Sweeney Todd on Broadway
Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford
By: Karen Isaacs - Apr 26, 2023
Laughter is not what you usually associate with a production of Sweeney Todd, yet the revival now on Broadway starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford is funny.
The humor comes from Ashford’s portrayal of Mrs. Lovett as a flirtatious woman on the prowl looking for a man to protect and support her in this bleak, poverty-stricken part of London in the 19th century When she spies Groban as Sweeney, she sees a likely target. But the real humor is Todd’s reaction – Groban plays him as both oblivious to her seduction and then uninterested.
This humor, in many ways, makes the ending of this revenge comedy or grand guignol even more shocking and tragic. The audience, most of whom knew the show well, gasped during the final scene.
Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler, drew on two genres: the penny dreadful novels (a novel of violent adventure and crime) and grand guignol, a French entertainment featuring the gruesome and horrible. Both popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Sondheim and Wheeler did not invent the story which was first published in the 1840s and may or may not be based on a serial killer of the period. This basic idea was all that they used. Their Sweeny and his backstory is their invention.
You might not think of Groban as natural for the role, but he carries it off. His voice seems deeper and darker and his stoicism, particularly as he reacts, or doesn’t react to, Mrs. Lovett’s advances adds depth to the character; he isn’t just out for revenge. This is a man who is suffering,
I’ll admit that although I recognize the brilliance of Sweeney Todd, it has not been a musical that I always look forward to seeing. However, I would gladly see this production again.
If the saying is, “you always hurt the one you love,” Sweeney Todd takes it one step further. While we can’t count how many deaths are in Sweeney Todd, Director Thomas Kail has kept the blood to a minimum while also avoiding the more obvious ideas of using red lighting or something similar to replace it.
It is hard to fault anything about this production. Mimi Lien’s scenic design gives us industrial London with steel building structures and grime everywhere. There is even a crane that helps bring in part of the set.
The costumes by Emilio Sosa differentiate the poor from those higher on the social ladder. Credit must go to the sound designer Nevin Steinberg and lighting designer Natasha Katz. They create the verisimilitude of London and of Sweeny’s actions. The lighting at the opening of the show was spectacular.
It is director Thomas Kail with choreographer Steven Hoggett that with the fine cast brings it all to life.
This Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are younger, but it makes perfect sense; Sweeney was exiled fifteen or so years ago. I’ve already mentioned the inherent sadness that Groban mixes with Sweeney’s desire for revenge. When it all goes so wrong, you see his devastation. Ashford may be too physical at times, but her performance lightens the mood.
The cast shines in all the other roles. Ruthie Ann Miles portrays the beggar woman with an intensity that is scary. My only regret is that she does not have her own song. Jordan Fisher as Anthony, the young man who falls in love with Johanna, seems naïve and lacks the ability to pick up the clues. Gaten Matarazzo is fine as Tobias. In fact, it is hard not to list everyone in the cast.
The score is both brilliant and beautifully sung. Maria Bilbao gives a luster to Johanna’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” while Matazzaro as Tobias handles both “Pirelli’s Magic Elixir” and “Not While I’m Around” with ease.
But the highlight of the show must be both “By the Sea” and “Epiphany” – the first with both Ashford and Groban and the second with Groban. Plus, as usual, “The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest” delight as always.
An added benefit of this production is the larger-than-usual orchestra and the original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.
Some may quibble, but I would see this production of Sweeney Todd anytime. It is changing my mind about the show.
Sweeney Todd is at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W 46th St.