SWEENEY TODD: 1979 VS. 2023 By Peter Filichia
Wait a minute! Where’s “Johanna”?!?
Those who attend the current Broadway revival of SWEENEY TODD and are familiar with the score will miss one of the three songs that happen to have the same name.
For those who don’t know Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning score for the Tony-winning musical, we don’t mean that there’s one song named “Johanna” that’s reprised twice. Leave it to Sondheim to write three different songs and call each by the same name. Who else writing for Broadway would have had the audacity to do that?
In Thomas Kail’s new production, only two “Johannas” remain. The first comes from Anthony Hope, the young sailor who’s smitten with the lass he happens to see on her balcony. SWEENEY TODD certainly wasn’t the first musical to use Love at First Sight and won’t be the last.
“I feel you, Johanna,” Anthony sings. Then, however, he’s seen by Judge Turpin, Johanna’s “protector” who’s housed her since he took her from Sweeney the barber and his wife. Now that she’s a fully grown woman, he plans to marry her. No, he certainly doesn’t want competition from this younger and more handsome man in uniform. That doesn’t deter Anthony, who then vows, “I’ll steal you, Johanna.”
Composers try to insert in their songs so-called “blue notes” which have also been blatantly called “wrong notes.” It happens when an unexpected sharp or flat turns up to surprise us. Richard Rodgers was famous for it. For example, in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” he gave one to the word “face” (in “to face a world of men”). Sing the line and you’ll hear and feel the flattened note.
All this is to establish that Sondheim wrote the best one of all in this “Johanna.” The word “dream” in “Satisfied enough to dream you” may sit on a flatted note, but it’s as delicious as bittersweet chocolate.
The other “Johanna” you’ve known since you heard or saw your first SWEENEY is sung by the barber himself early in the second act. Here, while he’s shaving a client, he’s thinking about his daughter that he hasn’t seen since she was a toddler.
And then he slits the customer’s throat.
Lesser writers would at that point have had Sweeney slicing and singing a lacerating song akin to “Epiphany,” insisting that “They all deserve to die.” Sondheim did just the opposite and wrote one of his most beautiful soaring melodies while the serial murderer did his awful deeds. What a terrific way of establishing that the murder has become second nature to Sweeney; despite having his daughter on his mind, he’ll enact business as usual.
In INTO THE WOODS, Sondheim wrote, “How do you ignore … the reverses?” Throughout his career, he had no problem doing just that. We can readily believe that whenever he thought of a situation, he immediately said to himself, “Now let me do just the opposite.”
Case in point: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC has that scene where Fredrik makes a late-night visit to Desiree in hopes of bedding her. Most writers would have written an anxiously funny song that might have been called “Oh, Please Say Yes!” Sondheim instead provided an elegant waltz where Fredrick extolled the virtues of his wife and took some time to get to her big liability.
So, the third jewel of the “Johanna” triple crown is the one that Judge Turpin sings. But original director Harold Prince didn’t want it in his production, either. It was a pretty grisly song for an era when ANNIE was still Broadway’s biggest hit musical. In it, the hypocritical and perverted Turpin peeks through a keyhole. Any doubt that he was up to no good? Has the word “voyeur” ever been meant as a compliment?
He’s watching Johanna, his ward whom he’s “protected” since infancy and is now a fully grown woman, though substantially younger than he. As the Judge spies, he alternates between masturbating with one hand and whipping himself with the other. He augments “Mea culpa!” (“My fault”) to “Mea maxima culpa!” (“My grievous fault”) and ups it even higher to “Mea maxima maxima culpa!” (“My most grievous fault.”)
The Judge’s “Johanna” was cut early in the previews of the original production. One reason given – and the easiest to believe – is that audiences had been repelled by it.
Some say that original director Harold Prince had trouble staging it. Well, plenty of directors with far less reputation and ability have found a way to put it in their productions. In 2016, Jackie Maxwell at the Shaw Festival in Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake simply made sure that her Judge didn’t have his hands full. He just sang the song, and we saw that his agony simply came from guilt. The Judge only metaphorically beat himself up.
Director Thomas Kail has dropped it from his new production. Plenty of theatergoers may well miss the excision, for they’ve become accustomed to hearing Turpin’s “Johanna” on the original cast album.
Thomas Z. Shepard, who produced the recording, says, “Steve, Hal and I agreed that we wanted it on the album. Although it was a little too strong for the Broadway live audience, it was perfectly suited to our recording.”
The result was not only a Grammy-winning album, but also one that in 2013 was inducted into The National Recording Registry’s list of recordings that “are culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
While we’re talking about the current production, Josh Groban sings Sweeney very well and is a pleasure to hear. However – and it’s a big “however” – he doesn’t for a second seem as if he’d been incarcerated for 15 long years in a terrible prison far away from home. Tony winner Len Cariou did, as you can hear on the album.
As for Annaleigh Ashford, she certainly has the eccentricity for Mrs. Lovett. But this character needs to have some age on her to establish that she’s desperate for a man and sees Sweeney as her last chance.
Ashford is 37, which is too young for someone to have such despair.
At 53, Tony winner Angela Lansbury convinced audiences that she was that distressed.
Still, whether you attend SWEENEY TODD at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre or listen to that legendary original cast album, an unforgettable experience is promised.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.