DVD Rental Recs: Sweeney Todd on Stage

Think you've seen Sweeney Todd? Well, before Tim Burton's cut-down, arterially sprayed movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, there were the broadcast stage productions with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone.

Toto, I don't think we're in Oklahoma anymore.

Stephen Sondheim's blackly comic and energetic operetta -- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- traces its heritage to a Victorian penny-dreadful melodrama that was itself derived from an older legend. Stage versions of the tale were popular as far back as 1847.

Because the Broadway version, and its subsequent Burton film, come powered by what Sondheim brought to the table, you've got a sure bet that this Sweeney Todd is more inventive than most Broadway fare. Sondheim's clever and meaty (sorry) lyrics come intimately braided with his multifaceted and muscular score. Courtesy of his pantheon brilliance, Sweeney Todd is musical theater for those who say they don't like musical theater; simultaneously, it's an essential masterwork for Sondheim fandom and appreciators of the form.

The original show opened on Broadway at the Uris Theater in 1979, where it played for nearly 600 performances with a production that swept the New York Drama Desk and Tony Awards. The cast featured Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Lovett), Len Cariou (Sweeney Todd), Victor Garber (Anthony Hope), Sarah Rice (Johanna), Merle Louise (Beggar Woman), Ken Jennings (Tobias) and Edmund Lyndeck as vulturous Judge Turpin.

The Angela Lansbury/George Hearn full stage production

Sweeney Todd in Concert

During the first U.S. national tour in 1980 and '81, Lansbury was joined by George Hearn, who had replaced Len Cariou in the Broadway cast. The production was eventually broadcast on PBS in 1982 and received wide critical and popular attention. Warner Home Video's DVD of that broadcast is easy to find at Amazon and other outlets.

The powerful leads and ensemble company show their stuff with every style and flavor necessary to make Sweeney Todd a feast, from its sepulchral organ prelude to lush ballads ("The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "The Barber and His Wife"), signature songs ("The Worst Pies in London," "A Little Priest"), a lovely aria ("Green Finch and Linnet Bird"), showstoppers that stick in your head for days ("Pretty Women"), tender love songs ("Johanna," "Not While I'm Around"), an Act II opener that's the most rousing celebration of cannibalism and beer ever ("God, That's Good"), and horror-show operatics ("City on Fire!").

Taped at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, this staging's blend of clever, visceral theatrics with macabre humor makes it the anti-Cats that throws Starlight Express under its own wheels. (Sondheim is to Andrew Lloyd Webber what Pixar is to Disney.) Occasionally the whole thing threatens to crack its back under the weight of its Grand Guignol gusto, but it stays light on its feet and doesn't abandon its sense of fun, like an enormous three-dimensional Edward Gorey cartoon.

This Sweeney Todd made a big splash on Showtime and PBS, winning three Emmys (one for Hearn) and three Cable Ace Awards. It was directed for TV by Terry Hughes, whose fluid camera movements and the Emmy-winning editing fit hand-in-glove with Harold Prince's original stage directing. The multi-camera choreography never interferes with the stagecraft (the movable sets are marvels of design and road-show economy) or the 30-odd performers' work. As in the DVDs of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, our virtual presence within the audience and among the actors on the stage is handled seamlessly. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better model of how to faithfully translate a live theatrical production for television.

Warner's DVD may disappoint Sondheim fans with its absence of any supporting supplements, but that deficiency is more than offset by a sterling presentation of its raison d’être. The production's original videotape and audio masters have been restored and remixed, giving us a clear, strong image and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that fills the room quite nicely. Directional tricks are sensitively restrained, with the music and dialogue shouldered well by the front speakers while the satellites offer enough support and audience applause for that "you are there" experience. If you've been living with a twenty-year-old VHS tape of this production, the clarity and breadth of the orchestration will be a revelation.

The Patti LuPone/George Hearn concert production

Sweeney Todd in Concert

Also on DVD is a 2001 minimally staged performance, Sweeney Todd in Concert, with Hearn, Patti LuPone, Neil Patrick Harris (as Toby), Audra McDonald (the Beggar Woman) and Timothy Nolen as Judge Turpin. They are backed onstage by the San Francisco Symphony.

Two decades after his Broadway run and the tour with Lansbury, George Hearn still displays the commanding presence and great voice that made his Sweeney the one a generation of theater-lovers identified as their own.

With Lansbury's elderly, rather dotty Mrs. Lovett having stamped her features onto the public's image of the role, LuPone wisely took a different approach to make the part her own. Besides being a more powerful singer than Lansbury, her pie-maker is more characteristically sensual, giving the ghoulish gourmand the cleavage and sex appeal that marks the precedent of Helena Bonham Carter's movie version. (In 2005, LuPone returned as Mrs. Lovett in John Doyle's hit Broadway revival staging of Sweeney Todd.)

Opera veteran Timothy Nolen makes Turpin a booming-voiced, physically frightening brute. His self-flagellation scene while singing his perverse version of "Johanna" -- sometimes cut from stage productions -- adds a disturbing dimension to the character that is not in the 1982 production, or in the movie, for that matter. Neil Patrick Harris surprises us with his moving Toby, positioning himself well to, in 2004, play Lee Harvey Oswald in the Broadway revival of Sondheim's Assassins.

This staging removes the sets, scene changes and dancing, instead choreographing the performers on stage among and in front of the full orchestra before a packed-house audience at Davies Symphony Hall . Even without the theatrics, this is a robust and full-throated production that never fails to find the horror and the humor in the material. PBS's website devotes several pages to this production's background, cast and performance.

Image Entertainment's DVD edition, available singly and as part of the "Stephen Sondheim Collection" boxed set, gives us a gorgeous image with excellent audio options of Dolby Digital 5.1, DD 2.0 stereo and an exquisite DTS 5.1. The chief DVD extra is a 25-minute "making of" featurette shot behind the scenes during rehearsals, with "talking head" contributions by Sondheim, LuPone, Hearn, Nolen, Harris, director Lonny Price, and more. Packaged within the keep-case is a liner booklet with "Director's Notes" by Lonny Price and a history of the Sweeney Todd story in its various incarnations.

For more on Sweeney Todd and all things Sondheim, you can't beat Sondheim.com for comprehensiveness and sheer enthusiasm.