Sweeney Todd, née Benjamin Barker—barber, killer, escaped prisoner, seeker of vengeance, a man who’s vowed to sweat in the sewers or the plague hospital if that what it takes to live and to kill—proves one mother of a man to inhabit, one uphill push to assay. At the end of his “Epiphany,” in this 5th Avenue Theatre production, running through May 14, Todd (Yusef Seevers) stands vibrant on a chair, pulsating with power, purpose, that lifeblood determined to make run the same of others—and Mrs. Lovett (Anne Allgood) his business partner, confidant, muse, and, she desperately hopes, lover—has to call him back. Several times. Because he’s simply lost in his own bloodlust. Absent. And happier there.
A great or even decent Todd, must acknowledge these frequent sojourns to lands the audience can’t access. The fixed glare must shine from surrounding murk—this show would quickly shred to threads in bright light—along with the gaze, the assessment of those around him, canny, because most of the time those around him don’t know who Todd really is. And those who know, must quickly pass.
Christopher Bond’s play gave Todd/Barker his backstory, the white-hot evil poured over him, his twisted but understandable compulsion to get his daughter back, and make the buggers who put him away bleed. The musical, adapted from Bond by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, turns everything up to baking temperature—not only gore, not only the cannibalism of human flesh baked into pies, but sweat practically hanging off walls, and exertion. Everybody on stage runs, when they aren’t prancing, dancing, posing, or hiding.
A good friend—you know a friend’s good who’s seen you through desperation, insanity, bottom-of-the-bucket—shared my fascination with the gory mess, in our college days. We’d brood on it as we brooded, necessarily, on the tonic note of vengeance, satisfying three dictionary senses of the word: Infliction [of whatever horror], on a person, by another who’s been harmed by the first person; an act or opportunity of inflicting such trouble; and the desire for such—in which Todd simmers for the better part of the three-hour or so running time.
It wasn’t realistic, of course, my friend put forth (and I tried to agree), to imagine vengeance on the scale Todd takes. But at the time, pathetic say, I nursed a raw nerve that wouldn’t heal. What to fucking do, with people who destroyed you and laughed all the while? Who cut your heart out and fed it to the wolves?
The 5th Avenue show punches all the bloody buttons. Seevers, a black gay man, probably wakes up in America every day feeling two strikes against him, and that’s exactly what he needs for a character who’s beaten both a trumped-up life sentence, and death itself. But Todd upholds his dignity, too. That’s strength. Plus, of course, the glare and the gaze. Anne Allgood, as Mrs. Lovett, looks beaten-down (the two leads must, within the stylization of stage makeup, look beat down, to match their stories), but pours on the Cockney and the ardor, oblivious to Todd’s isolation. Kudos to Porscha Shaw as the Beggar Woman—I had no idea she was legally blind ‘til I read the fine print.
And me? I rue the time it took that nerve to heal—my friend, and other friends, had to show a patience with me I didn’t deserve, that and boldly shove me in the right direction when I wouldn’t move on my own. I rue lost time. I rue wear and tear on the ones who care for me. Another old friend, and she’s been through hell I can hardly imagine, offered “The people or person that you want to hurt or shock, the person who needs the big ‘Fuck You!’ isn’t going to give you a single thought beyond ‘They died? Whoa, man.’ Whereas anyone who cares about you will be devastated.” And that smacked things into proper perspective. The ones who hurt, on that level, look human enough. But they hide hearts of stone. As another wise friend addended: Are you letting people live rent-free, inside your head?
I sat across from a gaggle of young people, on the train, going home—young defined as “could conceivably be my kids.” I think they came out of the show, too; they certainly seemed caught up in the legend of Sweeney and his mythical ilk. They got facts wrong—Lizzie Borden was found innocent, not guilty, and there’s no evidence that she haunts anyone—but they had the zeal. The boogeyman lives. But the boogeyman, after all, lives inside us all. “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” the rabble sings in the last seconds. And in essence, yes. Not in homicide. But in the secluded, walled-off cockles of the hurt heart.