Arts Review

Two Classics: Reaffirmation and Reinvention

My first encounter with Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was in the basement of my childhood home. Show-mad from an early age, yet raised in small-town Illinois, I spent my free time devouring cast albums, most supplied by our excellent local library. I memorized the golden age canon and would energetically perform entire tune-stacks, from interpretively danced overtures to rousing choral finales, for the puzzled family dog and the occasional mortified sibling. (Favorite roles: the verbose talk-singers like Harold Hill, Henry Higgins, and John Adams.) Mastering a twisty lyric or picking apart a multi-voiced ensemble from a well-known favorite was fun, but my strongest memories are of first encounters. The dizzying virtuosity of Candide that set my head spinning. The barbaric grandeur of Kismet, which sent my heart soaring. And, of course, the explosively complex, thrillingly adult early works of Sondheim. Encountering Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures as an adolescent was like looking through a window at a world of sophisticated ambivalence, delicious cynicism, conceptual modernism, and intellectualized eroticism that I hoped would soon be mine. I couldn’t quite grasp it, but I knew what it signified, and I loved it. Sondheim’s musical theater was my path, my gateway.

I was fifteen when the Sweeney Todd cast album was released in 1979, and it was the first Sondheim show that I was aware of as a contemporary composition. I can still recapture the experience of my first listen, with the LP’s helpful libretto in my lap. My pity and terror were palpable, akin to what scholars say audiences of an earlier age must have felt when encountering dramatic representations of the tragic or the uncanny. I leapt out of my chair more than a few times, startled or thrilled or just electrified by the so-muchness of the work. And the final, horrific twist in the plot elicited a yell of surprise that caused my parents to scurry downstairs in alarm. No experience of Sweeney Todd will ever top that first listen for me, and that’s inevitable with a work so reliant on surprise and subversion. I saw the first national tour eighteen months later, with Angela Lansbury’s matchless Mrs. Lovett in Hal Prince’s epic production. And I’ve seen the show dozens of times since and (almost) always enjoyed the experience. But my relation to the show now is less visceral, more analytical. I know what’s coming, so I’m more interested in how a particular production gets there.

The current Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd is the third in four decades, a fact that would have been surprising in 1979 as the initial production was considered a succès d’estime, winning raves and awards but not recouping financially. And indeed the first two revivals of the show were significantly scaled-down versions, done out of love and respect for the work but with an eye toward costs, as if acknowledging that the show was not built to be a popular hit. But, as I wrote in a piece about Into the Woods in this publication last year, something has happened to Sondheim and his oeuvre in the last decade. What had always been caviar to the general has moved to the center of the musical theater canon. A new generation of fans now see Sondheim as foundational, the way that my generation felt about Rodgers and Hammerstein. High schools and community theaters are much more likely to do Into the Woods today than Oklahoma! And show tune aficionados are more apt to perform “Losing My Mind” or “Another Hundred People” on Broadway karaoke night than “Some Enchanted Evening” or “Getting to Know You.” Sondheim is now musical theater mainstream, and audiences come to revivals of his shows with history and context. The result is an electric, hyped atmosphere which would have been astounding even fifteen years ago. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre these days, the lowering of the lights at 8:03 elicits rock-concert whoops and cheers. Sweeney Todd is no longer an arty, difficult work of modernist Grand Guignol. It is now a beloved, mainstream smash.

The current production, directed by Thomas Kail of Hamilton fame, restores the epic scale that had been missing in the previous New York revivals. A band of 26 plays Jonathan Tunick’s plush original orchestrations. A cast of 25 creates a fully populated London. And the multileveled set lets the cinematic approach indicated by Sondheim and the show’s librettist Hugh Wheeler play out seamlessly. It’s true that Sondheim had often said his original vision for the show had been chamber-sized and that Prince’s original production had superimposed an outsized—and politicized—framework. But Sweeney Todd, even if comprised of countless minute details, is conceived on a grand scale. Its melodrama, its robust humor, and its huge emotions—rage, despair, elation, passion, horror—all need room to breathe. Productions that shrink the show’s canvas weaken the grip of the narrative immersion that I felt in my basement.

Kail’s production, although imperfectly cast, succeeds in that sense of immersion. He stages confidently and fluidly and leans into the humor without hurting the drama. It helps that the audience comes primed to love the work and to appreciate Sondheim’s lyric genius. Not two minutes into the show, as the chorus sings “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” introducing the story of the murderous barber, the lines “And what if none of their souls were saved? / They went to their maker impeccably shaved,” gets an uproarious laugh, something that didn’t happen forty years ago. Throughout the performance, the audience listens with clear intent, laughing at subtle jokes and gasping at key revelations. The cast’s excellent diction, not always a given on Broadway these days, helps in this regard, as does Kail’s staging, which makes sure that every principal and chorus member is playing to the audience and not just to each other. Kail works with choreographer Steven Hoggett to give the substantial ensemble a constant stream of stylized movement which, while distracting at times, focuses attention on the important information conveyed in the choral interludes. And Kail and Hoggett succeed wildly in the moments meant to startle or terrify. Surprise entrances and grisly exits are all masterful. Whatever you do, don’t blink during the show’s final two seconds.

When casting was announced for this revival, eyebrows elevated across town. Josh Groban, the Sweeney, has made a few forays into acting, including a praised turn in the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, but he’s still primarily known as a pop singer. Annaleigh Ashford, the Mrs. Lovett, has become a beloved Broadway mainstay, but she’s generally played quirky ingenues, not hearty matrons. Both Groban and Ashford seemed rather young for their roles, although many noted that Groban is older now than Len Cariou was when he created the title role in the original production. In the end, neither actor completely overcomes the perception of callowness. Groban is committed and respectable but does not plumb the role’s depths. He can’t quite convey the sense of a damaged psyche, fixated only on violent retribution.

Ashford, as is her wont, bends everything toward her goofball pixie persona, and the approach works surprisingly well for the most part. Hers is undoubtedly the funniest Lovett I’ve ever seen, broad and indulgently jokey. At times I wished Kail had reined her in, but it’s hard to maintain discipline on a nightly basis when the audience is eating up a performer’s antics, as happens here. Fortunately, Ashford mostly comes through in the work’s serious last third. Her realization that she will have to kill her young apprentice Toby, who suspects too much, is heartbreaking. And her comprehension of her doom in the final moments is harrowing. Best of all, Groban and Ashford have real chemistry. The brilliant duet that ends the first act, “A Little Priest,” in which Sweeney and Lovett hatch their murderous/cannibalistic scheme, is hilarious. These two twisted souls crack each other up, and they bring the audience into the fun. The song may not be the cynical political statement that Sondheim perhaps intended, but it does bring the curtain down with a roar of delight.

Groban and Ashford may both be dramatically lightweight, but their singing is terrific, as is that of the entire company. This is the most sumptuously sung Sweeney Todd I’ve ever heard, and I include a half-dozen opera house productions in that reckoning. Groban, in particular, uses his suave, dark baritone with wonderful finesse, letting us really hear Sondheim’s chromatic melodies with fresh ears. Maria Bilbao brings a sparkling soprano to the hapless young Johanna, and Gaten Matarazzo (a star of Netflix’s Stranger Things) is a perfect Toby. Bass Jamie Jackson and tenors John Rapson and Nicholas Christopher superbly sing and act the villainous Judge Turpin, Beadle Bamford, and Pirelli. Best of all is Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles, gala casting in the small but critical role of the Beggar Woman. Only Jordan Fisher, as the young sailor Anthony, disappoints with a voice too pop, especially evident when surrounded by so many trained singers.

You truly GET Sweeney Todd in this revival, which has not always been the case in the past. Kail’s production is not a gloss on the piece, nor a reinvention. Rather it’s a reinvestment in the original composition’s genius with a few modern staging updates. Yes, the casting of the leads makes the work feel a bit lighter than previous productions. Both Groban and Ashford tread lightly around the horror and overemphasize the comedy. But Sweeney Todd still delivers and is more clearly a masterpiece than ever.

Add to the list of wordy leading roles that are fun to perform in childhood basements that of King Arthur in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot. Where to begin with this show, currently being revived by Lincoln Center Theater? Despite a troubled birthing, the show had a healthy original run, a best-selling cast album, a major motion picture adaptation, multiple revivals, countless stock and amateur productions, and is universally acknowledged as central to the mid-century canon. Yet at the same time, it is a “show maudit,” widely considered to be deeply flawed, and almost always panned by critics. It has also always had its defenders. I fell in love with it at an early age, thanks to the marvelous original recording, with its sweeping score and sterling performances by Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet. Later, I appreciated elements of the film version, particularly Vanessa Redgrave’s performance, despite acknowledging its serious defects. Young idealists are eternally drawn to the story of three well-meaning people who try to establish a system of civil justice and peaceful cooperation and who stumble because of their personal failings, but who create a model for the future that will bear fruit. I directed a production in college, still under the sway of its gallant fatalism in matters political and amorous. But the show has always worked better in theory than in practice. In particular, the comedic and romantic first act does not segue easily into the darkly tragic second act.

Lerner and Loewe famously faced the challenge of following up their epoch-defining My Fair Lady, but the problem with Camelot wasn’t impossible expectations. Rather, the attempt to adapt the show’s source material, T. H. White’s mammoth and staggeringly brilliant novel The Once and Future King, was always doomed. Even in a play that has always run long, Lerner’s libretto can barely scratch the surface of White’s ambitious blend of psychology, social observation, politics, and myth. Everyone loves the Camelot score, though, so revivals will never cease. Lincoln Center Theater has made a practice of lavish productions of major mid-century musicals, the four most recent directed by Bartlett Sher and designed by Michael Yeargan. Camelot was a logical choice for this series, but unlike the previous productions which were scrupulously faithful to their original texts, a decision was made to rewrite the show’s libretto in an attempt to “fix” it once and for all.

Enter the prolific Aaron Sorkin who in some ways seemed the perfect choice. Sorkin’s defining work is the television series The West Wing which is, at base, about smart, idealistic politicians trying to do the right thing in a complicated world and often failing but never losing their valiant optimism: the very plot of Camelot. Sorkin has by now written many series, films, and plays and has, in the process, developed an extremely identifiable, idiosyncratic style defined by rapid-fire debates, smart-alecky putdowns and comebacks, pious monologues, cutesy digressions, and encyclopedically heterogenous cultural references. For some, his style is exhilarating. For others, it is mannered and sanctimonious. I’ve gone on a journey with him, from revering The West Wing to finding his 2018 Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird offensively dreadful. In fact, most of Sorkin’s recent work has left me cold. When he’s not sermonizing, he’s maudlin. And he overwrites, a fault that Camelot, already long, can scarce afford.

Sorkin’s rewrite of Camelot is perhaps his most “Sorkinized” work yet. Virtually every line of dialogue has been put into the author’s distinctive voice. Every character is both grandiose and snarky, impassioned and hectoring. They all sound hyper-modern, and anything smacking of high-minded idealism or even traditional diction is immediately followed by a self-deprecating aside or a wiseacre crack. In the show’s opening scene, the young King Arthur awaits the arrival of his arranged bride-to-be Guenevere. Members of the court observe that her carriage has stopped at the bottom of the hill, not at the top as custom dictates. “This is a calamity” says one knight, to which the magician Merlyn sardonically replies: “See, I don’t think you know what the word calamity means,” a patterned response that might have been written by a Sorkinized chatbot. To be fair, everyone in the original libretto sounded like Lerner: dryly witty yet principled, with twentieth-century neuroses. This streamlining of tone has always been a problem with the show, especially when compared to White’s gorgeous multiplicity of voices in the novel: the kindly, sorrowful Arthur; the angry, brilliant Guenevere; the vain, self-loathing Lancelot. Still, Lerner managed to create a certain sense of timelessness whereas Sorkin’s dialogue already feels dated, way too reliant on contemporary turns of phrase.

Sorkin not only rewrites the dialogue, he also restructures the plot, particularly in the second act, and reframes the story in significant ways. Much of the advance publicity for this revival noted that Sorkin was removing anything that had to do with magic. Lerner, following White, incorporated magical elements into the story of Arthur’s upbringing by the wizard Merlyn and made light reference to dragons and other medieval myths although always with tongue somewhat in cheek. The delectable title song, sung by Arthur in an attempt to convince Guenevere to stay, has quasi-magical implications:


A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
In Camelot.
The winter is forbidden ’till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
In Camelot.


The implication is that the climate is magically controlled. But Sorkin is so wary of anything smacking of fairy tale that he has Guenevere complain about the imagery in “that stupid song,” which leads to Arthur responding in exasperation: “It’s just a metaphor!” And bam—just like that, the charm of the song is demolished by over-explanation. Not to mention the baffling, diegesis-destroying acknowledgment that Arthur’s description of his homeland is a “song.” Does Sorkin really mean for us to think that the character of Arthur inexplicably burst into song when wooing Guenevere? Choices like this imply that Sorkin doesn’t even understand how musicals work.

Lerner’s original libretto was also problematic. In a sequence that has often been eliminated in previous revivals, he introduced the character of the witch Morgan LeFay, Arthur’s half-sister and the aunt of Arthur’s evil bastard son, Mordred. LeFay builds an invisible wall around Arthur, imprisoning him in the forest late in the second act and preventing him from warning the adulterous Guenevere and Lancelot that Mordred is attempting to catch them in the act. Yes, it’s as silly as it sounds. Sorkin retains the character of LeFay but turns her into an alcoholic scientist who (stay with me here) is now Mordred’s mother and who was spurned because of the era’s misogyny, but who foresees the imminent age of Enlightenment. In addition to the empowered LeFay, Guenevere is now a maverick political thinker, not just a supporter of her husband. Arthur is no longer the chosen savior of his people who pulled the magical sword out of the stone but rather the lucky plebeian who happened to succeed after thousands of previous attempts loosened the weapon. All these characters are more enlightened and less interesting than Lerner’s versions, let alone White’s. Sorkin writes with a moral/political agenda, and that is usually the death of art.

Sorkin eliminates not just magic, but any sense of myth or legend, focusing instead on the politics and the psychology of the central love triangle. Those elements are also central for White and Lerner, but they exist in balance with the story’s wider resonances. Sorkin narrows the story, deflating it to make it feel “relatable.” In White and Lerner’s conception, the crushing climax of the story is the stuff of tragedy: Arthur, betrayed by Lancelot and Guenevere, is ironically forced by his own hard-won system of justice to burn his beloved wife at the stake. As an enlightened king, he must execute the law. As a loving friend and husband, he desperately wants his best friend to defy him and rescue Guenevere, even though that will mean war and the end of his ethical utopia. In Sorkin’s conception, the climax of the story is a rewritten final reunion between Arthur and Guenevere where the two confess their insecurities and inability to be vulnerable and honest during their marriage. We’ve gone from high tragedy to a couples counseling session. The final twist to the story, in which a young boy tells Arthur that he idolizes the king and his ideals, filling the defeated man with hope that future generations will pick up the torch, is central to Lerner’s vision and is copied almost precisely from White. But Sorkin treats it as a throwaway moment, as does Sher who doesn’t even bother to cast a kid who can act.

Many of the problems that Sorkin was attempting to fix were already fixed—and more successfully—in Lerner’s screenplay for the Camelot film. The references to magic, and the role of Merlyn, almost entirely disappear in the film. The quasi-magical elements in the title song are beautifully finessed by the performances of Redgrave and Richard Harris. In the middle of the song, Guenevere says to Arthur, “And I suppose the Autumn leaves fall into neat little piles?,” to which he responds, “Oh no my lady, they blow away completely! At night, of course!” At which point, both Redgrave and Harris laugh warmly and knowingly. They get that Arthur’s exaggerated claims are a charming joke and don’t need to denigrate (“stupid song”) nor overexplain (“it’s a metaphor!”). Morgan LeFay is also eliminated in the film, and a much more sensible and psychologically interesting reason is provided for Arthur’s absence from the court when Lancelot and Guenevere are discovered in flagrante delicto: Mordred dares Arthur to trust his wife and best friend, calling the king’s bluff and forcing him to agree to stay away, despite his instinctive fears. The film also frames the entire work as a flashback, easing the transition between the disparate tones in the two halves of the story. The Camelot movie’s leaden direction and problematic casting have sullied its reputation, but a compelling new version of the musical could be produced by following the screenplay’s revisions. Sorkin’s wholesale rewrite was unnecessary.

Bart Sher’s staging for Lincoln Center is chicly minimal, unlike the famously opulent original production. The massive stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater is so unencumbered by scenery, in fact, that the production seems underpopulated, despite a healthy-sized cast. Sher’s stagings are always tasteful, if usually sexless, and he casts well. Andrew Burnap, a Tony winner for 2019’s The Inheritance, is a charming Arthur, comfortable with Sorkin’s logorrhea and conveying just enough edginess to counterbalance his callow beauty. Phillipa Soo, best known as the original Eliza in Hamilton, has a vibrant presence and a lovely if slightly small voice. A signal pleasure of musical productions at Lincoln Center has always been the employment of a full orchestra—30 players in this case. And conductor Kimberly Grigsby, after a dry and rushed overture, allowed her players and the strong vocal ensemble really to sing the music, with full-throated enthusiasm and with a blessed lack of pop stylistics. A shame, then, that the score was significantly cut. The temptation song performed by Morgan LeFay and Mordred has rarely been performed since the original production and was not much missed, but the entire musicalized joust scene was gone, as were “Follow Me,” the “St. Genevieve” section of “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” the entire long verse to “How to Handle a Woman,” and half of “I Loved You Once in Silence” (which was arbitrarily transferred from Guenevere to Lancelot).

We react to Camelot today based more on external factors than on the intrinsic qualities of the show itself: our general knowledge and love of Arthurian legend, the show’s identification with the John F. Kennedy legacy, a sense of nostalgia for a time when shows like this and stars like Burton and Andrews were at the center of the national cultural conversation. Those layers of resonance have kept the show alive for six decades, the cast album always in print, and the story a part of our shared heritage. Sorkin’s intervention solves none of the problems baked into the script and ends up creating new ones. A “fixed” version of the show is probably impossible. We’ll have to live with the fact that Camelot in performance is not unlike the struggle depicted in the show’s narrative: noble yet naïve, only partially successful, and carrying a lingering hope that next time it will work better.