Since lyrics are meant to be heard, not read, they don’t really come to life without the music they were born with. But it’s heartening to see that the Sweeney lyrics don’t lie entirely flat on the page. The same holds true for Hugh’s libretto. It was written to be acted, but it’s still a decent read and, considering how brief it is, a model of concise theatrical storytelling. All of which made the annotating more enjoyable than I had anticipated.
First edition, signed, with two musical quotations. Sondheim’s extensive and fascinating annotations give us a beautifully detailed commentary about not only the creation of this work–its casting, its lines, the stagecraft–but about his techniques as a lyricist and composer. Rarely has a creative artist revealed so much of his artistry on the page. On casting: “Len Cariou was left-handed, as was George Hearn, his replacement, so I had to cut the ‘right’” in the line “My right arm is complete again!” ”… “I usually write a score in chronological order, but I wrote this [“By the Sea”] right after “Worst Pies” so that I could entice Angela [Lansbury] into playing Mrs. Lovett by showing her two different colors of the character (chattery and music-hall) she could play.” On characterization: “To give this song [“Kiss Me”] some flavor and to give Johanna some individuality, I emphasized her airheadedness and her being perpetually on the verge of hysteria—both Johanna and Anthony are intended to be comic roles.” Alongside Sweeney’s lines, “a great black pit / And it’s filled with people / Who are filled with shit,” Sondheim writes: “so that the audience (the Broadway audience) doesn’t fear they’re at Masterpiece Theatre.”
As Mrs. Lovett explains Sweeney’s background, Sondheim tells us; “Exposition is always better sung, but audiences often don’t pay attention to lyrics—so I had it acted out.” On composition: “Finding rhythmically feasible and rhymable professions” for “A Little Priest” “required compiling about a hundred of them.” On the opening number of Act II: “My favorite kind of number to write: contrapuntal plotting.” He finds fault with some lines: “Unfortunately a repeat of the joke [“my closest shave!”] at the end of the Pirelli scene, but I couldn’t think of another one.”… “Meant to get a laugh [“Open me gate, but dock it straight”], which it seldom did.” He discusses creative differences with Hal Prince, over the industrial scenery, for example, or a line in which Sondheim wanted to write “You can have your pick, sir, of the boys or girls!” and Prince censored it to just “girls.” “Hal objected vigorously” to the bi-sexual innuendo, Sondheim writes, “and I didn’t think it was worth fighting for.” And he confesses (p.126) “I loved to stroll down the side aisles of the theater and watch the audience drop its jaws at the shock of the throat-slitting in the middle of a flowing ballad.”
SONDHEIM, Stephen (b. 1930). Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1979. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Based on a version of “Sweeney Todd” by Christopher Bond. Production directed by Harold Prince. 8°. Original boards (joint split); dust jacket.