There has always been a strict divide between what we classical folk call opera and the world of musicals, those Broadway shows with singers using microphones and plots so silly, they rival opera. Although there is good reason to put Verdi and Wagner in one camp and musicals in another, sometimes they can approximate each other quite easily. One of the clearest examples is Bernstein's Candide, the operatic musical, or maybe the musical-opera. Another example is Gershwin's Porgy & Bess, which probably has an equal number of recordings between operatic voices and musical theater voices. Regardless of those exceptions, composers of musicals are usually not composers of operas. They are quite different animals and I am not going to make this a sermon on how musical theater is America's opera. After all, American composers make opera too, just not that successfully.
What I am going to write about is how Stephen Sondheim made his near-opera with Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I have never seen the musical before, being aware of its existence only by watching a PBS documentary on the history of Broadway. It took a movie starring Hollywood actors to bring this musical to life for me. Although the original is a three-hour bonanza using a 23-piece pit orchestra, the movie cut it down to a swift two hours with a re-orchestration of Sondheim's music by Jonathan Tunick for a grand 78-piece orchestra. The songs, with beautiful and vivid lyrics by Sondheim, were cut and re-arranged to exclude interruptions by verbal interjections. So, what you get on screen is a musical of almost continual singing with a very large orchestra supporting the singers. Does that structure sound familiar to anyone?
The story is worthy of any opera composer, and in fact, my dear friend thought that Sweeney Todd was an opera composed by Benjamin Britten. Who can blame him when Britten wrote operas called Paul Bunyan, Peter Grimes, Albert Herring and Billy Budd? I would have thought as much too. Even though Britten never got around to making a Todd, Sondheim found the 19th-century legend compelling enough, and we are the beneficiaries. The story is gruesome, but the music is far from it.
From the very outset, the music is dramatic and operatic. The music is not straight-forward, but murky and complex. The songs are highly varied, and at many points, various characters' songs are sung together, true ensemble writing that Mozart would at least nod at in approval. The song Johanna, one of the most beautiful melodies in the musical, is as good as it gets. While most songs in the dark tale feature a lot of half-steps, the tonalities becoming obscured, this song is open and moves in whole steps, leaping up and down the octaves, with little details of half-step moves to let you know it still belongs in this musical. There is challenging music as well, as the song The Worst Pies in London, which requires quite a bit of stamina and perfect diction. When Patti Lapone sings it in a 2001 concert version, she has to belt it out in full operatic style.
If you are still not quite convinced, see the movie. The original musical might not fit the idea of opera, but this adaptation of Sweeney Todd brings out the opera that is inside it. It is glorious and at least for me, Stephen Sondheim has gotten a lot of classical points for this score.