Saturday, January 27, 2018

Preparing Pirelli: Finishing The Hat.

Happily, I enjoy the research you have to do when writing or preparing songs, and discovering obscure surprises as you work out what's what.  While preparing to play "Pirelli" in Marylhust University's production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, I dug out my copy of Finishing the Hat, Sondheim's collected lyrics (1954-1981) with, as the author names it "attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes".

Steve writes a long comment on page 345 about avoiding the typical monolithic opera/musical chorus, where all the singers seem to have exactly the same thought at the same time.

Finshing the Hat cover     "The tradition of the chorus as one voice persists even today,but surely no two people in a crowd being exhorted by a seller of what is essentially snake oil have the same degree of sales resistance.   Thus the overlapping voices in the lyric above.  Every single chorus member is characterized as an individual and the director can decide how to treat each one specifically; at the very least he has something he can say to each of the performers which may help them distinguish themselves from their fellow spectators.  (When the chorus is presented as a Greek Chorus, however, commenting on the action or telling the story directly to the audience, as in the case of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," it's both justifiable and and necessary that they all sing the same lyric.)
     "The problem of writing for choruses like this is that what you gain in the realism of individuality you lose in concerted choral power, and therefore you have to find a line, or preferably lines, that they can all sing without violating the principle.  In "Pirelli's Miracle Elixer," for example, "Give us back the money" and "where is this Pirelli?" tie the garbled counterpoint on the simultaneously different musical lines together and allow for a joyful noise, which is not only expected, but welcome."

A few other surprising nuggets not in the script or the score are in Finishing the Hat:

  • London 1849.  (The score says "Nineteenth century."  After researching "Shelley" and "Botany Bay" from the libretto,  before reading "Finishing the Hat", I'd calculated 1846.)
  • "Called an opera... a song cycle... a musical play...  'Dark operetta' is the closest I can come, but... what Sweeney Todd really is is a movie for the stage." 
  • British Playwright Peter Schaffer spotted every word of slang Steven had invented in a draft.   Producer David Land helped, but more than a few expressions are still Sondheimisms, not Cockeyisms.  
  • Steve says he's a slow reader. (Compared to whom?)
  • Toby is slang for "boy", "beer stein", "road", or "highway robbery".  "Tobias" is Hebrew for "God is Good" 
  • "Beedle" or "Beadle" (either spelling is okay) is a a minor official's title, like "aide" or "officer", not a first name.
  • Lovett's "Worst Pies in London" irregular form portrays her "a glitteringly disorganized, chatterbox,  switching moods mid-thought and thought mid-subject".  The repeated and grounding phrase "worst pies in London" are only there to relax and fool the audience...
  • "She is indeed the true villain of the piece"  (Yes, I'm surprised!)
  • A tooth pulling contest and the Judge's song were both cut in the original 1979 Broadway production to tauten Act 1.    New York City Opera's 1984 production, with the same director and sets, suffered no sag while including the Judge's song, but not with tooth-pulling.
  • Sweeney's schizophrenic breakdown in "Epiphany" alternates between rhythmic rhymed sections showing his determination, free-flowing un-rhymed sections for his grief, and even breaking the fourth wall for his true madness.  
  • Alas, no applause for the actor: the unreleased tension in the audience makes what follows explosively funny.
  • Writing in 2010, Stephen would change a dissatisfying, unnecessary and clumsy," lyric in "A Little Priest" from "Last one really sold/wasn't quite so old" to "Last one that we sold / Wasn't quite so old." 
  • Ditto, he'd change  Todd: "we'll serve anyone-" Both: "meaning anyone- and to.. " to (and did for the movie in measure 351) Todd: "we'll serve anyone-"  Lovett: "we'll serve anyone-" Both: "and to...
  • In "God, That's Good" (again a chorus of demanding, envious, freeloading, drunk, etc. individuals), the British expression for "Knock on wood" is "Touch wood", but needs three syllables to match "God, that's good".  Stephen is still open to suggestions. 
  • When Sweeney premiered in England, Stephen discovered by happy coincidence how sly a punster Lovett is in "By the Sea": "chopper" was slang for penis.
  • In the "Wigmaker/Letter Sequence", the stage directions are longer than the lyrics. 
  • Madhouses were indeed places where wig-makers got supplies.  Despite reforms and government oversight in 1816, London's Bedlam i.e.  Bethlehem Hospital  wasn't modernized until 1888.
  • Christopher Bond's 1973 play Sweeney Todd (and the basis of this 1979 operetta) has a scene where Mrs. Lovett tries to poison the Beadle, glasses get switched, and she almost poisons herself, distracted by Toby's singing. Steve wanted to write the disorganized trio, "but I never got around to it."
  • Whether the audience figures out the Beggar Woman's past from the start, in the middle, in her mad scene, or not at all, doesn't matter:  "Sweeney's reaction to the revelation is what counts, and everyone gets that at the same time."
  • John Lahr panned the show scathingly in Harpers Magazine after having read a script draft, but not hearing the show.  Sondheim wrote the critic and publisher that "he ought to see it first."   Lahr's response: "I guess you're right".
He's right.   It's bizarre, bloody, dark, idiosyncratic, and it's genius.  See the show first.

Sweeney Todd Feb 2018 poster

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