it’s typically elegant and typically ingenious, it makes the stage look even emptier. (Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are gorgeous, particularly the ones she’s devised for Soo.)

A more pressing problem is Sorkin’s decision to eliminate the supernatural. He must believe that he’s making the narrative more meaningful to a contemporary audience, but Camelot is a fairy tale, so if you omit the magic, you cut down on the musical’s pleasures. And I haven’t noticed that audiences get impatient with the fantasy in the Lord of the Rings pictures or the Harry Potter pictures. Since fairy tales were invented, magic has always served as a metaphor; if Sorkin is so damn literal-minded, maybe he’s not the right person to adapt the King Arthur legend. His Merlyn isn’t a magician, just a sage who dies of old age instead of being bewitched by the nymph Nimue. More preposterously, Morgan Le Fey (Marilee Talkington) isn’t a sorceress who has kept herself young with magic potions but the first scientist in history, though her lecture to Arthur in the second act about how science will turn the world upside down – Sorkin at his most infuriatingly didactic – sounded to me like rhetoric she couldn’t possibly have whipped up without a crystal ball.  Anyway, leaving out the supernatural throws obstacles in the path of the storytelling. Sorkin wisely left in the fine speech Lerner wrote for Arthur in which he explains how he became king by pulling a sword out of a stone, but since doing so was an act of magic and he’s supposed to be getting rid of all that, Sorkin has to make Guenevere into a skeptic who insists that the 999 people who failed before Arthur succeeded must have loosened it. (This explanation is so dopey that it makes you a little embarrassed for Sorkin.) Then, when Lancelot, challenged in a tournament by the three deftest swordsmen at court because his boasting has turned them – and Guenevere – against him, not only defeats all three but brings the third one back from the dead, the play has to try to reason away another supernatural act.

In Sorkin’s rewrite, the jousting isn’t deadly; it’s merely a trio of swordfights. Arthur isn’t worried about injuries, except to the pride of the three knights, Dinadan (Anthony Michael Lopez), Lionel (Danny Wolohan) and Sagramore (Fergie Philippe – all three act and sing well), so he steps in for the last of them to save his face. (He “dies” or falls unconscious or whatever the hell we’re supposed to think he does because Lance accidentally bops him over the head with a broadsword.) So the tournament isn’t terribly exciting. I think the lowering of the dramatic stakes here is part of Sorkin’s effort to make the characters smaller, as if doing so would make them more human. But why would we care more about an Arthur who’s as lightweight as Sorkin has drawn him and Andrew Burnap is playing him? This was a role that Richard Burton played on Broadway and Richard Harris played in the (underrated) 1967 movie, for God’s sake. The Arthur of the legend is a royal; when he pulls the sword from the stone, he’s a teenage boy who is squire to his cousin Sir Kay, and, having forgotten Kay’s own sword en route to a tournament, he decides on the spur of the moment to borrow one he happens upon in the town square. In this version, however, Arthur is just a squire, until he lucks into a kingship. Sorkin wants to graft American democracy onto a plot set in the Middle Ages. Moreover, this King Arthur isn’t just challenging the ideas that might makes right and civilization is better than barbarism; he also has to deal with his knights’ class consciousness and their sexism. It’s almost as dunderheaded as his turning Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird into a Trumper.

The myth about Camelot is that the second act of Lerner’s book is a disaster. But many, many musicals, including some wonderful ones, have second-act problems, and considering how much depth Lerner brought to the writing of this one, its particular second-act problems (the main one is Arthur’s villainous illegitimate son Mordred, who never rises above the level of a plot device) have never seemed to me to be such a big deal. What drives it through is a combination of the potency of the subject matter, the complexity of the characters of Arthur and Guenevere and the poignancy of the narrative – a tragedy that is at the same time a eulogy for a great idea that, the hope against hope is, could rise like a phoenix from the flames. It’s a romance, in the Shakespearean sense. But not if you whittle away at its grandeur, as Sorkin insist on doing. He even hacks away at the iconic love story. Camelot is about a great king whose wife, the woman he adores most in the world, falls in love with his best friend, the man he loves most in the world. In the beautiful speech Lerner wrote for Arthur to end act one (which, of all things, I wish most fervently Sorkin hadn’t screwed with), he underscores that love and sets aside his anger and jealousy because he’s not just a man but a king, and a civilized king. It’s a musical about being human and about reaching for the stars. But the love story only works emotionally if it’s centered on three adults who all love each other equally. After showing us Guenevere and Arthur falling in love in the opening scene, Sorkin seems to be telling us that it isn’t really love, that we must have heard wrong. And then, in their last scene together, he changes his mind: they declare, out of the blue, that they’ve loved each other all along. It’s like an ineptly structured romantic comedy.

I’ve never thought for a moment that Lerner’s original book was a fiasco. But Sorkin evidently does, and here’s the irony: he winds up turning it into one.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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