Love Songs in Sweeney Todd

By Marisa Suescun

Sweeney Todd, being as it is a tale of mass murder, is not an obvious vehicle for love songs. The relationships in Sweeney have a symbiotic quality that comes from the lovers’ mutual need and overlapping lust for things other than each other.

And yet Sweeney is studded with some of Sondheim’s finest love songs. Soaring, poignant melodies find their place unexpectedly in the midst of the gothic gloom, blooming briefly before darkness prevails. I distinctly remember being in the theater during the 2006 Broadway revival of the show, hearing for the first time the wondrous opening line of “Johanna,” and holding onto it like a lifeline, only to have it shift into something else entirely by the end of the song.

As such, the love songs in Sweeney come off less as declarations of devotion to a person than as plaintive pleas for justice in an unjust world. With Sweeney himself the most vengeful seeker of justice.

“My Friends:” Mr. Todd, Mrs. Lovett, and the Razors

It’s always a rich treat to watch Sondheim in action, teaching. Among other things, it validates the very enterprise of writing a blog about his works; they really are worth the close listen. To start, Sondheim teaches his student actor (and by extension his studio audience, and by further extension his 21st-century digital audience) that “My Friends” is in fact a love song. A crazed man to his razors.

This is the first of the love songs in Sweeney Todd, coming early in the first act, and it sets the tone for the kind of love that pervades this story. Sondheim tells his actor to sustain the song’s ritualistic quality, to use its rhythmic squareness to portray Sweeney’s state of “almost self-hypnosis.” Indeed, in this and other love songs throughout this show, there’s an element of determined fantasy, of willful wishing on the part of one lover for the other to take on a transportive greatness. Here, Sweeney bids his razor to “drip precious rubies” (gorgeous consonance in that phrase, the whispered s’s and the violent pop of the p’s) – to be his instrument of murder, and ultimately transport him to a place of vengeful justice.

This being Sondheim, “My Friends” has multiple layers of willful wishing, a love triangle masquerading as a duet, with a silver razor at its fulcrum. The third side is Mrs. Lovett, singing with comic banality, “I’m your friend, too, Mr. Todd.”

Mrs. Lovett’s opening solo, “Worst Pies in London,” introduces her as a pragmatist working to make ends meet in a dirty, unforgiving city. The hyperbole in the title is notable; it conveys Mrs. Lovett’s unflinching self-appraisal, her sense of humor, and, perhaps most notably though most subtly, her desire for the superlative. What she remembers of Sweeney from years back is his uncommon talent with a razor. If Mrs. Lovett makes the worst pies in London, Mr. Todd is the best barber in London, and it is for this reason that she’s kept his razors all these years, a detail that in a different context is the stuff of romance.

One might argue that what Mrs. Lovett wants through a relationship with Sweeney is simple companionship, escape from the struggle of the city, and a comfortable life, as she sings of in “By the Sea.”

I think she is too smart for that. Yes, she longs for an ocean breeze to brush away the depravities of the past. She wants the security of marriage (sneaking in a proposal to Sweeney between lines about kippered herring and seagulls squawking), and, more to the point, to get out of London before they both get caught. But she wants also to be in touch with greatness, even murderous greatness, and in doing so to reinvent herself. I think that Mrs. Lovett in these scenes with Sweeney is knowingly prosaic, and that she seeks not just a comfortable life, but a remarkable one.

Back to “My Friends” for a moment. Here’s a terrific George Ahearn, with Angela Lansbury in a role she seems born to play, from the 1982 Broadway production:

This staging and performance highlight the ebb and flow of Sweeney’s lunacy, with Mrs. Lovett’s patter (“silver’s good enough for me, Mr. Todd”) as the undercurrent. Sweeney tells his razors, “rest now, my friends” and starts to put them in their case. But a moment later, unable to stop himself, he seizes a razor and for the first time explicitly tells it – and Mrs. Lovett, and, perhaps, himself – that it will help him carry out murder. It’s the exultant sharing of secrets between two lovers. “At last, my arm is complete,” Sweeney roars. Mrs. Lovett looks on, the unplanned-for third wheel, shaken but already plotting ways to be useful.

Anthony and “Johanna”

The young, idealistic sailor and the golden-voiced woman locked in captivity. On this relationship, Sondheim lavishes the show’s most soaring melody paired with plainspoken, earnest lyric: “I feel you, Johanna. I feel you.”

It’s a gorgeous, shimmering phrase. The one that gave me lovely respite midway through the first act, a vision of a pure and good-hearted love.

Yet this love song, too, sings of fantasy – here a fallible and hubristic fantasy of rescue – and Sondheim tells us this musically. Note the unexpected interval in the phrase “satisfied enough to dream you,” the “dream” a step flatter and a beat longer than the ear wants to hear. Then the lyrics take a harder edge, once Anthony realizes what he’s up against and what he’ll need to resort to to consummate his love: “I’ll steal you, Johanna.” In that one line, delivered defiantly, Sondheim tells us that no one in this story, not the young idealist we were told to root for (and by extension, not even the complicit audience), will get by without resorting to vice.

Notably, “Johanna” is a one-voiced duet. Anthony sings of Johanna’s yellow hair, in part because he longs to bury himself in something soft and light and lovely, and in part because he knows nothing yet of the content of her soul. Johanna, like the razors in “My Friends,” is the silent projection of one man’s fantasy.

We don’t hear Johanna speak to Anthony until the astonishing, masterful “Kiss Me” later in the act.

“Sir, I did
Love you even as I
Saw you, even as it
Did not matter that I
Did not know your name…”

Like with “I feel you, Johanna,” Sondheim bestows Johanna’s declaration of love to Anthony with a sweet melody that soars above the nervous frenzy of their first rendezvous. But again, like in the earlier love song, Sondheim doesn’t resolve the phrase, leaves it lingering in a lower register on “did not know your name.” Upending the expectation of a happy ending to love-at-first-sight.

“Kiss Me” is not only about Johanna and Anthony’s love; it is about the judge’s lust for Johanna, and, as it reconnects the judge for the first time with Sweeney, it sets up the love song of Sweeney to Johanna that comes in “Johanna (Reprise)” in act two.

It’s worth noting that there’s yet another overture of ardor in “Kiss Me” – ever-so-tentative, laced with private fantasy – which is that of the judge’s assistant Beadle to his lord. A pleasing and halting melody as Beadle gently advises the judge on how to freshen his appearance before entering the lady’s bedroom. The difference is this one musically resolves: “You’ll dazzle the girl until / She bows to your every will.”

Sondheim plays with us in these moments of resolution. The stories we want to believe in (consummation of consensual love) never resolve musically, while those that we want to repel (an elder judge raping his young ward) get the most satisfying resolution. Which makes us as audience members unconsciously pulling for the wrong love stories, and Sondheim a genius of musical theater.

“Not While I’m Around:” Toby and Mrs. Lovett

Another love song of fantasy, and of upended tropes (the boy protecting the would-be mother, instead of the other way around). Here, I wonder if Toby’s fantasy is less about who he imagines Mrs. Lovett to be, and more about who he wishes himself to be. Somebody’s proper son. Deserving of maternal love, worthy of being protected and nurtured by someone who will let nothing harm him.

The melody here is a lilting lullaby. When Mrs. Lovett tries to take over to placate Toby, the orchestral strings turn discordant, and Toby interrupts her, once again leaving the story we’d like to believe in without resolution. It’s almost as if Toby himself can’t believe fully in the notion he casts of Mrs. Lovett, but lacks the option to believe in anything else.

“My Friends” ends with Sweeney’s declaration of murder. “Not While I’m Around” ends with something arguably more sinister and indisputably more base – Mrs. Lovett locking Toby in the basement, to lose his mind. At least Toby gets to resolve his final phrase, “not while I’m around,” before he truly isn’t.