Attend the Tale

Des Moines Metro Opera founder Robert L. Larsen explains how Sondheim’s musical thriller came from Broadway to Des Moines Metro Opera’s stage.

The origin of this strange tale may have been a recorded murder in the later 18th century in the area of Fleet Street in London. A version appeared in serialized form for The People’s Periodical and Family Library—a 16-page weekly penny newspaper in November 1846. It hit the stage in a version by George Dibden Pitt in March of 1847. The production was full of sensational stage effects including a disappearing barber chair. The Pitt version was the first of many stage versions, mostly melodramas, in which virtue triumphed over vice.

It was a new version rife with revenge and social commentary by Christopher Bond that Sondheim saw in the Theatre Royal in London’s West End in 1973 when he was in the city working on a production of Gypsy. Todd, in this version, was a sympathetic figure driven to crime by a lecherous judge who takes his wife and child from him. Fifteen years later he escapes from exile and returns to London to avenge his wrongs.

Hal Prince’s production at the Uris Theatre on Broadway with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou was popular, but beset with symbolism that cluttered the story. In my opinion it took a far more effective version at the Circle in the Square and inclusion by opera theatres, including New York City Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago in their repertory, for the work to achieve its real life and stature as one of the most amazing of 20th century theatrical phenomena.

DMMO favorite Joyce Castle in New York City Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd.

I saw it on Broadway shortly after its premiere in 1979, and I thought even then that the right voices and a different theatrical approach might work wonders. It interested me enough that I bought a recording when I got home—something I almost never do. The demon barber struck and would not be assuaged until I first shared this feast of music, mirth, and mayhem with Des Moines Metro Opera audiences back in 1995 (pictured below), and I’m thrilled to see Sweeney make its triumphant return to DMMO’s stage 26 years later.

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