Of the many things I love about the theater, near the top is this – shows almost never turn out to be exactly what I expect. Of course, it’s common to find that some elements rise to the level I hope for, while others don’t. But I’m often surprised by exactly what those elements are.
Sweeney Todd is a work I know well. I’ve seen and taught it many times. I’m familiar with most of the cast of the NYPO production, some of whom have done the show before. Yet, I could not have predicted that Emma Thompson, about whom I had doubts, turned out to be one of the production’s greatest strengths. Or that the great Audra McDonald nearly brought Sweeney to a crashing halt.
Here are some selective, highly opinionated observations on the telecast of NYPO’s Sweeney. I hope you’ll feel free to share your own opinions!
- Opera or Musical? As any aficionado knows, this is an artificial distinction, but nonetheless – I’ve now seen Sweeney productions with casts drawn entirely from musical theatre, and others where are the performers are (to use a term I don’t like, but can’t think of a better one) classical singers. I’ve come to think a mix is best, especially for the two leads. Todd’s music is really difficult for anyone other than an opera singer to completely realize (among theatre performers I’ve heard, Brian Stokes Mitchell came closest). On the other hand, the opera singers I’ve seen as Mrs. Lovett – even the best of them (Felicity Palmer) – sounded too concerned with vocal placement, and not sufficiently at ease with the idiom. For Mrs. Lovett, I’d rather have a theatre singer. That’s my preference for the rest as well – theatre singers, whose style more consistenly evokes the world of Victorian music hall that is foundational for so much of Sweeney. Casting in the NYPO production follows this template pretty much exactly, which I found very satisfying. More about the principals in a minute, but first I’ll mention the supporting team – Jay Armstrong Johnson (Anthony), Erin Mackey (Johanna), Jeff Blumenkrantz (Beadle), Kyle Brenn (Tobias) – who collectively did as well as any I’ve seen and heard.
- Direction. I’ve been a non-fan of Lonny Price’s previous NYPO musical stagings, which I found gimmicky and over-busy. Here, he was on his best behaviour, with a truly inspired opening (I won’t spoil it – see it for yourselves). The rest of the show doesn’t reach the same level, but it’s cleanly staged, and lays out the story in a way that’s comprehensible – not easy to do in a concert format.
- Emma Thompson. Mostly sensational, and even knowing that she’d had early success in musicals, she surprised the hell out of me. It’s a real voice with amplitude and color, and she managed the register breaks beautifully.
- Bryn Terfel. His voice is one of the glories of opera in the last decade, and though it’s now looser and leaner than it used to be, it’s still a wonderful instrument, ideally suited to Todd. Terfel looks perfect, too, and does an honorable attempt to act it, but there’s not a lot of nuance. It’s pretty much one-note – baleful glumness – throughout.
- Philip Quast. Luxury casting, indeed, at least in theory. Quast has the vocal goods to play Sweeney – it’s a lovely sound, full of color. (I remember him as a touching Emile de Becque at the National Theatre more than a decade ago.) In my first, admittedly cursory watching of Sweeney, I was very taken with him. Later, though, a very knowledgeable friend pointed out that Quast wasn’t very exact musically, and upon more careful listening, I’m afraid I agree. I still love the voice, and think he’s an elegantly understated actor, but…
- Christian Borle. Borle’s goofy appeal, which others find so winning, leaves me cold. No, more than that – it actually grates. What I see here (and in most of his performances) is a lot of self-regard, but a minor talent, which, through sheer luck, has been pressed into service regularly in works and roles beyond him. Here, he lacks menace, a ringing tenor… pretty much everything I want in a Pirelli.
- Audra McDonald. I have never bought into the idea that the Beggar Woman should be a star cameo – it disrupts the action, and undermines critical layers of mystery and discovery. Still, I enjoyed Audra McDonald on the recorded NYPO Sweeney from 2000 – the luxury of her voice was reward enough. This time, she went over the top with disastrous results. I assume McDonald herself can’t be held responsible for the video direction, where cameras functioned like heat-seeking missiles, isolating her in a crowd. But the oversinging, febrile overemoting, and general grandstanding? Who else are we to blame?
That’s it for me. What did you think?
I had the joy of seeing this in person, though I caught the one performance that Audra did not appear in. Still, that’s probably for the best – I’ve seen her many times and I can see that too much focus was placed on her in the TV version. I’m in total agreement with you on all the other points, though I wasn’t as amused by the opening gag as others were. For me, Price’s best concert directing work was on “Company,” with its opening number staged effectively as I’ve ever seen.
Watching on TV did give me the chance to see not only Audra, but Jeff Bluemenkrantz, who, by virtue being almost always stage left, was totally blocked from my view in a house right box. One thing the TV presentation did not put across as well was the detail and nuance of the orchestra. Being only a casual classical music fan, I often wonder why fans prefer one conductor over another or how they can spot the differences in performance of the same piece of music. With “Sweeney,” a score and orchestration I know backwards and forwards, I got my answer. I thought the NY Phil brought out tones and subtleties not often heard – especially during the opening number and “Green Fitch and Linnet Bird.” Mind you, I was watching on a (relatively) small tv in my bedroom – perhaps if I’d had it plugged in through my surround system, it would have been closer to the live experience.
I understand the two leads will be reprising their performances in a London concert soon. I hope this marks Emma Thompson’s return to musical theater. What other great roles are out there waiting for her to sing?