Attend…a REALLY GOOD tale.
I believe the role of a Lutheran teacher is to foster a relationship of trust and mutual respect with a student so that they (collectively) can take advantage of academic, social and religious information, skill sets and opportunities to the fullest. It is then the Lutheran teacher’s job to provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate their understanding of the topic through practical application or performance.
Enter drama teacher, stage left.
The school where I teach and direct will offer SWEENEY TODD as part of next year’s season. The musical by Stephen Sondheim (American theatrical composer, and arguably one of the most influential composers of the last three decades) and Hugh Wheeler (book writer) is one of the most celebrated musicals of all time, garnishing a veritable trunkful of top honors including the Tony Award – Best Musical, the Drama Desk Award – Best Musical, and the Olivier Award – Best Musical (a feat that not even the likes of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or LES MISERABLES could accomplish.) It is a tale of a Victorian-era, London barber, Benjamin Barker, who is incarcerated for life under a false charge, so that a tyrannical judge may covet his wife. Barker, now 15 years later and a pale fragment of the man he once was, escapes back to London hoping to find a loving wife and child, but finds, that the city has changed, in much the same way he has. Finding out through an accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who owns a meat pie shop under his old barber shop, he finds that his wife is now dead and his daughter is being held as a ward in the same Judge’s care. Focused on revenge, Barker, who adopts the alias Sweeney Todd, seeks revenge, and cooks his victims in Lovett’s meat pies…and through a course of sub-plot twists and turns, finds that in the end, love and the cruelties of this world have blinded him. It is a poignant, humorous (oddly enough), telling and relatable tale that audiences love to be a part of. (Much in the same way 13 year-old boys root for the bad guy during a WWE wrestling match. Macho Man Randy Savage was always my favorite.) There is a savageness to the elements of the story….but we all know that wrestling is fake.
It’s a ghost story, make no mistake about that. This generation probably won’t be so anxious to sit down to the George Hearn and Angela Lansbury broadway version, because a much more accessible Johnny Depp version (with 3D blood effects) is much more attractive. That particular version is a box-office wonder, no doubt…and I enjoyed it. But Hollywood is not the stage, and movies are not theatre. They can be theatrical…but the human element of creating a stage production is ever present that in order for Sweeney Todd to work, it absolutely must have an audience….like a courtroom full of jurors ready to put to trial this man who will plead for a second chance throughout two acts. I hope the audience judges this show. This is a “musical thriller” that invites audiences to “attend” the tale of Sweeney Todd. Not listen, not observe….”attend.” Become a part of the story. The story itself is masterfully written. I regard it as living, breathing poetry for the stage. It controls, with masterful precision, dark humor and caricatures which would appear to be as superficial as Dicken’s Ghost of Jacob Marley, and yet as real as any neglectful, self-serving icon of today’s media world. Sondheim’s music, which any theatrical scholar or theatre-lover might argue, is nothing short of genius with four-part harmonies (and a one-point, overlapping four-parts of melodies) interweaving themselves into a tapestry of a time we’ve only ever thought about. It’s twisted in the same way our perception of that particular time might be.
So, why, then? Why SWEENEY TODD?
I would argue that the ugliness of this secular world and human nature in general is quite evident in nearly every musical. It’s essential to the conflict and plot resolution. When we presented INTO THE WOODS (another Sondheim classic) we presented questions regarding infidelity, sacrifice, death and greed. In ROMEO & JULIET (another show, well-received by audiences at my school) we examined suicide, betrayal and nearly every other character died a bloody death. In DRACULA (yet another thrilling offering) found us identifying with a monster, who sucks blood and turns into a bat at night. These offerings are not unlike Irving Berlin’s WHITE CHRISTMAS where one theatre patron was moved to comment that the “I Love a Piano” song was all about sexual innuendo. (?!?!?!) I reeled for a bit in disbelief, as I thought WHITE CHRISTMAS to be as innocent as the driven-snow (or in this show’s case, lack of snow) and then remembered that every patron has the right to an opinion.
How theatre is perceived is very interesting to me. There are those that won’t bat an eye at a production of GREASE. (Heck, a year deosn’t go by when our 8th graders don’t perform a lip sync competition to “Greased Lightning!”) One might argue that this seemingly innocent story is a stereotype of a “rebel without a cause” era and therefore “good clean dirt.” I argue, any story “without a cause”, even one that goes against morality, is bad storytelling. Even those hardened atheists out there would have a very hard argument against the fact that the Bible contains brilliant parables about morality.
Perception is often based on an individuals’ relationship to this world. But, you see that’s what’s so glorious about the theatre: people bring their own feelings, relationships and personal insights to the venue. It’s what works within them as they contemplate the story and character’s dilemma. It’s what motivates them to come to conclusions at the end of the show as to whether or not they enjoyed the production. I’m sure there will be some people that won’t categorize Sweeney Todd in their top ten. But it’s this same personal insight that also influences them to choose Fruit Loops over Bran Flakes in the cereal aisle. Fruit Loops are better…and that’s their choice and opinion…and they’re not wrong for feeling that way.
These offerings are essential to the Christian high school student looking to learn more from or make a career in the theatrical arts. I would argue that in the secular works of this Darwinistic world, these are stories worth telling, as they challenge our sensibilities, asking us to decipher good from evil, truth from fallacies and right from wrong. As artists (in design offstage and as performers onstage) it is essential that we find God in our work. As a theatre teacher and director, it is my privilege to put in front of the students productions that I believe will be well-generated examples that would serve this purpose well. Shows like JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, while a wonderful, engaging (and successful) theatrical offering, guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even those who sit in the back pew on Sunday, on the flip side, from a content structure standpoint, it’s a flawed show (in my opinion), as it doesn’t reflect on God’s saving grace, and leaves those who are unchurched little connection to the ultimate goal, which I would assume is to invite an audience to attend the tale of a lost man who is wronged. In that particular story, all ends happily with bright-sparkly jazz hands. Does this make it a show “not worth doing?” Not necessarily. Rather I might argue it is worth the investment, as it provides an opportunity to learn more. As a teacher, it’s a win-win opportunity.
The value of a ghost story about another wronged man that ends tragically and with the villain (which we find ourselves strangely a bit sympathetic with) meeting his end due to his naivety, is equally important. It’s the same reason the Bible story of Job is valuable. (He maintains his love for the Lord regardless of all that happens to him.) In the case of SWEENEY TODD, we challenge the audience to think about what would happen should “Job-y Todd” lose his faith…and instead run from the deliverance of evil in hot pursuit of a revenge he believes he needs.
The world of theatre is an escape from reality and will always be presented as a means by which to discover anew the value of one’s mind, heart, soul and faith. It interrupts the artificial sensibilities we possess, that of a hot-bed media conglomerate, wrought with agenda that interrupts our perception of how and who we should be according to our faith. In the end moments of Sweeney Todd, the ensemble sings “To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it and seldom as well.”
SWEENEY TODD is not unlike any other theatrical production. It’s a love story about a man who was wronged and hopes only to return to a reality he once new in the comforts of the only love he had. He’s a killer yes. (So is Dexter, Dorothy Gail from Kansas, nearly every Shakespearean protagonist, David, Sampson, Cain, etc.) These wonderfully relatable characters serve as foils for deeper meaning. In Sweeney’s feverish pursuit, he forgets that sometimes the blessings we so richly are afforded by a loving God, are right in front of our faces. (“Don’t I…know you…mister…?”) *For those of you who know the show…you know what I mean. For those of you who don’t…you’ll see what I mean.
I look forward to producing this musical. But, more importantly, I look forward to providing an opportunity for my students to practice (through their own skill-sets and sensibilities) delivering a thrilling story that will charge an audience to think about the world around them and their station in it. I will ask them to find God within the work and demonstrate an understanding of why there might just be a little bit of Sweeney in all of us. (“Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?”) It is my hope that the audience might be able to relate to elements in the story, much like I hoped that we might relate with two estranged ogres last year (more fictitious characters). The brandishing of a razor…the flouring of a meat pie….the trapped song bird….that’s all beautiful, symbolic elements of a love story set to the stage and served up with a bit of a jolt. (Like the feeling one gets when they ALMOST has a fender-bender in the afternoon traffic.) I hope patrons leave thinking “Thank God.” We should be so lucky to have a loving God that we can trust in when we are awoken to the dangers of the world.
I appreciate, more than words, that I have an administration that trusts that our production of SWEENEY TODD will be presented with artistic and creative integrity and a clear vision that would challenge students to look beyond the opportunity to merely “play a bad guy”. I hope you’ll attend.