We asked Maestro Andrew Bisantz, Eugene Opera’s Music Director, to share some thoughts about Stephen Sondheim’s work, including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This is a transcription of the interview, slightly edited for clarity.
Interviewer: What is it about Sondheim’s music overall that you find especially interesting or praiseworthy? What other composers is he most like?
What I find to be most interesting about Sondheim’s music is that on one level he writes to character so precisely, and he’ll use whatever musical style is most appropriate for that character at that moment in the show — so you take a show like Follies, where he uses pastiche of different eras of music to represent the different Follies characters — but on another level he is writing in a very sophisticated compositional way that is a common thread throughout all of his works. What he likes to do is to find small musical motives and attach them to characters. So in Sweeney Todd, you have the opening rumble of the music, which is a very active and unsettling, never-quite-resolved thematic idea. But when Todd starts describing the story of his background, in “There Was a Barber and His Wife,” that little motive that is repeated very quickly at the beginning, and is unsettling, is slowed down and played very pensively. And it’s giving the character a moment of thoughtfulness and of reflection, but at the same time linking the two ideas in the audience’s mind. So I think what I love most about Sondheim’s music is the fact that that much thought has gone into it.
At the same time it can absolutely break open and be lyrical and soulful when it needs to. In Sweeney Todd, one of my favorite examples of this is a very funny little scene between Johanna and Anthony where she’s nattering on nervously, “He means to marry me Monday, what shall I do?” and Anthony is trying to calm her down and reassure her. As she continues nattering the music builds to a beautiful climax. And as she sings this gorgeous soaring theme, Anthony reprises his first aria, “Johanna,” which the audience then has already heard. There’s a moment of real musical satisfaction, much like you would find in Puccini, when Puccini takes a musical motive, plays it for the audience several times, and then suddenly we have the second half of “Vissi d’arte” — where you’ve heard the entire tune from Act I on — and the audience feels a moment of incredible satisfaction at that point, almost astonishment, I think is a good word to use. So he’s very theatrically savvy, but as a composer he has so many tools that he uses to get the audience to that point.
Fundamentally, and the reason that he’s such a great theater composer, he’s always telling the story through his music. He is never casual, and certainly in his lyrics he is never ever ever casual about a word choice. Everything is to paint a very specific picture. I think he’s very influenced by whatever he needs to tell the story the best musically, but he certainly has given a lot of credit to Ravel and Stravinsky, composers of the early 20th century and their coloristic approach to music, not just modernistic but also coloristic. And meanwhile he’s capable of writing a Gershwin-like tune, say “Losing My Mind” from Follies. At the same time he’s able to write a Japanese haiku in Pacific Overtures and orchestrate it very sparingly so the whole mood and texture of the piece comes to the foreground.
I just went and saw Into the Woods last night, the movie. Into the Woods in many ways was my introduction to Sondheim when I was a kid, before I knew Sweeney Todd, before I knew Sunday in the Park with George and Company, and then Follies and A Little Night Music. And what I liked most about seeing Into the Woods for the umpteenth time and the second time in the movies, but the umpteenth time after having watched the Playwrights Horizons version on TV, was that I was able to take away as much from the score this time around as I had ever taken away from it. And details from a piece that I know so well became even clearer to me and more interesting to me as the piece moved forward. And this is why, I think like with any great work of art, you discover more each time you go back to it, and I think this is why it is worthy of placing a piece like Sweeney Todd in the same category as La Boheme.
Interviewer: Sweeney Todd has been called a musical, an opera, an operetta. It’s been performed on Broadway, in opera houses, in concert, and it’s probably best known to many people as a movie. How does it stand up to performance in so many forms and by so many types of voices?
One of the reasons that Sweeney Todd endures, I think, is for the very factors that I was speaking about as to why Sondheim is such an important composer, which is that there is not a minute of the piece that is left to chance. There isn’t any filler, there isn’t anything that doesn’t tightly drive the story to its inexorable conclusion. And I think that it can survive almost any kind of interpretation. I also think that it was suitable for a movie as well. I wasn’t a great fan of the movie because I wanted more Broadway style or just big legit singing, and in the movie they had made a deliberate choice to tone down the singing. I don’t know if that was because they were afraid people wouldn’t respond to that, or that people don’t like musicals anymore, I’m not quite sure.
But, at any rate, I think the reason that it’s suitable for the opera house is that it has such grand emotions. A lot of Sondheim’s material is not suitable for the opera house because the emotions are nuanced and detailed in a way that we’re not used to in the opera house and can be better portrayed by trained stage actors, whereas in opera so much of our focus is on acting through the voice, by telling character through musical choices you make. Something like Sunday in the Park with George wouldn’t really stand up to that. But because Sweeney Todd is a big broad piece on many levels, I think the “operatic treatment” suits it quite well. Or it certainly has its place on the operatic stage. This is a big debate about this piece: Is it a musical? Is it an opera? Which is it? It’s a little bit like comparing apples and automobiles, to be sure. But I think the bigger question is, who cares? It’s just a great evening of musical story-telling and ultimately that’s what we want to achieve every time we ring up the curtain on a production at Eugene Opera.
Interviewer: What will opera lovers in Eugene find to love in Sweeney Todd when they see it in March?
I think what our audience in Eugene will love about this production is the fact that we have so many talented cast members in it. Chris Burchett, who is a brilliant actor and singer – and you don’t usually have that much intensity on both sides – is going to be a terrific Sweeney Todd. And certainly Anne Allgood, as Mrs. Lovett, will bring her considerable force to the stage to give us a wonderful performance of that role. Bill Fabris, who so ably has directed everything from The Mikado to Traviata — this is the place where he really lives, so I think you’re going to see just a really right interpretation of the piece on the stage. Everybody that’s coming in to it has the skills needed to bring this across in a major way.
And what’s different than going to see it in the movie theater is of course the other end of the equation, which is the audience and the live performance aspect. There’s something that’s so visceral about hearing that opening motive rumble through our wonderful orchestra as the chorus sings “The Tale of Sweeney Todd,” which erupts into the “Dies Irae” motive, which Sondheim borrows to further darken the proceedings. There’s nothing like seeing it live. I’ve seen Sweeney Todd live several times, everything from the most recent Broadway revival, which was very small – the orchestra was actually on the stage, and it had a very different impact, it was in ways creepier than the “big” version of it — to the original big Broadway orchestration. Our orchestra will be the full orchestration. We aren’t doing the reduced, as they call it, “teeny Todd” version. Hearing this music thundering through the Hult Center will be really, really exciting.
Interviewer: And of course it’s probably worth pointing out that quite a few “real” opera houses have done it.
This is an interesting thought, going back to the question of: is it opera or musical theater, and who has the right to produce what. I think it’s dangerous to compartmentalize any more when you have a composer as sophisticated as Sondheim. Not to say that, by the way, Richard Rogers wasn’t equally as sophisticated, but he was writing in a more popular style. When you have a composer working like Sondheim works, that music is worthy of equal consideration with anything else that’s been written because the quality of it is so high.
My argument for opera houses not producing musicals is that we don’t use traditional Broadway performers in our productions, and there’s a different skill set there. As a matter of fact, I have seen the great ensemble number from A Little Night Music, “A Weekend in the Country,” performed by opera singers whose main focus is singing, not acting, and it just falls flat. Whereas it can be slightly out of tune in the original Broadway recording, but the intensity and the excitement that you see, or hear, is so much more what Sondheim intended. But that’s a pretty fine point, and it’s hard to sometimes even categorize who’s a better actor than singer, or who acts with their voice or acts with their text. The answer is, all of them now have to. And we need to be capable of opening our minds to the fact that opera has a pretty broad definition.
We get into real trouble if we start to say opera is only Italian works that were composed between 1820 and 1900. One of the things I have loved about our past few seasons in Eugene is that we have worked to really broaden that definition, by doing Nixon in China. I don’t see a lot that separates Nixon in China from something like Sweeney Todd, as far as compositional thought and structure. And to argue that one is more sung than the other, or acted, gets into very academic territory that doesn’t really hold up when you put it on stage. There are great similaries there. Now if we were to do a production that is more “Broadway” in the traditional sense, I think we’d have to really re-examine who we cast and who we bring in, because you want the performers who do that the best. But we do that all the time, when we do something like The Mikado or Pirates. I’ve got to say, that production of The Mikado three or four seasons ago, it was so terrific to work with people who just know how to do this. That style is so specific. And I know the audience enjoyed themselves so much because of these performers’ capability with the material. To use a much more recent and fresh example, Marco Nisticò – not to single him out saying the rest of the cast was in any way inferior in The Elixir of Love – but Marco’s ability with that role is so terrific. Part of the reason that the audience really was jumping out of their seats at the end of the show, leaping to their feet, was because of his ease and naturalness with it.
So a lot of what we have to talk about, when we choose a specific genre of music to perform, is who is the most appropriate person to do it. And I think what we’re doing with our production is really bringing in people who have the vocal goods, but I know that we also have people that really can handle what’s required of them acting-wise. Because it’s a big show, and there’s a lot going on, and it’s hard to sustain that for an entire evening. You know, if you look at a traditional “number” opera from the early 19th century, people get to leave the stage. In Sweeney Todd, there are not a lot of moments for people to leave the stage. The ensemble is on the stage for almost the entire thing. Once Mrs. Lovett makes her entrance, she’s there for huge swaths of the show. And certainly Todd is on for a huge amount of the show. And it’s a real marathon for those performers. By the time they get to “A Little Priest” at the end of the first act, I’m amazed that anybody is left standing, let alone being able to make really funny jokes about cannibalism.
Interviewer: What is Sweeney Todd’s place in Sondheim’s work? And more generally, in contemporary musical theater?
Sweeney Todd really sits at the top, for me, of a great wealth of material that Sondheim has produced. Every show that Sondheim writes is completely different, and he’s sort of famous for that. But what he achieves in Sweeney Todd is a marriage of text and music and story that is so compelling that you come away from the evening feeling that you’ve been taken to a different place. On one level it’s a horror story, just a kind of a trashy penny-dreadful. But on a greater level it’s a piece about the psychology of revenge. And that’s reflected not only in his lyric choices but in his musical choices as well. And it’s done to such an intense degree, I don’t really think he’s achieved it quite in that same way in his other shows.
Now, if you ask me what my favorite Sondheim show is, it’s going to be Sunday in the Park with George. That’s a show about art, and why we create art, and it’s very personal to me. But I think his greatest work, probably, for the American musical is Sweeney Todd. It’s his masterpiece. I don’t know how much it changed Broadway but certainly his style and his intense attention to detail has informed a younger generation of composers — Jason Robert Brown, Adam Gale, who wrote Light in the Piazza, Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent — whether or not they write in his musical style. Sondheim tends to have a lot of little motives that he repeats over and over in an almost “Beethovenian” sense; these other composers might write more popularly, but their attention to text and detail and character creation through the song, or through the lyric and the music supporting it, is really informed by him.
At the time when Sweeney Todd premiered, did it really set Broadway on its head and everybody said, “We have to write horror-story musicals”? No. Because as I said, every Sondheim show tackles a different problem, and tackles a different psychology. So it’s almost: they all exist in their own worlds.
It is probably his second most successful show after Into the Woods. Into the Woods, I think, was his most commercially successful show. But just because it’s successful doesn’t mean it’s popular in the way a Rogers and Hammerstein musical was in the 40s and 50s. Sondheim’s expecting a lot from the audience. He does expect you to sit up and pay attention. Even though there are wonderful moments of cheap jokes that are very funny in Sweeney Todd – the whole scene in the second act when the beadle is visiting Mrs. Lovett, and Sondheim does a send-up of British parlor ballads and they’re just ridiculous and really funny, well I guess, nerdily funny. But they’re just terrific. Well, that’s a cheap shot. And certainly “A Little Priest” at the end of the first act, they’re brilliant witty constructions and they’re a lot of fun to listen to. But when you get to the moment in the second act where Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler have Todd just casually, almost, killing person after person after person all while singing this very simple melody that’s in a major key, it’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever come away with in theater, and it actually quite haunts me. It’s so brilliantly conceived. And really, we’re talking stage effects. We’re not talking things that you see in movies that are borderline realistic. It’s theater still. And for it to have that profound an impact and really make you think about things, it’s quite a testament.
The thing that Sondheim did for musical theater is to make people sit up and think. And people haven’t always wanted to do that, so sometimes the box office receipts have reflected that. But now standing back, 35 years after the piece was written, I think we can all agree that the impact lastingly has been much more than the impact that it had at the time. Not that it was – again, it was one of his more popular shows, and it ran for quite a great stretch.
For those of you who are interested, the two books that you must, must read if you are a fan of Sondheim at all, or just want to see the works behind the clock, are Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat. They’re collections of his lyrics that he has annotated, show by show, with the general premise of each show and really interesting anecdotes about the show, always driven from the idea of how the piece was created and why he made certain choices. And in Sweeney Todd, there were quite a few changes from the preview period through the opening night, through subsequent productions. I always find it interesting to see how a work of art evolves, because I think it informs sometimes a little bit differently how you approach the piece. Those books are just terrific and I can’t recommend them enough for anybody who’s interested in getting a little further into it.
There’s also another wonderful book by Joseph P. Swain called The Broadway Musical. It’s an in-depth musical analysis. It might be on the technical end for people who don’t have a strong musical background but it’s a wonderful history, again told through anecdotes, and a rather serious formal analysis of about nine Broadway musicals, one of which is Sweeney Todd. It’s a brilliant dissection of the piece and gives you a lot of information about it.
I will end by saying: Sondheim wrote this piece to scare you, to make you think, but ultimately to entertain you, and that’s anybody’s interest that’s producing theater. And trust me, with this show and our production here in Eugene with our wonderful cast, the direction of Bill Fabris, and the wonderful conducting of Adam Turner, who’s very experienced with the score, the audience is really going to come away as real fans. I hope they have just a terrific time with it.