Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street
From the mid-1940s, when she was signed to an MGM contract, Angela Lansbury had a long and not terribly successful film career that only occasionally took advantage of her nuanced acting range, and almost never used her talent as a singer. (The sole exception was when she sang "Little Yellow Bird" in a sweet, untrained soprano in 1945's The Picture of Dorian Gray.)
When her film career faded in the 1950s, Lansbury turned to the stage, and made her Broadway musical debut in Anyone Can Whistle, with songs by Stephen Sondheim, in 1964. Though the unconventional show was a flop, lasting only nine performances, Lansbury was dazzled by Sondheim's talent. Two years later, Lansbury won the first of her five Tony Awards, and became the queen of the Broadway musical in Jerry Herman's Mame, the enormously successful musical version of the 1958 film Auntie Mame. She scored another hit (and another Tony) as Mama Rose in a 1974 revival of Gypsy, which had lyrics by Sondheim. And her next collaboration with Sondheim would be the most outrageous of all.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) was based on an 1840s British serial novel of the genre called "penny dreadfuls" because they were cheap and lurid. There have been several film and stage versions of the story, and the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler had its origins in a British stage production by Christopher Bond. In both Bond's and Sondheim's versions, Todd is actually Benjamin Barker, a barber sent to a penal colony in Australia who returns to London bent on revenge. He returns in disguise to his old barber shop, which has now become Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop, where the slatternly Lovett makes "The Worst Pies in London." With the help of Lovett, Todd extracts his horrible vengeance.
Sondheim had seen Bond's play in London, and liked its emphasis on the social inequalities in 19th century British society. "What I wanted to write was a horror movie," he said about the score. "It had to be unsettling, scary, and very romantic." Sondheim thought Lansbury would add some needed comedy to the grim tale as the lunatic Cockney shopkeeper, but Lansbury needed to be convinced. She was a star by now, and as she pointed out, "Your show is not called Nellie Lovett, it's called Sweeney Todd. And I'm the second banana." So Sondheim "auditioned," writing a couple of songs for her, including the hilariously macabre patter song, "A Little Priest." And he gave her the key, saying "I want Mrs. Lovett to have a music hall character." Lansbury, who had grown up in British music hall, immediately got it. "Not just music hall," she said, "but dotty music hall."
With director Harold Prince absorbed in staging the mammoth production, Lansbury and co-star Len Cariou were on their own when it came to developing their characters. They worked together on their scenes, both of them creative actors who were giving intense, original performances. "That cuckoo style of playing Mrs. Lovett, that was pretty much Ange," Cariou said. "She invented that character." Lansbury recalled, "I just ran with it. The wide-openness of my portrayal had to do with my sink or swim attitude toward it. I just figured hell, I've done everything else on Broadway, I might as well go with Mrs. Lovett."
Run with it she did, earning some of the best reviews of her career. Howard Kissel of Women's Wear Daily wrote, "She sings with the gusto of an English music-hall performer and plays her part with such relish she makes you fall in love with the grotesque." Douglas Watt of the New York Daily News called Sweeney Todd "a staggering theater spectacle," and wrote that Lansbury was "an endless delight...the grandest, funniest, most bewitching witch of a fairy-tale fright you're ever likely to encounter."
As for Lansbury, if Sweeney Todd was one of the high points of her career, it certainly wasn't the last one. In 2009, she won another Tony for playing another loony Englishwoman, Madame Arcati in a Broadway revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. The following year, she appeared in another Sondheim revival playing Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. This spring, the indefatigable 86-year old Lansbury is once again headed to Broadway in a revival of Gore Vidal's political drama, The Best Man.
Producer: Bonnie Burns
Director: Terry Hughes, Harold Prince
Screenplay: Hugh Wheeler (book); Christopher Bond (play)
Cinematography: Bill Klages
Music: Songs by Stephen Sondheim
Film Editing: Jimmy B. Frazier, Ken Laski
Cast: Angela Lansbury (Nellie Lovett), George Hearn (Sweeney Todd), Cris Groenendaal (Anthony Hope), Sara Woods (Beggar Woman), Edmund Lyndeck (Judge Turpin), Calvin Remsberg (The Beadle), Betsy Joslyn (Johanna), Sal Mistretta (Pirelli), Spain Logue (Birdseller), Walter Charles (Passerby).
by Margarita Landazuri