Teaching Drama

Sondheim – Learning from the best

I watched a very interesting documentary series about Stephen Sondheim and Sweeney Todd last week. Sweeney is my favourite musical, mostly because it cannot be shoved into the typical musical box. Aside from the wicked score, there’s blood and death and a wee bit of cannibalism. (if you’re not familiar with Sweeney, now might be a great time to leave. Maybe you haven’t had lunch yet. Why don’t you go make yourself a sandwich? Just forget about that cannibalism thing) I saw the most recent Broadway revival of Sweeney in 2006 and it hands down restored my faith in the modern theatre.

The documentary was a BBC special taped in 1980 preceding the musical’s West End debut. Many things were fascinating in the piece: the slow piecing together of action and music, the actor playing Pirelli pitching a fit when something was cut, the amazing detail to the set pieces, and the intense thought process Sondheim puts into every song.

It’s like a master class, and I would highly recommend watching the series for any classroom. For anyone who wants to watch the process of a musical, to see what it’s like to use one’s craft at the highest level. As a writer it inspires me to see this minute attention to detail, and of course, makes me think I’m not working hard enough. This is what we all as theatre artists, in whatever fashion, should aspire to.

You can find the documentary in 10 sections on Youtube, the one I’ve included here is Sondheim discussing the end of Act One and the song Epiphany. For those who know the musical it’s right after Judge Turpin has slipped through Sweeney’s fingers and he reveals that ‘we all deserve to die.’ (and if you don’t know Sweeney and you’re still here that lyric probably freaks you out – ‘what do you mean we deserve to die???? ‘ Really, go make a sandwich)

Sondheim spent a month writing this one song. A month. Four weeks. One song. I am so not working hard enough. It’s amazing to watch someone discuss their work like this. I love hearing the thought process and then seeing the final product. I love knowing that there are those who spend the time it takes to make something just right.

Seek it out and enjoy!

About the author

Lindsay Price

1 Comment

  • Ooh, thanks for the links! I first saw Sweeney Todd at William and Mary back in the mid-eighties. It knocked me down. Loved the movie too. I’m the most violence and blood avoiding person there is, and yet I savored every drop (sorry!) of it.