Sweeney Todd

The Royal Opera House, Friday 9 January 2004


Review by Emma Shane

© January 2004


Can Opera Singers, and British Opera singers at that do musicals? Should the Royal Opera House be putting on Sondheim? And is Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd a Musical or an Opera?


Well in answer to the last question, Sweeney Todd is one of Sondheim’s more operatic-type pieces, both in terms of the singing styles required for certain characters (such as Johanna, and also Anthony); besides which, I think there are quite a few composers whose work bridges the divide between Opera and Musical Theatre. Composers such as Arthur Sullivan, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, and now Stephen Sondheim can’t really be entirely categorised as one thing or the other, and why should they be? However, when their work is sung by opera singers, it does make a difference if the Musical Director, musicians, and singers, are sensitive to the work in question, and interpret the music with feeling, rather than just technique. The big question, to my mind was whether the singers in this production would do that? The casting for this production is illustrious; and I already knew that some of the singers would be capable of performing this piece as performers rather than just singers: Thomas Allen after all has sung extremely well on quite a number of Musical Theatre recordings, William Dazeley has proved himself very capable of singing the odd showtune on BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night, while Rosalind Plowright demonstrated that nobody does it like she does in Two’s A Crowd. But what about the rest of the cast, in general, and leading lady Felicity Palmer in particular?


The show, or should I call it “the piece”, starts with the chorus on stage. Almost immediately one feels it’s going to be a pretty good production. The chorus sing clearly, perhaps benefiting from having Terry Edwards as their Chorus Master, he occupied that role on many of John McGlinn’s EMI Classics studio cast recordings of various musicals. Now for the principals. First of all, of course Sweeney Todd himself (Thomas Allen), and his sailor friend Anthony (William Dazeley). It is soon apparent that Thomas Allen lives up to his reputation for being able to act, William Dazeley is also entirely satisfactory. Just as they are taking their leave of each other, a minor, or perhaps not so minor, prinicpal comes on, The Beggar woman (Rosalind Plowright), begging for alms for a poor woman, and half way through this, raising the hem of her skirt to reveal her bloomered legs (in a manner which might make one think of the girls raising their legs in Can Can). When I saw a production of this piece at The Bridewell Theatre a few years ago, this was one character who spent most of the first act being pretty much unnoticeable. But in this production, such is Rosalind Plowright’s stage presonce, we simply can’t help but notice her as a defined character, from the moment she appears. Which is quite possibly a good thing, because it establishes this mysterious character so much better.


Sweeney has to find himself lodgings, and there is only one place he wants to go, Mrs Lovett’s pie shop.  A deft piece of scene changing, involves several of the chorus wheeling on a barrow-like table, which Mrs Lovett (Felicity Palmer), is perched. Once in position on stage she steps off it, and the barrow is then put down in position to form her table. It’s really quite an entrance, and very effective. Having entered she promptly launches into The Worst Pies In London. When you have a Sondheim song and indeed a role that has been inhabited on the London stage by such artistes as Julia McKenzie and Jessica Martin amongst others, its a hard act to follow, and with this first number that was much apparent. Although Felicity Palmer’s performance of the number was quite adequate, one was aware of how well this song has been done in the past. But it was only the first number, and there are quite a few good performers in London’s West End alone who have been known to not really quite come into their own in a role until after their first number (by the time of their second they’re full of fiery brilliance), as it turns out, operatic star Felicity Palmer might be just such a performer too. For having finished her first aria, she got very much into acting her role, and acted it very well, so well in fact, that one could forget all the other fine actresses who’ve played the part.

                Having partaken of some refreshment, Sweeney Todd enquires about the room above the shop, if times are so hard why isn’t it let? Mrs Lovett promptly explains, Poor Thing, that everyone believes the room the be haunted, because it used to be occupied by a barber and his wife, but a judge and a beadle conspired to have him convicted, and then invited the wife to the judges home where she was raped and subsequently swallowed poison. The Judge adopted, their infant daughter. Then Mrs Lovett recognises Sweeney, he is that very same barber Benjamin Barker. She goes over to a trap door in the stage, and pulls out a box, which she presents to him, his razors, which she has kept hidden for him these fifteen years. Sweeney is delighted, My Friends, now he can be a barber again. Thomas Allen sings wonderfully clearly, and with convincing conviction.


Every scene change in this show, involves one or more of the performers, usually (but not always) members of the gentleman’s chorus, dragging white curtains across the stage. Anthony also enters. We are now outside Judge Turpin’s house, at a window (represented by lowering a rail across the stage and having members of the chorus push on a balcony on wheels, upon which Johanna (Rebecca Evans) is standing, lamenting her existence, she’s like a bird in a cage, Green Finch And Linnet Bird. This is one of the more operatic numbers in the piece that truly benefits from being performed by someone who is primarily an opera singer rather than a show singer. Rebecca Evans sings clearly, and really does this aria (and it should be called an aria rather than a song) the justice it deserves, she is infinitely better than the woman who portrayed Johanna in The Bridewell production.

                While she has been singing, a Bird Seller (Jonathan Coad) pushes on a cart loaded with cages. This is another role which had been rather unremarkable in The Bridwell’s production, perhaps partly because it was in-the-round. However, although its a very small part, Jonathan Coad manages to make the most of it. It is a part that isn’t always credited in cast-lists, it was probably originated by Spain Logue, later notable US productions featured Ted Keegan and Tim Turbin in the role; But in some productions, such as the 1985 London revival and the Bristol Old Vic production of the late 1980’s, it has been played by a woman.        Anthony, having immediately fallen in love with Johanna, has a brief and rather amusing conversation with the birdseller, who explains the birds are blinded, so that not knowing if it is night or day they will sing all the time. Anthony buys one as a present for Johanna, Ah Miss, but the Judge enters, wrings its neck, and tells Anthony that’s what he’ll do to him if he ever catches him near Johanna again. That distinctive Beggar woman sweeps on asking for “alms for a poor woman”, and raises the hem of her skirt to reveal her legs again; for those of us who already know the plot, it’s clear there’s a reason for her being around such a scene, and one begins to wonder, maybe this character knows very well who Johanna’s real parents are.

                Meanwhile Johanna’s foster-parent, the Judge, is chiding his ward to obey his wishes, and a distraught Anthony vents his frustration on what is left of the bird’s cage, and vows to steel her away which was a rather good performance from William Dazeley, Johanna


In a market place, a barber named Pirelli is peddling a miracle elixir to cure baldness. Well to be precise, most of the work in ‘selling’ this product is being done by his boy assistant Tobias Ragg (Doug Jones). It is worth mentioning at this point that Doug Jones is yet another singer in this production who proves to be very able at acting, and dancing around the stage, Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir. Eventually he is joined by Pirelli himself (Bonaventura Bottone), who I felt with his greater dignity and formality was rather more convincing (even as a con-man) than his Bridewell counterpart had been. While I am not very keen on this scene, I felt that overall it came across much better ROH stage, performed semi-formally by opera singers who know how to act, than it did when I saw it performed with complete informality in the round at The Bridewell. All the same I was still thankful when our two major principals entered. Mrs Lovett does not have a great deal to say in this scene, she’s mainly there to assist Sweeney, who challenges Pirelli to a shaving contest, and two men from the ensemble take their seats as the subjects. Needless to say Sweeney wins the contest, so Pirelli has to give him five pounds, and The Beadle, who was adjudicating, agrees to come to Sweeney for a free shave.


Meanwhile back at The Judge’s House, Judge Turpin (Jonathan Veria) is trying to propose marriage to his own ward, who, needless to say, is shocked by the idea. Jonathan Veria manages to play his role sympathetically; Although the character is one of the villains of the piece (one of the two people responsible for both Sweeney’s wrongful conviction and the abuse of his wife), we can, to some extent feel for the character, which is no bad thing, because it makes the character that much more believable to a sophisticated audience. It is a characteristic that is often present in Sondheim villains, if the performer is willing to bring that characteristic out. Sondheim pieces, after all, unlike many fluffier musical comedies, do not present characters in black and white, they are in many shades of grey.

                It was somewhere around at this point, although I can’t quite remember if it was before or after this scene (though I think it was just after), that The Beggar Woman put in another appearance, during a scene change (for which one of the curtains had been pulled across most of the stage), in front of the drapes, she was begging for alm’s for a poor woman”, this time without displacing her legs (I thought the lifting of her skirt was innovative the first two times, but a third time might have been a bit tedious), from a child (name unknown, but from the Stage Coach School). This little scene may be only a very small one, (and one which I do not even remember from The Bridwell production), but here on the ROH stage it is powerful, and a great contrast to that scene with the Judge proposing marriage. For when the child gives The Beggar Woman money, there is a tender, almost maternal-like, look about her as she thanks the child. Outwardly she may appear a mad old woman, but that child is not afraid to help her, and the audience gets a sense that this character would never hurt a child, a good few others of our principals might.


Back at the Pie Shop, Mrs Lovett is lending Sweeney her Albert’s old chair, “It will do till you get your nice new one” she tells him. Oh how well Felicity Palmer acts the part, she is just totally convincing. Thomas Allen is a fine actor too. Sweeney is keen to get revenge on The Judge, and The Beadle, but Mrs Lovett persuades him to, Wait. This aria/piece, was the only song which I felt was not entirely clear, but that could be Sondheim’s writing of it as much as anything else, and it became quite clear a little later in the act, thanks to Thomas Allen’s performance.  Presently Anthony drops by to mention his plan to rescue Johanna, and Mrs Lovett suggests hiding her at the shop. Then Pirelli and Tobias turn up. Tobias stays downstairs, where Mrs Lovett gives him a pie and Pirelli goes upstairs. He’s recognised Sweeney, it was he, Benjamin Barker, who trained him as a barber, and now he’s come to blackmail him. They fight, and when Tobias innocently wanders upstairs in search of his master, Sweeney shoves Pirelli through a trap door into a convenient space under the floorboards (to the audience’s right) - I think in The Bridewell production they used a large trunk for this sort of thing. Sweeney swiftly sends the boy back down to Mrs Lovett, to see if she’ll give him a tot of alcohol, which she does, while Sweeney kills Pirielli.


A scene change brings us almost simultaneously to the outside of The Judge’s house, where Anthony is singing to Johanna of his plan to steal her away, Kiss Me, while The Beadle accosts the Judge leaving court early, and helpfully suggests he should improve his appearance, by a visit to the barber’s, Ladies In Their Sensitivities. This little sequence, while coming across rather more effectively than in The Bridwell production (a benefit of having the audience staying in one place) was still a bit confused by having rather too much scenery on stage, but one got the general idea.


Back at The Shop, thrifty Mrs Lovett suggests they might as well take Pirelli’s purse. While Thomas Allen already had some reputation for his acting abilities, it is becoming increasingly clear that Felicity Palmer is also jolly good at acting, and indeed might be even better than her leading man. The action is interrupted by the arrival of another customer for the shaving business, namely Judge Turpin, as Sweeney prepares to shave him they sing, Pretty Women, one of those non-communicative duets that Sondheim is so good at writing. As a matter of fact there are good examples by other songwriters (such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Twin Soliloquies in South Pacific; and more recently Jason Carr’s piece Funeral Quartet in Chichester’s recent production of The Water Babies) where two or more characters sing a number together while not actually communicating with each other. At this point the audience (even those of us who already know the plot) are on tenterhooks, wondering if either Judge Turpin will recognise Sweeney, or be killed by him. And then Anthony enters, to tell Sweeney  the girl has agreed to the plan. Recognising that young Sailor the Judge promptly storms out, vowing never to return. And an equally angry Sweeney vows revenge, Epiphany. Thomas Allen sings magnificently, but is also magnificently in character. However, as Mrs Lovett so effectively points out, there’s the little matter of disposing of the Italian’s body. At this point, I simply have to remark on how wonderfully Felicity Palmer does a cockney accent, and in the character of Mrs Lovett she makes sure to pronounce the word Italian as “I - tailian. Suddenly an idea pops into Mrs Lovett’s head, with the price of meat what it is why doesn’t she dispose of the body by baking it into her pies (after all her rival Mrs Mooney uses cats), A Little Priest. This is probably, one of, the best known songs from Sweeney Todd. Besides being performed in the show itself, it has also been sung in a number of compilation concerts (for example by: Louise Gold & James Smilie in Sondheim At The Barbican in 1993, or, Kim Criswell & James Graeme in Sondheim First And Last at The Peacock Theatre in 2000). Because this song is so well known it makes it that much harder for anyone to make the piece their own. (For me at least Louise Gold & James Similie’s rendition on Sondheim At The Barbican, and, Jessica Martin & Michael McLean’s performance in The Bridewell production of Sweeney Todd are hard acts to follow, for other people it might be: Angela Lansbury & Len Cariou/George Hearn, or Sheila Hancock & Denis Quilley, or, Julia McKenzie & Alan Armstrong/Denis Quilley, or even Marilyn “Fascinating Aida” Cutts & Neil McCaul). However, Felicity Palmer & Thomas Allen really and truly do succeed in making this legendary duet very much their own, and their performance of it simply cannot be bettered. It is a comic gem of a number, sung by two performers who know exactly what they are doing with it. It’s always a sign of a really good performance, when (at least for it’s duration) one can forget any other version one may have heard, and that is very much the case here. Their performance of this number truly sums up this entire show.  It’s a resounding success on which to end the first act of so excellent a production.


The first act has been so good, one might wonder whether the second act could live up to it’s standard. But when a show is that good, surely it will be. The first scene finds the pie-shop doing a roaring business. Benches have now been set out, on which various members of the chorus are seated. Upstairs Sweeney is still shaving and occasionally killing his customers. His new chair has just been delivered, it tilts, so that dead bodies can be sent down a shoot to the bakehouse. Tobias is Mrs Lovett’s assistant, serving the customers enjoying their pies, God That’s Good. He also has to keep throwing the old woman out. This scene also provides a magnificent moment for one other character to really make something of her part, namely The Beggar Woman. In The Bridewell production this was the first scene in which the actress playing that role was actually noticed. However in this production, the excellent Rosalind Plowright had already established her character, but the scene gives her an opportunity to ad greater depth to her role, and being rather good at acting that is exactly what she does; She creates a very mysterious presence, which, if you don’t know the plot, and even if you do, can’t help but make you feel is in some way or another going to be our leads undoing. This is one scene, where even though the leads are on stage, much of our attention is focused away from them, and quite rightly so, for it adds depth to the plot. (this was not something so apparent in The Bridwell production).


In contrast to the jolliaity of The Pie Shop, the next scene, which takes place with swirling curtains, finds Anthony searching for his lost love, Johanna, while Sweeney too exacts his murderous revenge on any strangers sitting in his barber’s chair. And then slap in the middle of swirling curtains, and searching, who should run on, a little unexpectedly, but The Beggar Woman, shrieking a bit of City On Fire. It’s obvious, this character may appear mad, but she’s not as insane as all that, she clearly realises there’s something not quite right about that pie-shop, and now she wants to tell everyone else, but of course she’s just “a half-crazy beggar woman” so no one (except the audience) takes any notice of her, or even realises she might really know something (except possibly Mrs Lovett).


Meanwhile in The Shop’s parlour, Mrs Lovett is remarking to Sweeney, on how well the business is doing, and as they are careful only to kill strangers, they are not likely to be discovered. Perhaps in a year or two when they’ve saved up they could retire, she’s always wanted to live By The Sea. This scene was truly amazing. Felicity Palmer’s performance is an absolute revelation (a revelation on a par with Rosalind Plowright’s performance of Nobody Does It Like Me in Two’s A Crowd). Until now, while Ms Palmer has shown herself, to be an extremely capable actress, and well able to sing Music Theatre without venturing into ‘Concert English’ except for those pieces where musically it is relevant to do so. One is, all be it vaguely, aware, that she is primarily a classically-trained singer, all be it one with all the skills and ability necessary to perform this sort of material as it should be performed. But in this amazing scene she well and truly turns into an actress who can sing, rather than a singer who can act. To watch this scene you would honestly never imagine that she is a famous opera singer. You really would think she was a musical comedy star! And that’s truly not an insult; it’s a complement to both her acting and her amazing versatility.


Sweeney had not seemed entirely convinced of the proposition in the previous scene (it is to Thomas Allen’s credit that he managed to make that clear in his performance, when the audience was so taken up with his leading lady’s amazing portrayal) In front of the drapes, Sweeney has a rendezvous with Anthony, I think the audience was still a little stunned by Felicity Palmer’s amazing performance, with the result that to begin with this scene did not come across too clearly, but it’s always hard to follow a showstopper. The creators of many (though not all) of the great 1930’s and 40’s musicals (especially those that featured mighty leading ladies, like Ethel Merman) were well aware of that, and they used to structure their musicals in such a way as to make sure nothing really important was said until the audience had had time to calm down after a showstopping performance. However, Sondheim musicals generally aren’t like that, which can create problems when you have showstopping performances (the Royal Festival Hall’s revival of Follies, August 2002, had similar difficulties with Ben’s Folly: Live Laugh And Love following straight on from a showstopping tap performance of Phyllis’s Folly: The Story Of Lucy And Jesse). Anyway back to the plot, it becomes evident that Johanna is hidden in an asylum, and Sweeney is helping Anthony to pass himself off as a wig maker’s assistant, so he can go to the asylum to buy hair and once there rescue Johanna. Then Sweeney sits down and writes, The Letter, to the Judge, telling him that Anthony has abducted Johanna, and she will be in the shop that evening.


Back in her parlour, Mrs Lovett is knitting Tobias a muffler. Tobias, often referred to as Toby, is grateful to Mrs Lovett for treating him so much more kindly than Pirelli did, however, he feels he should warn her that “Him”, Sweeney, might be dangerous and cause her harm, but no matter he, Tobias will protect her, Not While I’m Around. Doug Jones sings this song with much more presonce than the gentleman who performed it in The Bridewell production. In the latter, my main memory of the song is of Jessica Martin’s rendering of one of the later verses. This time, Doug Jones and Felicity Palmer are rather more of a match for each other in terms of stage presence. Tobias is clearly getting suspicious, especially when he realises that Mrs Lovett has Pirelli’s old purse. But the cunning cook, decides it’s time Tobias came to the bakehouse to learn how to make pies, and he’s so thrilled by that he doesn’t notice her locking him in; just as The Beadle turns up to investigate complaints about bad smoke.

                However, he can take his time about this, for he joins Mrs Lovett in the parlour, for a bit of singing, Parlour Songs. These are quite beautiful and very much have the feel of what might be the period in which the piece is set about them. By now we have come to expect a fine singing and acting performance from Felicity Palmer, which is of course exactly what we get. But we also get a splendid and very convincing performance from Paul Arden-Griffiths as The Beadle, and this really noteworthy, as he was actually a replacement for Robert Tear, whom the programme has the curtsey to inform us is ill. One should draw attention to this last point, for it is a matter where this Royal Opera House production of Sweeney Todd is clearly head and shoulders over many current West End shows. Firstly the ROH have actually taken the trouble to give the reason for the absent performer’s absence, illness (audience’s do appreciate being told why the performer they are supposed to be seeing is absent, i.e. whether it is illness or holidays). Secondly, and this is perhaps of even greater praise, the performer replacing the absentee, proves to be extremely capable of doing the job, and does it so well, that if you hadn’t read the programme, you really would never have guessed he was a replacement, at least not from the standard of his performance you wouldn’t. In West End theatre these days one is quite likely to pay top prices and find that one or other of the feature roles is being placed by a replacement, with no reason given, and it is not too uncommon to find that the replacement falls considerably short of the mark. Which is not only a disappointment for the audience, it also means that the other performers have to act round the problem, altering their performances to compensate for the weak performance of the replacement.

                Sweeney returns from his assignation with Anthony, and offers The Beadle a free shave, which is accepted, and of course Sweeney promptly kills The Beadle and sends him down the chute. A swift piece of scene changing, shows the horrified Tobias coming upon The Beadle’s bloody body down in the bakehouse, and making a quick exit to the cellar.

                A curtain is drawn across, and behind the curtain the chorus come on, dressed in their role of the lunatics in Fogg’s asylum. Presently the curtain is drawn back. Johanna, is amongst them, only she is shut in a cage, for being in particular need of correction, so Fogg, well played by Matthew Rose, is somewhat reluctant to lead the wig-maker to her, but they have a business agreement after all. On managing to grab Johanna, Anthony pulls out a gun and shoots Fogg, and they flee. Free of Fogg, many of the assylum inmates also flee, singing a reprise of a song we earlier heard The Beggar Woman shrieking, City On Fire. I actually preferred this piece when The Beggar Woman did it as a warning, the chorus reprise isn’t as powerful a piece of theatre.

                Now not only are there lunatics on the loose, but Sweeny and Mrs Lovett are searching for Tobias, while The Beggar Woman is searching the beading, Searching. This is a piece that could be confusing, but isn’t so very confusing, mainly because, Thomas Allen, Felicity Palmer and Rosalind Plowright are all excellent actors; the kind of actors who have a lot of presence but at the same time can be clear and concise in their performances. So you’re going to pay them attention, and follow the plot easily.


Presently Anthony and Johanna reach the deserted shop, where Anthony leaves Johanna to get a conveyance. Someone is approaching, it’s The Beggar Woman. A frightened Johanna hides. Ironically she is the only person who actually seems frightened by The Beggar Woman (Mrs Lovett doesn’t like her, while Sweeney only saw her once and ignored her). Now it’s Rosalind Plowright’s big moment. If it had not already been apparent before, she knows this room, and as her memory is stirred she sings, The Beggar Woman’s Lullabye. For someone with such a powerful heavy Mezzo voice, Rosalind Plowright can actually sing quite tenderly. It is here too that her work in establishing her character to clearly from the start pays off. Instead of having to figure out who this odd character is now, the audience is instead free to pay attention to the plot, and where she fits into it. The irony of her presence in the room, singing the lyric “My Jo My Jing just when a scared Johanna is hiding in that same room, is not lost. Presently Sweeney returns, maybe at last he might uncover her mystery.

                But there is no time, the Judge is about to enter, at long last Sweeney Todd will have his revenge. He has to get rid of The Beggar Woman quickly, so he kills her, and sends her down the chute into the bake house. It’s nice to see how game some of the biggish names in this production are about getting into their parts. And now, having had a big scene from an important feature player, now it’s The Leading Man’s big moment. The Judge takes the hot seat (so to speak), and Sweeney swiftly seizes the opportunity to exact his revenge by killing the judge, and tipping him down the chute. Just before he’s killed the Judge recognises him. Thomas Allen acts the scene with relish, it is a testimony to his acting skills that he is so convincing. Having finally done the deed he has been trying to do all along, he is about to exit, but doesn’t. This nearly exit, gives Johanna the opportunity to emerge from her hiding place. And here too is another of the plot’s great ironic moments. Sweeney realising she has just witnessed the killing now decides he will have to silence her, by killing her, his own daughter, too, though she promises she won’t say anything if he lets her go.

                Fortunately for Johanna, fate intervenes. We hear a scream, which is pretty recognisably Felicity Palmer, and Sweeny hurries to investigate. A swift scene change, finds us down in the bake house, with three bodies lying on the stage (two of them are dead and one nearly so), they are of course The Beadle, The Beggar Woman, and, The Judge. The latter trying to grab Mrs Lovett’s leg, the other two are perfectly still. Presently The Judge too lies still, dead at last, just as Sweeney enters. And now it’s The Leading Lady’s turn to demonstrate her acting skills with a fine performance, with Felicity Palmer acting the role, it is a fine performance, as Mrs Lovett tries in vain to stop Sweeney going to The Beggar Woman’s body. She’s always tried to keep them apart, but this time Sweeney seems compelled to look at her. It may be a testimony to the performances of both Thomas Allen and Felicity Palmer, as well as Rosalind Plowright’s wonderful characterisation earlier in the evening, that this moment is in many ways more powerful than it had been in The Bridwell production. Then it had been a twist, here it is more a dénouement, as Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker at last realises The Beggar Woman was none other than his wife Lucy. Mrs Lovett attempts to defend herself, she never told him Lucy had actually died, only that she swallowed poison. And would Sweeney really be able to love someone in the state she ended up in?

                Well as far a Sweeney Todd is concerned, yes he would. Mrs Lovett’s very convincing protests, which Felicity Palmer acts at least as well as Jessica Martin did in The Bridewell production, are to no avail, as Sweeney shoves her into her own oven. After two such major moments, and the last really was dramatic, it’s hard to keep up the pace, which is perhaps why it’s a little difficult to follow the action that follows, as Tobias emerges from the cellar, goes mad and kills the barber (presumably as revenge for murdering Mrs Lovett, and Pirelli), or does he kill the barber and then go mad?

                It is this scene of carnage and madness into which Anthony and Johanna, followed by The Chorus enter. Presently, and by now the audience has come back down to earth enough to pay attention, they begin to sing, The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd. It starts with the chorus, but very very quickly they are joined by a few of the feature players, Pirelli, The Beggar Woman (for once standing straight and tall with the hood of her cloak down, so we can actually see her face), and then a little later, The Beadle, and The Judge. And finally The Leads join the rest of the company on stage as the show ends.


This performance was not merely a production of a notable piece of music theatre, it was not merely operatic singers singing a piece by one of the major Broadway composers. It was quite simply an occasion. All to often commercial West End musicals can be over commercialised and cheapened. Lots of hype, lots of merchandising, celebrity names, and a practise (instigated by Lord Lloyd-Webber and co) of advertising a show on the basis of who it’s writers are, with little regard as to whether the performers are good (Sometimes one is lucky and the performers are very good in their roles. In a sense, perhaps it was the very act of putting Sweeney Todd into The Royal Opera House, gave this piece of work, whether you wish to call it: Opera Bouffe, Operetta, Music Theatre, Musical Theatre or a Musical, it’s due dignity as a piece. This is in a large part down to the quality of both the performances and the direction.

                Firstly, the Musical Direction, is in the hands of a true master, Paul Gemignani has conducted many Sondheim musicals, and several of those, including Sweeney Todd, for their original Broadway productions. Many of the singers are, internationally acclaimed on the operatic stage, so they are masters of their craft, but what really is amazing is how well so many of them can sing without the slightest hint of their magnificent operatic tones, in the places where the piece requires it. One of the interesting things about Sweeney Todd is what a borderline piece it is. Parts of it really do benefit from being sung with a real operatic voice, but there are also places where that would be wholly inappropriate. So it’s marvellous to see the work performed by singers who can do whatever is required of their voices at a given moment in the show. Sometimes being all operatic, and at other times being anything but.

                One singer who particularly stands out, and got criticised in some reviews, for not using her operatic voice, very much, is Rosalind Plowright. Yes it is true that she played this role relying much more on her acting skills than singing. But (as she herself mentioned in an interview on Woman’s Hour) The Composer’s own instructions to her were to shriek rather than sing her part in places. She is following direction. Admittedly it may come as something of a surprise to find someone who is known as a major operatic singer (whether it be as a soprano or mezzo-soprano) performing a role on the Royal Opera House’s stage as more acting than singing. But if a performer is actually capable of performing in a way that is not what their audience are used to expecting from them, why shouldn’t they make use of an opportunity to demonstrate their versatility? There have been many examples of such things in the world of Music Theatre in general, for example: In the original production of Follies, when the original conductor left he was replaced on the podium by the drummer (who incidentally has been conducting, and conducting Sondheim, ever since). More recently (Summer 2002 at the Royal Festival Hall) a notable British TV puppeteer (well-known to those who known about TV puppetry) turned up tap-dancing (very well) in a revival of Follies. If you can have a Broadway drummer conducting or a puppeteer tap-dancing, then why shouldn’t an opera singer act and shriek her part, as opposed to singing it, at least if she happens to be as good at acting as Rosalind Plowright is.

                Acting is one of the key features of this production. All the singers prove themselves to be fine actors. Thomas Allen is quite simply excellent; a lot better, in fact that quite a number of men I’ve seen play leads in stage musicals. William Dazeley and Rebecca Evans successfully combine (in their case) a lot of quite operatic singing, with clear acting, switching between singing and acting cleanly, at just the right moments.  But the real revelation of the evening is the wonderful Felicity Palmer. If you know anything much about Thomas Allen, William Dazeley, and Rosalind Plowright’s previous work, it might not come as too much of a surprise to find how well they can act. But Felicity Palmer wow! What a leading lady! It is rather unusual to find such an effective lead. In the world of Music Theatre, I can only think of three previous instances where I have been quite so hit-between-the-eyes by the brilliance of a leading lady, whom I hadn’t seen on stage before. Yes, as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Felicity Palmer is up there with the best of them, she’s definitely the kind of opera singer one wants to hear perform this kind of borderline Music Theatre/Light Opera work. She’s every bit as good at acting as her fellow performers, and very convincing. Although she has a fine operatic voice, (like several of her co-stars) she doesn’t have to use it. At times she can sing without any trace of ‘concert-English’. And then she can speak in accent. Not only does she speak well in a cockney accent, she also sings well in it (much better than Josephine Barstow did on a recording of Oliver or Kiri Te Kanawa on My Fair Lady - although the latter was a case of full marks for trying). Over the years, there have been several occasions when opera singers have attempted cross-over, with varying degrees of success. Generally it has been the Americans who’ve lead the way, singers such as: Jerry Hadley, Thomas Hampson, Dawn Upshaw, and, Frederica Von Stade, have all made some marvellous recordings (I particularly like Hampson’s Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun, and Von Stade’s Magnolia in Showboat and Hope Hancourt in Anything Goes). But elsewhere in the world, while there have been attempts, sometimes the quality of performance (especially from the women, one example being the female lead on the EMI Classics Kiss Me Kate), has been put of a lot musical theatre enthusiasts off the very idea of opera singers attempting lighter work. But here in the Royal Opera House all that has been vanquished. It is British opera singers (and one Irishman) leading the way. Between them wonderful Felicity Palmer (here in Sweeney Todd) and versatile Rosalind Plowright (Sweeney Todd and Two’s A Crowd) demonstrate that British female opera singers are every bit as good as the best of their American counterparts at handling this sort of Music Theatre material. (Indeed Palmer almost certainly does the cockney accent for her particular character rather better than some Broadway actresses could do it). Sometimes in stage musicals you can have wonderful leading ladies, and then weak male leads who don’t quite come up to the standard set, but with Thomas Allen as Sweeney Todd, we have a leading man who is most certainly more than up to standard. Indeed it is it’s high standards that make this production stand out. It may be nearly twice as expensive as top prices in the West End, but unlike long running West End musicals (as Paul Arden-Griffith’s performance of The Beadle illustrated) it is of a consistently high standard of performance from the entire company, from the biggest leads to the smallest chorus roles, everybody is superb, and gives the audience it’s money’s worth.




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