Analysis Of Music In Sweeney Todd By Stephen Sondheim

Sweeney Todd is an award-winning musical thriller written by Stephen Sondheim which follows the character of Benjamin Barker under his new alias of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. The story follows him through his dark plot to gain revenge on Judge Turpin who ruined his earlier years of life, tearing his family apart. The musical was based on Christopher Bonds play, with Sondheim’s intentions of adding music to over 80% of the show, in order to enhance the story and its drama. One way that this is widely achieved is through each song, linking with other sections creating one intense score through the use repetition and leitmotifs.

“A Little Priest” takes place as the final song of Act 1, becoming a pivotal point in the musical whilst also providing comic relief from the sinister atmosphere created throughout. Using a pivotal song to close Act 1 allows for it to leave the audience wanting more. Throughout the first half of the show, Sweeney is desperate to find a solution to wanting revenge, this song establishes and solidifies his plan, setting up the plot for the second act. This leaves the audience with questions and expectations, evoking an excitement from the audience, allowing for anticipation to grow of what will happen in the second act. In contrast to this, it can be argued that the song summarises the entire plot, therefore creating clarification for unsettled queries of events that have already taken place.

Sondheim utilises structural choices, stylistic devices, contextual links and the support of music in order to engage his audience in the plot change occurring. The song is performed by Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett and sees the two discussing a new form of ingredients for Mrs Lovett’s pies, while also catering for Sweeney’s thirst for revenge. “The two delight about the potential flavours that will ensue from the meat” (Manning, 2014). The song is cleverly delivered with black humour to end the first act with a comical number a conscious decision made by Sondheim “who was keen to assure the audience that comedy was just as important as tragedy in this interpretation of the story”. “A Little Priest” follows the song “Epiphany”, one of the darkest yet strongest songs from the show. “Epiphany” shows Todd’s reaction to his failure of killing Judge Turpin, sending him into believing that everyone deserves to be killed. His descent to homicidal madness in this song creates the memorable contrast to “A Little Priest”, emphasising the psychological states of both Todd and Mrs Lovett. Their motivations for the killings are separate and personal, Todd’s being the most obvious as his character is simply longing to right the wrongs committed against him. Mrs Lovett’s however is often interpreted in many ways, the most common being that she is emotionally and sexually drawn toward Mr Todd while also being generally a very lonely widow. Her desire to cook human flesh into pies may simply be to fill her life with some excitement and activity, especially if it draws her closer to Sweeney Todd. The lyrics of the song can, however, paint over these individual motivations, creating the false apprehension that they are plotting these dark actions in order to let their business thrive.

Sondheim utilises the structure of a list song in “A Little Priest”, creating a conversational feeling to the song, which is emphasised to the audience through the flow of speech between the two characters throughout. The constant referrals to professions, followed by a small conversation about each, subtly highlights this being a list song, allowing for a pattern to be created as the song goes on. “Pattern recognition is essential to comic list songs” (Sondheim, 2011) suggesting that Sondheim worked so hard at this, with other examples being “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls. Despite all the clever, concise rhymed lyrics in the song, Sondheim stated that once he had “set up short lines and an increasingly intricate rhyme scheme to avoid monotony, I was stuck” (Sondheim, 2011). This struggle led to a few hidden mistakes in some lines. To give an example, the line “you never know if it’s going to run”, discussing a politician. However, in England politicians ‘stand’ rather than ‘run’, yet the mistake could also be due to Sondheim being American.

Throughout the song, “A Little Priest”, Sondheim uses stylistic devices such as; metaphors and subtle play on word jokes to create humour. This is in order to create a lighter hearted and comical piece, despite their conversation inevitably leading to a vast number of deaths. It also simply allows for Sondheim to convey their gruesome act in a more manageable way for the audience. This comic relief creates a lighter mood for the audience to be left in during the interval, evoking a new excitement found through the song, which is especially beneficial due to the darkness created during Act 2. In contrast to this, Phantom of the Opera, another dark musical written in the following decade, ends Act 1 on a haunting scene, leaving the audience thrilled and excited yet in a completely different way. The humour of the song is particularly present through the use of insults, undermining victims and their professions, which also allows for Sondheim to provide some contextual information within the humour. For example, ‘The trouble with poet is how do you know its deceased?’ making the point that poets, stereotypically, sit and ponder, causing the confusion of whether they are moping around or are dead? This line also adds contextual information as the majority of stereotypically moody poets belong in the Romantic period (the 18th century) which coincides with the time that Sweeney Todd was set, suggesting how the joke was humorous to the two characters. Another example of these jokes is with the line ‘You might enjoy Royal Marine, anyway its clean, though of course it tastes of wherever it’s been’. This is making a reference to how Marines of the period often sleep with prostitutes when away from home, almost commenting on it being a ‘dirty’ habit. This would be due to the distance from them and their family, and the longing for some fun “with the women came drink and what with the drink and the women the ship’s discipline came to a stop” (Slope, 2011), suggesting no boundaries or limits. Another form of humour used is the subtle use of irony, for example, continuous use of jokes about religious characters, such as a ‘Priest’, ‘Bishop’ and ‘Vicar’. These religious terms contrast with the sinful actions that Mrs Lovett and Sweeney are discussing. The final use of irony is in the simplicity of their discussion of death when that is also where both of their fates lie. During the final section of the musical, both characters die, after their lives had been led killing others.

As previously mentioned, the song uses a lot of dark humour, making jokes about death using spass. The satanic lyrics however also show Mrs Lovett and Mr Todd attempting to justify their choice of murdering people. To give an example, ‘Seems an awful waste’ and ‘Save a lot of graves, do a lot of relatives favours’ suggests them trying to turn a horrific action into something convenient. In addition to this, in historical context, graveyards during this time used to have issues due to an increase in bodies, “Ever since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, hordes of people migrated”, leading to a lack of space. Therefore, emphasising the couples ‘good deed’ in their minds. The line ‘we’ll not discriminate great from small’ also suggests them acting oblivious to their wrongdoing, convincing themselves that they are acting in a considerate manner.

Throughout the song, they never name any individuals, suggesting that the murders are not personal, purely a means for both personal gains. Each victim is referred to by profession, in which the song uses a wide variety, covering a cross section of London, thus allowing the song to become almost relatable to the audience, as they may be familiar with such professions and stereotypes. Another victim objectified is the discussion of Pirelli’s dead body at the beginning, in which he is labelled as ‘what’s his name’. The only victim named during the number is Beadle, focusing the song back on Todd’s personal motivation of getting revenge by singling him out, linking the song back to the entire show. The song also uses the clever device of never actually stating their plan. Despite the song being their discussion of murderous acts and baking the bodies into pies, Sondheim has masterfully avoided using words to actually describe this, adding to the ease of the song to the audience. The topic is covered up, especially toward the beginning, with lyrics such as ‘If you get my drift’ and ‘If you get it’, showing Mrs Lovett hinting the idea to Todd as opposed to openly saying her thoughts. This also places the audience in Todd’s shoes, by forcing them to ‘get her drift’ as well, with the length of the song and lyrics allowing for audience members to take time over understanding their exact plan.

“A Little Priest” is the most important moment in the show in terms of Todd and Mrs Lovett’s relationship, providing the only real moment that Todd allows himself to bond with her. Their relationship is mainly left open to interpretation throughout the musical, however with the suggestions of Mrs Lovett longing to be more than a business partner to Mr Todd. This song in particular shows her efforts in seducing him, while the song seduces the audience into accepting their distasteful actions. Her way of seduction in “A Little Priest” differs from other songs, she gains his interest due to her idea as opposed to physical attraction. This would explain his appeal towards Mrs Lovett in this number despite his distance in the others, such as “By the Sea”, as she gives him the plot of revenge that he has been longing for.

Throughout “A Little Priest”, the music supports the song by contrasting in mood with the lyrics, creating a cohesion between the two. The music creates a light atmosphere through its ¾ time signature creating a dance feeling, and a major key signature adding to the more joyful and upbeat nature of the song. The previous song, “Epiphany”, includes the use of brass instruments to add a harsh tone, whereas “A Little Priest” mainly uses stringed instruments, emphasising the contrast to a softer feel. The tempo is usually 120 beats per minute, this fast tempo continues throughout, working alongside the rubato to create a conversational feel, with pauses emphasising their ideas and trains of thought to the audience. Despite the more cheerful mood to the music, the sharp stringed chords do help to add an aggressive feel, allowing for some similarity between music and lyrics as well as preventing the song from becoming completely separate to the rest of the score.

In conclusion, Sondheim successfully created a comic relief song to end the first act, whilst still carrying through the sinister topic of death through the use of metaphors and comical jokes. Sondheim almost juxtaposes the idea of death with their survival, adding to the comedic value of the song. Alongside this, through the topic of the song, he managed to sum up the plot of the musical, allowing for the audience to head into the interval with a good knowledge of not only what has happened, but also a hint of what is yet to occur. Overall, the use of macabre humour and lyrics juxtaposed with jovial music made the watching of their dark discussion easier for the audience, creating the perfect black comedy number to end the act. 

16 August 2021
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