Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd! Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, receives one bloody delicious production in this 2001 concert presentation of Broadway's black-humored thriller of revenge, razors, murder, and meat pies. Returning to Victorian London after a long exile, the unhinged barber Sweeney Todd seeks violent vengeance on the unscrupulous judge who separated him from his family, freedom… and sanity. Teaming with the Sweeney-smitten, pie-making Mrs. Lovett, Todd reopens his tonsorial parlor to lure the judge in… and then practice his murderous desires on the throats of Fleet Street's citizenry!
By now, we've all heard of or seen 'Sweeney Todd' in one form or another. The killer's tale originated in the mid-1850s and has been adapted several times. Since its 1979 debut, Stephen Sondheim's musical version has become a formidable piece of popular culture. It transcended into the theatrical world in 2007 when Tim Burton adapted Sondheim's version for the silver screen with Johnny Depp in the leading role. But between the version's 1979 inception and the 2007 film version that reinvigorated the world's obsession with the killer character, there was a limited 2001 concert version that earned a lot of well-deserved attention and praise. While the concert version has been available on DVD since then, it's only now available on Blu-ray for the first time.
The revenge-fueled story of Sweeney Todd is like something that Quentin Tarantino would write. We meet Sweeney Todd in the opening scene. By boat, the dark and brooding central character enters a foggy London at night. He heads directly for Fleet Street, where he meets Mrs. Lovett, a down-and-out baker who's for-sale dinner pies are suffering due to a meat famine. Todd takes to the open woman and inquires about renting the flat above her bakery. Following that question, we first learn about the flat's tragic previous tenants.
Lovett's flat was once rented by Benjamin Barker and his small family. Many years ago, with the help of a henchman named Beatle Bamford, the corrupt Judge Turpin falsly charged Barker with crimes he obviously didn't commit and had him shipped off to Australian imprisonment. Turpin then brought Barker's wife, Lucy, and her child, Johanna, into his home, where he raped Lucy. Severly traumatized by the repeatedly bad hand life dealt her, Lucy took her own life, leaving Johanna to be raised by the crooked judge.
From the moment we hear Lovett recount the tale, we immediately catch on that Sweeney Todd is actually Benjamin Barker. The years of imprisonment and the loss of everything caused his hate-filled mind to become twisted and purely hellbent on doing whatever it takes to murder Turpin and Bamford. Now knowing the fate of his wife and child, his rage burns brighter than ever. By killing Turpin, he can be reunited with his sweet daughter Joanna again. Without a moral compass or compassion, Todd is completely off his rocker and unpredictable, which makes the tale even more tense as Lovett and her stray worker boy get closer and close to him. Baked with the ingredients of the blackest comedies – murder, scandal, cannibalism, etc. – the final product is the second-best thing next to a close shave.
Although I'm frequently immersed in musicals (all thanks to my actress wife our three constantly-singing little girls), I struggle with some. The hardest to bear my way through are operettas and the biggest offender is any and every musical version of 'Les Miserables.' The non-stop melody-less talk-singing gives me anxiety. I love good long movies, but both the West End London revival and the Hugh Jackman film adaptation made me feel like a hyper, sugar-loaded 12-year-old boy with attention deficit disorder. The brilliant thing about a 'Sweeney Todd' is that it's pretty much an operetta, yet it has the polar opposite effect on me. I drink it up. Sondheim's music is brilliant. Unlike 'Les Mis,' it's not talk-singing. There are melodies – and they're beautiful! The mix of gorgeous song and dark content is delightful.
This concert version of 'Sweeney Todd' takes a minimalist approach to Sondheim's telling of the story by featuring a small, lightly wardrobed cast, a chorus that enters only as-needed from time-to-time, and a very unique staging that brings the orchestra out of the pit and onto the stage. After watching this recorded live performance, it's no wonder why this version carries such a great reputation. Todd, Lovett and the worker boy are each played by Tony-winning actors. George Hearn, who plays Sweeney Todd, earned Tonys for 'La Cage aux Folles' (1984) and 'Sunset Boulevard' (1995). Patti LuPone, who plays Mrs. Lovett, won Tonys for 'Evita' (1980) and 'Gypsy' (2008). And Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the worker boy Toby, earned his Tony for 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (2014).
'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street In Concert' is a must-own for all who love 'Sweeney Todd' and/or musical theatre. It's amazing to see what a great company can achieve via a minimalist production that removes staging, intricate lighting and blocking, make-up and effects. The vocal performances are outstanding. Although it shows its age via the presentation of this digitally-tranferred tape-recording, this concert production is top-notch.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory has placed 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street In Concert' on a Region A BD-50 disc. The option is presented to watch it in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, or its cropped-to-fit-the-screen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. (I recommend the 1.33:1 ratio because the 1.78:1 sampling that I did blew out the video to ugly proportions.) The disc is housed in a blue Elite keepcase that comes with reversable art that can be seen when the case is open. When you play the disc, the only video to run before the main menu is a forced Shout! Factory reel.
It's never fair to expect a video tape-to-Blu-ray transfer to stack up to new high-def standards. Video tape is always going to look like video tape. Such is the case with 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street In Concert.' It may carry 1080p/MPEG-2 video, but it still looks like video tape. There isn't a lick of sharpness to the presentation. Lines are not defined. Facial feautes like pores and stubble are missing. The interlaced source content is apparent from time to time. This simply isn't high definition. Having said that, the 1.33:1 presentation is just fine. It's not hideous. It's clear and there aren't tracking marks or any other flaws that would appear on most aged tape transfers.
I strongly discourage you from watching the 1.78:1 version that crops the top and bottom of the frame to make it fill your HD screen. The sharpness is even duller when cropped. Artifacts and noise result, making the presentation appear blown-out. The 1.78:1 option is undeniably hideous.
'Sweeney Todd' is a borderline operetta. Concerts don't work without great sound. Audio is the element that matters the most. Fortunately, the audio presentation of 'Sweeney Todd' hits the spot. While the tape-recorded visual presentation may leave you yearning for more, the audio will not.
The original audio track has been upgraded to a two-channel lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix that shows absolutely no sign of its age. The concert kicks off with a booming organ, the rumbling richness of which immediately shows the great aural quality of the concert that follows. The music that immediately follows is nice and simple. While it may lead you to believe that the audio will be quaint, once the chorus chimes in, the mix gets rather dynamic for being solely stereo.
Partway through reviewing the disc, instead of having my receiver split the sound out to all seven channels, I flipped the setting over to all-channel stereo and found it to be just as pleasant to listen to as the upconverted 7.1 mixing.
While Tim Burton's feature film version of 'Sweeney Todd' was critically acclaimed, many theatre-loving moviegoers weren't fully satisfied with the vocal performances of the cast. 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street In Concert' completely fixes that. Being a concert version, the entire focus of the production lies on the vocal performances, so you know that it's going to be good. Starring a trio of Tony-winning actors, the singing of Sondheim's wonderful music is a delight. The only downside to the Blu-ray is the quality of the video source (tape). Despite the lossless audio being two-channel, it still carries the full weight and dynamics needed to be effective. For theatre- and Sondheim-lovers, this disc won't disappoint.