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Something funny is happening in the state of Sondheim. Ever since the century turned, the work of the last grand master of Broadway has shrunk in size and grown in popular appeal - a paradox which so defies the ground rules of musical theatre that what we are witnessing is practically the birth of a sub-genre, the start of a different art.
The pangs began five years ago when Merrily We Roll Along, the composer's16-night Broadway flop, was revived by Sam Mendes in his matchbox Donmar space, attracting wholesale critical reappraisal and queues twice as long as the theatre's capacity. Mendes followed up with Pacific Overtures, imported from Chicago in a dinky-toy version which brought out the work's kabuki character more pungently than its previous production in the vastness of ENO's Coliseum.
Sweeney Todd, resplendently done at plush opera houses like Covent Garden and Chicago's Lyric, was reconceived in 2004 on a shoestring for nine performers players at the 220-seat unsubsidised Watermill in Newbury, players who not only sang and acted all the roles but plucked and blew the accompanying instruments as well, and with unerring ensemble. Their pocket Sweeney was so effective that it transferred from cowpat Berkshire to Trafalgar Square and onwards across the ocean to the Great White Way where, after a 16-year absence, the triumph was so conclusive that Hollywood is now planning a film of mini-Sweeney – reportedly with Johnny Depp in the title role and Tim Burton as director, after Sam Mendes declined. The Watermill prototype is up and running again, on tour this month and next at Richmond, Woking and Bromley, with a cast headed by Jason Donovan as the demon barber of Fleet Street.
The fourth act in the remaking of Sondheim will reach the West End in May when Sunday in the Park with George moves up from the Chocolate Menier Factory. Unseen in London since the National Theatre staging of 1990, and deemed unbankable on grounds of a fudged second act in which descendants of the pointillist Georges Seurat argue about post-modern art, Sunday had all but fallen into disuse when a small theatre with a smart restaurant designed a low-cal version with five musicians in the pit and curtains for a backdrop. The theatre won an Evening Standard Award and the show's move uptown to the medium-sized Wyndham's Theatre was confirmed this week, the commercial risk attenuated by the modest scale of production. If nothing else, the current miniaturisation of Sondheim makes his more difficult works freshly viable.
Smallness, though, alters every other dimension, accentuating beauty and acuity. A studio recording of the Broadway-cast Sweeney, out from Warner's Nonesuch label, is recognisable from first chords and principles as chamber music, pure and simple. The attack is more incisive than a conventional pit band, the knife-edge near-dissonances more devastating. The score, in this reduction, calls to mind key moments in Arnold Schoenberg's second string quartet, the one where he tips imperceptibly from decadent romanticism into dangerous atonality. There is a feeling throughout that the ear is being led into uncharted territory.
But the most radical aspect of the Ninesuch recording is the impact that a razor-slash diminution from 27 instruments to nine brings to bear on the singing voices which, instead of being over-projected foreground against a heavy band, now sustain a tense equality within the musical texture, a blend that harks back to Stravinsky in A Soldier's Tale. Sweeney might be presented as popular entertainment, but its intentions are implacably progressive, an advancement of art.
Sondheim took an active part in shrinking the score and is credited by the Newbury musical director Sarah Travis with 'making small structural/chordal changes, tempo adjustments and the odd lyric rewrite'. He is more relaxed than most writers about experiment and adaptation. Unlike his early collaborator Leonard Bernstein whose rigidity over West Side Story has virtually ruled out revivals, Sondheim licenses his work to all sorts of tinkering in the hope that it will somewhere find the perfect staging.
A shy man of 75, averse to tinsel and razzamatazz, he was coaxed one night after the show into signing the new Sweeney recording at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre with Patti LuPone and the rest of the cast. In little over an hour, he sold 1,100 CDs, a record of some kind.
The CD itself is a Sondheim benchmark – the first in a discography of some 130 items ranging from Barbra Streisand to the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh that allows the music to breathe as music rather than flogging itself as a theatrical souvenir. Sondheim has endured grievous assaults on record. He has been intoned tunelessly by the augustan Angela Lansbury – nowadays a gerontophile detective on daytime television – camped up by Mandy Patinkin and over-ornamented by opera singers like Renee Fleming and Bryn Terfel, whose pairing on Deutsche Grammophon is patronisingly perfumed.
The real Sondheim was forever overlaid, on record as on stage, with other artists' ambitions. He had originally intended Sweeney 'as a small piece' only to see Hal Prince subject it to the usual Broadway tricks, dispensing with farce and obscenity, losing the vital edge of terror. 'I wanted to just scare people,' said Sondheim, but a vast arena is no place for the intimacy of fear. Sweeney requires small spaces and an audience crowded around the barber's blade, which is where, 30 years later, it has found its slippery footing. The composer, it seems, was right all along.
And that is the funniest thing that is happening in the state of Sondheim, the growing recognition that the work matures slowly and that it has to be viewed in miniature before it can seek, through Hollywood, a mass audience. Sam Mendes can notch that credit above all others on his bedpost. Sarah Travis is, with Newbury director John Doyle, presently the toast of Broadway for bringing that lesson back home
For what it portends is a different kind of musical for our time – a chamber musical that can be produced without dependence on conservative theatrical owners and bankrollers, a genre that can take in everything from early Kurt Weill to the sort of work that never gets developed beyond festival fringes. It is exactly what spaces like Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre and the South Bank's Purcell Room were built for, not to mention downstairs at Carnegie Hall. When, I wonder, will these fusty places catch the wind?
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]