Friday, January 4, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Original Cast Recording

One of the perks of my day job is that I get to listen to music through my headphones anytime I want. It's a small perk, but one of my favorites. I've worked at a lot of places where the only available music is the piped-in easy-listening station that plays the same 20 songs over and over again on a loop, and believe me, it gets old.

Besides, as a musical-theatre buff, I like to be able to listen to the bazillion cast recordings I've got downloaded onto my computer.

As I was scrolling through my playlist today, I came across the original Broadway cast recording of Sweeney Todd. And since it's been a long time since I listened to that recording in its entirety, I decided to play it through.

It blew me away.

Now, I am not new to Sweeney Todd in the least. I've worn out my 1982 Hearn-Lansbury DVD and watched the concert DVD more times than I can count. I was lucky enough to see the Broadway revival twice. And of course I've seen the new movie with Johnny Depp.

The thing is, when you see something that many times and know the songs like the back of your hand, it loses something. The delightful lyrics and complex music lose their spark once you've heard them too many times. And with a show that's every bit as farcically hysterical as it is grotesquely creepy, it's easy to become desensitized to the horror of the material.

But listening to the original cast recording today re-awakened me to the meat and potatoes of Sweeney Todd. The OBC is not my favorite recording. There are other actors I prefer in just about every role. But this was the first recording of Sweeney I ever listened to. This was the recording that introduced me to the story, the music, the lyrics. This was the recording that made me fall in love with Sweeney. And yes, it was the recording that terrified me the first few times I heard it.

I think Len Cariou in the title role is one of my favorite things about this recording. While George Hearn is (and probably always will be) my favorite Sweeney, there's something just so haunting and sad about Len Cariou's voice that suits this recording perfectly. And Angela Lansbury is the perfect Mrs. Lovett---even better here than she was on the '82 DVD.

Ken Jennings is probably my least favorite Toby, in terms of singing style, but I absolutely love his delivery of his dialogue. Particularly in the finale. It's not often that you can listen to a recording of a musical and be on the edge of your seat in suspense. And although I never got to see her, I've always loved Merle Louise's Beggar Woman. No actress who's played the role since has quite matched her high-pitched wailing and frantic dialogue. Beautiful work.

Victor Garber and Sarah Rice, as young lovers Anthony and Johanna, blend well together and they both have that type of voice that's so reminiscent of '70s-era Sondheim music.

The orchestrations are lovely, not too sparse but not overbearing. And I can't talk about this recording without mentioning the steam whistle. A theatrical device that was left out of later recordings and cut from the movie entirely, the steam whistle was blown every time Sweeney murdered one of his victims. It's supposed to be a symbol of the working class beating down the upper class, but you don't need to know that in order for it to scare the wits out of you every single time you hear it. It's really the biggest reason why this will always be the definitive Sweeney cast recording (in my opinion, anyway)'s just such a unique sound.

I'm so happy that Sweeney Todd is more recognizable in mainstream America today, thanks to Tim Burton's movie. But if you only know Sweeney through Johnny Depp, I implore you to check this cast recording out at your local library. I'm not disparaging the movie in any way---I absolutely loved it---but it can't beat the original.

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