Archive for August 2011

The Wrong Barbershop   Leave a comment

I saw Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street when it came out during Christmas break in 2007. I was inspired to do a little comic based off it. I finished the final panel, but then classes started up again and I never got around to finishing it. I had already scanned the drawing and colored it on the computer, however, so whenever I opened my Pictures folder, it was there near the top of the window, taunting me with cries of “Ben! Ben! Finish me!”

Then in spring 2009 a touring company performed the show at the “Collins” Sorry-but-it-will-always-be-the-“Maine-center-for-the-Arts”-in-my-mind-and-I’m-pretty-miffed-that-they-thought-they-could-just-rename-it Center for the Arts. This staging was a bit of an artsy departure from the show’s original version. Sweeney Todd is written for a 27-piece orchestra and a cast of thirty. The minimalist re-imagining of the show that I saw had only ten performers, doubling as actors and as the orchestra, the characters taking their instruments with them onstage. The musical is presented as being performed by the patients and staff of a mental institution, a performance-within-a-performance. The performance opens with white coated assistants bringing a young man in straight jacket onto stage, releasing him from his restraints and giving him a violin. The assistants pick up their instruments, the main characters enter with theirs, and the musical begins.  This all sounds a bit pretentious and confusing, but it worked beautifully.

Personally, I enjoyed the live performance much more than I did the film. Onstage, the sight of a throat being slit with a straight razor is horrifying, as it ought to be; on film, the graphic realism of the scene comes off as more gory than anything else. And of course a performance is always so much more thrilling to see when it’s live.

Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street premiered on Broadway in 1979, with Len Cariou in the title role and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney Todd first appeared as the antagonist of The String of Pearls, a penny dreadful serial published from 1846-47. It was adapted as a melodrama for a London theater by George Dibden Pitt in 1847, before the published serial had even concluded. Several versions of the story were published in the years that followed, and it became a staple of British melodrama and an urban legend through the remainder of the century. There were at least a dozen literary, stage, radio, film and television adaptations of the story over the next century and a quarter. In 1973, Christopher Bond play Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street re-imagined the character not simply as a serial-killer but as a wronged man, Benjamin Barker, who has returned to England after years in exile to seek revenge against the judge who conspired to have him wrongfully imprisoned, raped and destroyed his wife and stole his daughter. In 1979, Stephen Sondheim took Bond’s play, turned it into a musical and created a classic.

In the beginning of this August the School of Performing Arts at UMaine put on a performance of the show, which I made certain to attend. It was an excellent performance.

On a related note, watching it  me go back to the piece I’d started four and a half years ago and finally complete it. Boys and girls, attend the tale of Osmond Fuzzbottom and his unfortunate late Uncle Prinkel.

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Burn your country down   Leave a comment

Sometimes, when people are angry and desperate and marginalized, they do things that no rational person would ever think of doing. Honestly, though, people behave stupidly even in the best of times. The human mind is an incredible thing, but it’s only so strong, and sometimes doing the right thing is just too hard for some people to deal with.

What I’m getting at is that England is burning, and the people who are doing the burning are from the English underclass. These are the people who have fallen through the cracks of society. Joblessness and poverty are a way of life for them. Many of them are minorities and immigrants. Desperation, violence and and drug use are rampant in the places where they live, and racism and police harassment aren’t unknown to them. Last Thursday, on Aug. 4, a black man named Mark Duggan was involved in a confrontation with police near his home in an area of London called Tottenham. He was allegedly a cocaine dealer and a member of a gang and he was carrying a loaded handgun. Police reported that he fired at them, but that bullet was identified as a police bullet, which must have ricocheted. A protest on Saturday, Aug. 6 was staged by Duggan’s friends and family as well as community leaders and neighbors, and about 200 people wound up in front of the Tottenham police station demanding to speak with police. I suppose the presence of a crowd of outraged people looked similar enough to an angry mob to spark some good ol’ fashioned mob mentality, and before long a demented orgy of looting, vandalism, violence and arson was under way. It spread through London and to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol and other cities across England, and it’s continued every evening since.

What started off as anger over a man’s death quickly devolved into a brutal free-for-all almost completely devoid of any reasonable sense or human decency. Whatever it is that normally encourages the members of the human race to treat each other with respect and decency and keeps them from slaughtering each other has vanished for these people.

I’m struck by how different this scene is from the scenes of the uprisings across the Arab world. Those people, too, suffered from unemployment, police brutality and bleak futures, but when those crowds gathered, they stood together trying to construct a better future for their societies. In Cairo, the only looting being done was by pro-government forces trying to discredit the opposition; the protesters formed neighborhood patrols to put an end to the thuggery.

And of course I can’t help but look at the Tea Party and think that they’re doing the same damn thing to our country. They haven’t set anything on fire, of course – they’re a bit more subtle than that. What they have done is worked tirelessly to destroy nearly every single thing that makes our country great: our welfare system, our unions, the protection of our environment, freedom of religion, the conservation of our natural resources, and the idea that everyone – no matter who they are, no matter their race, background, beliefs or even nationality – is one of our fellow human beings whose rights and whose life and whose dignity must be respected and protected. After a watered-down version of the GOP’s effort to balance our massive deficit on the backs of everyone other that the super wealthy passed, Vice-President Biden said that Tea Party Republicans “acted like terrorists” during the course of the debt ceiling debate. The Tea Party, of course, was outraged and replied that they were no terrorists, they were patriots! And the terrifying thing is that they really seem to think that the things that they’re doing, the things that are undoing decades of work by progressives to make the United States of America a better country and a better place to live in, are good things to do. As do the rioters in England. Rational thought, of course, would tell us that destroying your country is a pretty terrible idea, but it seems that destruction is just too fun for some people to resist.

But all hope certainly isn’t lost. As long as people like this awesome lady are around, I have faith that things can still be turned around, no matter how bad it gets. (This lady’s speech is fantastic, but she does use the F-word pretty liberally, so heads up before you watch this.)