Convince me to love Sweeney Todd?
April 28, 2023 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Everyone I know is SO HYPED FOR THIS and I'm just not getting why it's soooooo awesome. Please convince me of why it is and why I should actually finish watching it and/or consider auditioning for it?

(Please, no discussion of the Johnny Depp movie or the Josh Groban Broadway revival. Not going to be seeing the latter and I can't stand Johnny Depp, and from what I've been told the usual musical isn't anything like the movie anyway and not something we should use as a reference as to how the show goes.)

Tonight I'm going to be around a bunch of people hyped about doing Sweeney Todd at one of my theaters next. Auditions are Sunday. Even though I would not qualify for main parts, I've had people tell me I could be Mrs. Lovett (I do not get this, nor would I try to get the part since a friend of mine is going for it). It's a cousin of mine's favorite show and it's a good thing I'm not in contact with him because he'd think I'm nuts. Someone's specifically asking if I will audition and I keep ignoring her message because.... I don't really want to. I have the free time, I could, I don't really want to go show-free so much....but I'm not a fan of creepy horror, I'm out of my watching Dexter/Criminal Minds phase, and I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the entire show. I'm about 99% sure I'm not gonna like it.

Everyone seems to think it's funny/creepy (which would/could be fine?), but as far as I got into the show (I found the Angela Lansbury version because everyone raves about it, but turned it off at "My Friends" when I tried to watch it last week), it just seems to be super creepy creepy and not funny creepy. Though I admit my idea of funny creepy is probably Little Shop of Horrors and not this.

Why is this so awesome and beloved? What am I missing? Should I drag myself through watching the whole thing?

(I note auditionwise, I've been told the ensemble is "human refuse" (direct quote from the director) and "boring" (from his wife) and "the ensemble is just there to hold up the scenery" from someone else auditioning for parts. So that's approximately why I'm not super psyched on that concept either. I really don't think I'm gonna do it, I just keep trying to think of a polite way to say, "I'm sorry, I don't love your favorite show.")
posted by jenfullmoon to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Nah, it's not for me. I'll come see y'all on opening night!" (IANYtheatercritic but I also hate Sweeney Todd)
posted by nkknkk at 8:24 AM on April 28, 2023 [12 favorites]

"Honestly, I think the genre peaked with Titus Andronicus."
posted by phunniemee at 8:41 AM on April 28, 2023 [9 favorites]

“I’m not a huge fan of barbershop”
posted by staggernation at 8:44 AM on April 28, 2023 [20 favorites]

I just want to reinforce for you that this doesn't have to be super complicated.

If you don't love it and you don't want to spend hours and hours of time with the music and the story, do. not. audition. For me, Guys and Dolls is like nails on a chalkboard (despite having been in it, or maybe because) and I have zero time in my life for it ever again unless one of my children is in it.

If you're going to watch it, watch it once when your community is in it.

I will say just to answer your question a bit more directly, for me Sweeney Todd is more a class warfare fable. Les Misérables is kind of like the sweeter cousin. Neither makes me comfortable, but through that lens I find them tolerable. However, I will not watch Miss Saigon, so - we all have our limits and it's fine.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:50 AM on April 28, 2023 [10 favorites]

I saw an absolutely standard small-town community theater production of Sweeny Todd and it was... less than fun. Sondheim is hard, the singers were not up for it, and the cleverness of the lyrics was lost in the inadequacy of the performance. If the idea of a highly technical Sondheim performance doesn't make your blood sing in your veins, skip it.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:54 AM on April 28, 2023 [4 favorites]

There may be some funny moments? But now that I'm thinking about it because of your question, it really is super creepy creepy. It's NOT funny-creepy the way that Little Shop is.

I do love the show! Maybe because I didn't really understand just how creepy it was, when I saw it first? I find the music beautiful and compelling, and kind of a joy to listen to good singers do good work.

BUT. If I actually made the connections to what the words are saying and what's happening in the plot, I'd probably be horrified and go hide under the covers. Yikes.

You're right, it's horrifying, and you do not need to like it.
posted by orange (sherbet) rabbit at 9:03 AM on April 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about Sondheim in general? Because it's a style not everyone loves. (Seriously, a few weeks ago, a beloved friend sheepishly confided that she hated Sondheim's work, and I admitted I felt the very same way, and the whole conversation felt like we'd confessed some heavy, long-buried secret. It was all very bonding and conspiratorial.)
posted by mochapickle at 9:05 AM on April 28, 2023 [16 favorites]

It's a deeply creepy show, and ignoring that does no one any favors. Some people like creepy things, or some creepy things, and some people don't. It's okay not to! "It's just not really my thing" works wonders, although people may be annoying about it anyway. Ultimately there's no arguing with, uh, taste.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 9:10 AM on April 28, 2023 [1 favorite]

Meh, I don't think you're missing anything. I'm a fan of Sondheim in general but Sweeney Todd is too much *for me*. Too cynical, too creepy, too violent, and above all I don't like the music. You can be excited for everyone else but let it pass by.
posted by muddgirl at 9:12 AM on April 28, 2023 [2 favorites]

Yes, stick to your guns. I hate both Phantom and Cats, and have no idea why everyone says "the great music makes up for the lack of plot." You like what you like, and that's fine.
posted by Melismata at 9:14 AM on April 28, 2023 [5 favorites]

I adore Sweeney, it's maybe my favorite musical ever, but you don't have to! It is in fact creepy! There's some funny sprinkled in, but 95% of that is Mrs.-Lovett-based, and if you didn't particularly enjoy Angela's "Worst Pies in London" you're not going to suddenly find that character funnier later. I think you've seen what you need to see to know if you're going to enjoy the show, and you don't, and that's fine.

It doesn't strike me as a show where being in the ensemble would be particularly fun or rewarding if you don't love the show itself, and I think you should absolutely skip auditioning.

If someone wants to get weird or pushy with you about why you don't like their favorite show, an objectively creepy show about murder and cannibalism, that's a them problem not a you problem.
posted by Stacey at 9:41 AM on April 28, 2023 [6 favorites]

I really like Sweeney Todd. You don't have to. If you don't enjoy watching it, then you certainly won't enjoy rehearsing it over and over again. And even if you came to enjoy the play somehow, why would you want to work with a director who holds you in contempt? It's ok to pass on this. Another opportunity will come along.

As to why it's so awesome and beloved...I don't know, but I can tell you why I like it. I enjoy the over-the-top horror and humor, I find some of the music goose-bump-inducing and some of it very deliciously earwormy, and I love the moments of real poignancy tucked into the excess and artifice. The parentified urchin Toby singing "Not While I'm Around" gets me in the gut every time. That's just me; it's entirely okay for you to feel differently.
posted by ourobouros at 9:42 AM on April 28, 2023 [5 favorites]

I love musicals. I really like a lot of Sondheim - Sunday in the Park with George is hands down my favorite musical, period. But I don't like Sweeney Todd. Eh. It's not for everyone.
posted by Mchelly at 9:45 AM on April 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I love Sweeney Todd - it's perhaps my favorite musical - but it is definitely mostly straight horror with a few funny moments, not comedy that's also creepy (like Little Shop). It's a penny dreadful set to music with a super downer ending. I love it because of those things because I am a horror fan. If horror is not your thing, Sweeney is not going to be your thing. You should not force yourself to be involved if it doesn't seem like it's going to be any fun.
posted by darchildre at 9:46 AM on April 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

Speaking as someone who loves Sweeney Todd…. I’m not going to try to convince you to love it. If you tried watching it and hated it so much that you couldn’t even get through the whole thing, you just don’t like it. And that’s fine. I definitely don’t think you should audition for it if you don’t like it.

As for why I like it, I dunno, it just immediately grabbed me and has a lot of good music. I’m not a fan of creepy horror in general either. The first time I saw it was a college production, when I was also in college, and the guy playing Sweeney Todd was just unbelievably good in the role. But yes, it is a very dark show and not cute-dark like Little Shop of Horrors.
posted by wondermouse at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2023

But if you want to try listening to another cast recording, I like the 2012 London revival a lot.
posted by wondermouse at 9:52 AM on April 28, 2023 [1 favorite]

I don't like Sweeney Todd and I wouldn't audition for a role in it, unless, and very unless, there was a lot of money in it for me. Otherwise no. Maybe you feel the same way.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:54 AM on April 28, 2023

It's a tight show with some great numbers. It's not supposed to be funny. I cannot imagine an amateur production that shows it to anything like its best effect.
posted by MattD at 10:21 AM on April 28, 2023 [2 favorites]

If you want to brave it again, Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel did it very much over the top, which muted a lot of the horror (plus the Lincoln Center recording is concert version, again distancing you from the horror). That version really showcases the music and voices, especially Bryn as Sweeney and Philip Quast as Turpin, and sold me on the musical when I generally can't stand Sondheim.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:13 AM on April 28, 2023 [3 favorites]

The music is lovely! I believe there was a post over on the Blue in fall 2021 (around when Sondheim died) about the show, with a lot of posts from people who enjoy it.

I've seen lots of Sweeneys, including community, college, and high school productions & IMHO there are lots of ways to do the show well. (The film is real bad though.)

I don't think the chorus is boring, but if the director does, that doesn't sound fun. And it is a pitch-black revenge tragedy, featuring rape, murder, and for-profit cannibalism.

If you want to be real sure you're not missing anything you'd enjoy, maybe YouTube the act one finale, Epiphany/A Little Priest, which is a comedic high point on the theme of "eat the rich! (and others)".

"I'm more a Little Shop person" is an extremely reasonable position.
posted by mersen at 11:21 AM on April 28, 2023 [1 favorite]

The version with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel that I Claim Sanctuary speaks of was discussed in this FPP. And from a stagecraft perspective, the opening number kicks ass.

But - honestly, just tell people that you aren't auditioning because you don't like the show and leave it at that. If they keep saying "but whyyyyyyyyyy" in really childish voices, then just say "becaaaaaaaaaaaaaause" back in an equally childish voice until they leave you alone. You don't have to make yourself like something if you're not being paid to do it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:53 AM on April 28, 2023 [1 favorite]

I mean, I like it very much, but also in a couple of hours my wife and I are going to order a pizza and watch a horror movie, because it's Friday and we watch a horror movie every Friday night. Which is all to say that I like it because it's creepy, and if you don't like creepy stuff then I don't think you'll like it! And that's ok!

I do find it darkly funny, but only in the sense that a horror musical is inherently funny, not in the sense that it has great jokes.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:20 PM on April 28, 2023

"I've tried watching it and it just didn't grab me" is a polite enough way out, I think. It makes it about your opinion, not theirs, and doesn't provide anyone with anything particularly solid to argue with you about if someone were to be clueless or impolite enough to want to. ("I love that you're so excited about it," has also been a helpful line with people who are excited about something I'm not, if I don't want to close off discussion.)

Life is too short to force yourself through a major investment in art you're not getting anything from, even if a lot of other people are super excited about it. Even if you otherwise love Sondheim. Even if you otherwise love really dark musicals. Also, sometimes something just isn't ever for you, and sometimes it isn't for you right now. It sounds like now definitely isn't Sweeney Todd's time for you and that's completely fair.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:41 PM on April 28, 2023 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: If you're going to watch it, watch it once when your community is in it.

That's pretty much the plan, right there. Especially the "once."

How do you feel about Sondheim in general?

I'm fine with him, in this case it's a subject matter issue.

why would you want to work with a director who holds you in contempt?

That's the director's joke about the ensemble in the show. I note he also directed Urinetown (which I was in) and I was all "what, like Urinetown?" to this, and he said it's because people lie around on the floor even more in that show. I don't think he holds us all in contempt for real.

If someone wants to get weird or pushy with you about why you don't like their favorite show, an objectively creepy show about murder and cannibalism, that's a them problem not a you problem.

Hahahahahah, yeah. I just don't want to have the same conversations I had about why I didn't want to audition for Pirates of Penzance when everyone loved it so hard and could not get why I didn't love it too. I didn't want to yuck their yum by saying, "it's kinda stupid and the girl parts are boring."

I hate both Phantom and Cats, and have no idea why everyone says "the great music makes up for the lack of plot."

Hah. I'm fine with Phantom, but refuse to watch Cats. I can't do no plot shows.

If you want to brave it again, Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel did it very much over the top,

I did find a recording today of Emma doing The Worst Pies in London and actually that was the one I liked? That was about the closest to how I'd do it, probably.

I don't think the chorus is boring, but if the director does, that doesn't sound fun.

That was his wife, presumably saying that she doesn't want to be ensemble in it again. I find this ironic since she directed Evita, and made a big deal about the ensemble being important, and yet most of us did nothing but stand around and sing "Per-on!" and "E-vi-ta!" and Latin and Spanish words a lot of the time. If she finds this show boring...ahem?!?!

So, thank you, I no longer feel bad for not loving this like the 47 people who want to audition for it (suffice it to say they won't need me). I kept thinking something was wrong with me for not laughing my easily-amused head off at this, albeit I do get the word twistery and think it's fun, even if I didn't actually laugh.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:22 PM on April 28, 2023 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, it's not really a comedy. There are some numbers that are pitch black comedy, but that's more like comic relief to a show that is mostly not trying to be funny.
posted by MythMaker at 5:18 PM on April 28, 2023 [2 favorites]

I would be delighted to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney -- it's the right range for me, I'm the right age and shape, and I think there are valid reads on the character I've never seen anyone try and would like to enact.

I would not enjoy being in the ensemble. The music is extremely fucking difficult and would make me nervous as hell about missing an entrance or getting an accidental wrong.

I'm not a horror person in general, but Sweeney is one of my few exceptions. For me, the gross-out horror is over-the-top cartoony enough that I can put up with it, and the psychological horror is pretty interesting. It's also got one of those jigsaw-puzzle, everything-fits-together-at-the-end plots that for some reason satisfy my soul.

And I absolutely cannot stand Sunday because of its pronatalism and general air of seedy misogyny (a common Sondheim failing, I can't abide "Ladies Who Lunch" for similar reasons)... so yeah, de gustibus non disputandum. I think your plan to see Sweeney once is just fine.
posted by humbug at 5:21 PM on April 28, 2023 [1 favorite]

No one can or should convince you that you should like it, especially when you've made it clear you've already made up your mind. It's a purely subjective thing. I like but don't love it, don't think musical theater gets a whole lot better than "A Little Priest" and don't ever need to hear "By the Sea" again, and that's fine, too. The polite way of saying "I'm sorry, I don't love your favorite show" is "I'm sorry, I don't love your favorite show." People like and don't like things.
posted by less-of-course at 6:55 PM on April 28, 2023 [2 favorites]

[Disclaimer: Big ST fan; the bug bit me as a li'l college theatre kid way back; saw the Groban version on Bway twice]

"the ensemble is just there to hold up the scenery" - whoever told you this, it is not true!! The ensemble is a key element in the show, and as mentioned above, has very interesting and musically satisfying stuff to sing. They carry the plot along in many ways and operate as sort of Greek chorus. Depending on the staging, they may have all kinds of interesting things to add to the performance.

That being said... a lot of the fun of local theatre is just being in a show with your friends, making new theatre friends and bonding etc. The "comrades in arms" feeling that can arise from a shared theatre experience is awesome; I still have close ties with cast mates from prior shows even though those were many years ago. And even in dark/creepy shows, this community feeling can be really cool. So maybe that is something you might like to consider, on a personal level.

That aside - I will echo less-of-course's great comments! You do not have to like it! I hate many shows others love (RENT-cough-CHORUS LINE-cough) and every time it comes up, I find that I am not alone. You aren't either!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:37 AM on April 29, 2023 [1 favorite]

Even though I would not qualify for main parts, I've had people tell me I could be Mrs. Lovett

Mrs. Lovett IS one of the main parts. She's one of two female leads. Her part is the bigger of the two, and calls for a lot more actual acting (the ingenue can be played by any plank of wood with the right kind of voice).
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:45 PM on April 29, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, I just meant that I'm crap and everyone knows it when they see me, so even if I wanted to go for the part, there would be no point. It was just odd that anyone would identify me with any part since I am lowest ranked about 90% of the time.

I'm all about the show bonding with friends experience. This just kind of sounds so far like the Evita experience (the director harped about the ensemble, but it was standing around singing boring bits), but with creepiness. I really miss those theater friends now, which is why I'd consider doing it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:27 PM on April 29, 2023 [2 favorites]

I'm quite late to this thread, but I did want to share an answer with you.

I completely agree with others that "it's just not my thing" is a perfectly valid thing to say, and anyone who gives you even a little bit of a hard time about that is being obnoxious.

That said: I LOVE Sondheim, especially frothy, fun Sondheim - I am way more into A Little Night Music than Assassins, and I love songs like "Agony". I was never a big fan of Sweeney Todd, even after watching the Angela Lansbury DVD; I think I wasn't quite in the right place to get it just watching it on DVD.

But as I wrote in the Sondheim birthday thread, seeing Sweeney Todd in person brought it home to me in an incredibly powerful and moving way. It's about striking back at the horrific cruelties of the powerful. It's about the evil people do, and the people who suffer, and the ways the victims try to respond - by escaping (Johanna), or by trying to survive and even maybe reach for a dream within an utterly corrupt system (Mrs. Lovett), or by seeking revenge on the man who literally raped your wife and stole your daughter.

The funny songs are funny, but only because Sondheim is phenomenally witty and he's also amazing at marrying humor to the bleakest, saddest themes.

So, as someone who does NOT enjoy creepy works and is so averse to violence that I've actually never seen a Tarantino movie: IF you feel like you might find something there, I believe Sweeney truly is worth seeing, and experiencing; and honestly, maybe seeing it when your friends are putting it on would be a good way to experience it.

(Note: If you're willing to try a filmed version, the Sweeney Todd in Concert version is quite good. It looks like some folks have posted the Emma Thompson / Bryn Terfel version, too. I believe Sondheim said he thought the more intimate John Doyle production was much more effective than the bombastic Lansbury version, and both of these versions are closer to the smaller Doyle production.)
posted by kristi at 4:36 PM on May 1, 2023 [2 favorites]

The chorus parts in Sweeney Todd are pretty gnarly, even for Sondheim. I don't know if they're something I would choose to tackle if I didn't love the show (which, full disclosure, I do). If you're looking for a fun experience with your theater family, maybe this would be a good show to get involved with behind the scenes.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:29 PM on May 1, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm definitely skipping it.I'm told they had like 50 people auditioning, I'm sure someone who would enjoy watching the show repeatedly will step in to do the lights and whatnot. I don't think I can even stomach finishing watching it. I might, I might not, but they don't need me. Maybe I just return in 2024.

Thanks, all!
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:33 AM on May 2, 2023 [4 favorites]

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