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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