Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd

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Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street brought an entirely new genre to Broadway. John Kenrick says, “Not since Shakespeare had stage writers taken such an unflinching look into the darkest corners of the human soul” (Kenrick, 339). Sondheim’s story of Sweeney Todd is a truly Modernist work. Sondheim incorporates elements of Romanticism and of the Classical era such throughout the majority of the musical. However, he takes each element and makes them his own. Modernism is defined as “a radical break from the musical language . . . while maintaining strong links to tradition” (Grout, A11). Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a collection of manipulated musical, thematic and dramatic influences from the Classical era such as…show more content…
“Prelude: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd ‘Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd’” begins with two separate solo voices warning the audience to beware of the story of Sweeney Todd. A booming chorus re-emphasizes the warning of the soloists. Soloists and small groups reenter and slowly build one upon another causing a sort of organized chaos until the chorus unites singing “Sweeney”. A call and response then begins between a soloist and the chorus. The piece ends with the chorus singing in a hushed early unison with an orchestral coda (Sondheim). Along with “Prologue” and the rest of the choruses, Sweeney Todd also is generally produced with a large cast. Not only are there numerous lead roles, supporting roles and soloists, the chorus needed to create the intensity that Sondheim intended is very large. Sweeney Todd’s similarity to French Grand opera is not the only Romantic characteristic Sondheim incorporated. Like Wagner, Sondheim used leitmotifs to convey dramatic and thematic elements to the audience. Leitmotifs, a term coined by Wagner, are musical themes that reappear throughout a work that are associated with a person, thing, idea, action or…show more content…
His use of leitmotifs are predominantly in the orchestra, however, leitmotifs are incorporated into the vocal lines (more-so than Wagner) which adds yet another element of drama (Knapp, 365). Sondheim also borrows from the past by using a common Requiem, Dies irea. In this way, he is very much like Berlioz. In Berlioz’s programmatic Symphonie Fantastique in the final movement which takes place during a witches sabbath. Berlioz used the commonly known requiem for the dead to communicate an unsettling, uncomfortable scene. Sondheim had a similar intention when he incorporated the requiem in “Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd”. This theme repeats multiple times throughout the Sweeney Todd during scene changes and choruses. Sondheim also uses an inversion of Dies irea in the song “My Friends” which shows Todd’s twisted relationship with his barber razors which would later become his vehicle for the murders he commits (Swayne, 107). This is again Sondheim using the classic requiem associated with death to create a gruesome setting. Sondheim’s use of contrast, continuity and communication are another way in which Romanticism is also incorporated in Sweeney

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