If only Sondheim had met Hitchcock

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The Independent Culture
Before it began, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra were huddled together like conspirators, sharpening their instruments. I thought of that wonderful book by Hector Berlioz â“ Evenings in the Orchestra â“ a book about pit gossip. This was a night worthy of that book. And after the raw glory of the melodrama had been exposed, so the occasion was revealed. The orchestra and the singers had known the author was there. Patti Lupone's Mrs Lovett rushed to the wings, like a cat after a mouse, and came back with the shy greybeard of Sondheim himself.</p>For three nights, this was a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, with Ms Lupone and George Hearn in the lead roles, and astonished, ravished cheers from a packed blood-thirsty audience, aroused by the music and the distilled theatre of a concert performance.</p>You will have noticed, like alert film students, that this is not film. But sometimes you can learn about your appointed subject in studying something nearby. What should I do with a Thursday evening, anyway? See the new Jurassic Park, Tomb Raider or Scary Movie 2 when Sweeney Todd is available? How long does the movie-goer have to suffer before finding some consolation, and wonder, in things offered by other forms of entertainment?</p>Still, in the talking about it, I have to pin down a precise emotion: my hair stood on end; I was terrified; I was exhilarated by the act of murder. And these are the very things that that most specious and bombastic genre, modern horror, aspires to. I don't mind that Scary Movie 2 is stupid, dirty-minded, crude and tasteless. But I'm furious that it doesn't scare me, and that it disdains and mocks the honourable practice of scaring the Jesus out of us.</p>That's why Sweeney Todd was so intriguing. Now, remember, this was a concert performance, minus the elaborate sets and costumes from Hal Prince's original production. The singers were directed, and set in a scheme: there were gestures towards costume and illumined moments of action and reaction. Far from stripping the story of its atmosphere, this severity made it more grisly. And this is the story of a man wrongfully convicted, determined on vengeance, who uses his trade of barber to murder nearly anyone his dark eye falls on. The corpses are then taken by Todd's companion, Mrs Lovett, and converted into the tastiest meat pies London has ever had.</p>In any movie nowadays, throat-cutting brings in gallons of fake blood, the loving close-ups of tearing flesh, the gurgle of drowned protest. On the concert stage there was just the screaming note in Sondheim's score, that formal gesture of the straight razor stroke, and a flood of red light â“ as if one's eyeball had burst.</p>In fact, this chamber-like production is very much what Sondheim always intended â“ he yielded to the theatrical richness of Hal Prince's original production in 1979. But Sondheim had an inkling that less could be more, that already audiences were cynical at so much fake horror, and so much more ready to have imagination's dread tortured. The intensity of this concert performance lay in its grasp of wickedness (albeit a wicked urge driven by vengeance and love). At the very start of the show, the lyrics have a curious edge â“ "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd". And it was attention that made the evening taut. Whereas, at the movies we are not compelled any longer, not focused, not terrified of missing something.</p>What does this suggest? Simply that there is a way ahead for movies in rejecting the lush, detailed realisation of special effects â“ and the determination that the most special thing in any drama is the mind of the spectator. The movies need more of the bold, bare artifice of theatre â“ we are weary of all the fraudulent life-like slaughter.</p>As you think about it, this lesson is not so remarkable. Stephen Sondheim is 71 this year, and the towering figure in American dramatic arts. So consider how steadily he and the movies have avoided each other. To be sure, there are shows on which Sondheim worked that have been filmed â“ West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The movie of A Little Night Music was wretched (no matter that it was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night). He did a couple of songs for Dick Tracy; he wrote the score for Alain Resnais' Stavisky. But Sondheim's tragic musicals â“ Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Passion â“ for those you have to go to live theatre. And such visits can only leave you mourning the spread of death in the movies. If only Sondheim had found Hitchcock â“ for Sweeney Todd is as terrifying and as moving as Psycho.</p><a href="mailto:d.thomson@independent.co.uk ">d.thomson@independent.co.uk </a></p>