Blood + some laughs = that meat pie [Tracing Sweeney Todd – part 4]

A review, which also served as an ad of the show after the opening night described the eighty-year-old melodrama’s “motivating force was in all probability the success of Fashion. Sweeney Todd corresponds to the American piece in period. It turned out to be a flavorous old melodrama, which, as is the way with these old pieces, has turned comic in the spots where it was most seriously meant.” There are a couple of things we can find from this statement. First, by the time Sweeney Todd was produced in 1924, American audiences might have been enjoying the more recent theatrical trends than melodrama, possibly naturalism. While Sweeney was a classical melodrama in structure, they could still enjoy it because it was “flavorous.” Secondly, it seems that treating serious matters, such as murder and violence, comically was key element in promoting success of a piece like Sweeney Todd – like a way to lighten it up, or to compensate for its horror images. Still according to the ad, the play “probably was not ever regarded as representative English entertainment, even in the 1842 of its original production, but the English stage was a somewhat more polished institution than the American in those days.” So, again, there was an interesting mixture of violence and comedy that had been used for decades of years as a formula in Sweeney Todd that seemed to work very well, both with English and American audiences that had somewhat different characteristics from one another. The review went on, “At all events, its tale of a murderous barber who drops his customers through the floor to the cellar, there to make them into veal pies—even in those days the Englishman had his sense of humor—furnishes not a few laughs as it is acted at the Frazee at present.” It was also indicated that the producer of this Broadway performance had made sure to present details of the period probably to go after authenticity.

Here and there, particularly in a scene in a madhouse, the old melodramatic flavor shows up through, and the story actually holds for a few minutes. Chiefly, however, Sweeney Todd is of interest as an exhibit of what we escaped. It has been produced by Wendell Phillips Dodge with much care and due attention to the period.

A notice two weeks prior the premiere, said that the production would be presented “in faithful imitation of the manner of their production at Covent Garden and the Britannia Theatre in London two hundred years ago.” I wasn’t sure of which Sweeney Todd version the writer compared the Broadway production to. Could it be that he made a mistake about the time because Dibdin-Pitt’s Sweeney was first produced in 1840s, (about 80 years before the Broadway one)? I would rather he did.

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