Analysis: Sweeney Todd
The axis around which the world of the play Sweeney Todd revolves is Sweeney Todd himself, and the conflicted derangement of passions-made-complete between he and one Mrs. Nellie Lovett; a bad pie-maker turned good pie-maker—once she gets a firm hold of Todd’s bloody meat. In this analysis, we examine theatrical acting points of our two protagonists; their literal and essential actions, tactics, and personalizations that each actor employs to make UF’s 2014 production [Directed by Tony Mata] such a ground-breaking and memorable Halloween treat. We will examine David Leppert in the title role, Benjamin Barker, a.k.a. Sweeney, and Yael Reich as Mrs. Nellie Lovett.
David Leppert as Sweeney Todd:
Leppert, a polite unassuming presence in the University of Florida’s Musical Theatre program absolutely transforms himself into one of the most dark and iconic roles of contemporary modern theatre. There is nothing undemanding about performing the role of Sweeney. The vocal and musical requirements alone are daunting--Evita-level—and to watch Leppert’s immersion into both the technicality of the score and the emotional complexity and intensity of the character, it possesses qualities of transcendence. Leppert not only holds his own against other well-known actors who made their own history with the role (Len Cariou, Johnny Depp), he somehow manages to find his own distinctive brand. Leppert said, “…he wants the stylized performance to linger in the minds of the audience even after they’ve left the theatre (SOTD Student News - The Loop).” And indeed this is what occurs, but how did he accomplish such a feat?
The Scene: Sweeney meets [meats?] Mrs. Lovett for the first time. She sings of how absolutely horrible her meat pies are after he enters the London shoppe. ‘Times is hard,’ and Lovett is not willing to stoop to the level of her competitor who flavors up her pies with stray cats. Lovett tells us, “…them pussycats is quick!” But most of all, she sings she’s, “…a woman alone with limited wind.” Here, Sweeney sees his opportunity. The character’s literal action is to pounce on the opportunity presented by Mrs. Lovett’s misfortune and loneliness, and to reclaim his old haunt; the upstairs room where his barber shop once lived and thrived. In ‘Essential Action’ actor terms, he employs—“…to get Mrs. Lovett to trust and take him in.” Perhaps because he not only can offer her rent, but even more: a chance to rise up and triumph over adversity. A chance to beat the competitors. A chance to win.
The Scene: Waltzing Mrs. Lovett into the Oven
Sweeney has discovered Mrs. Lovett has known all along his lost love has been alive all along. He feigns compassion, suggesting that the past is the past and, oh well, let’s move beyond. He sings to reassure her, “…Nothing's gonna’ harm you,” and then throws her into the fire; Sweeney’s literal action. The essential action may very well be, “…to get this bitch to die.” It is an act of passion, revenge, blind rage.
What Leppert brings, what he calls ‘stylization’ is his subtlety. He never reaches out with his passions in any overt or cartoonish way. Instead, he broods, he thinks, he does less. This invites the audience into the mind of Sweeney as if embodied by the mind of an explorer, probing the darkness and wondering what, if anything, might fly out, might bite. Leppert’s Sweeney is embodied of mystery. We get the sense Sweeney is a mind at work, not always exactly on the rails, playing each surprise moment in spite of all his meticulous planning. This is a man who, with all his faculties, makes the blind mistakes a carpenter might make in measuring once and cutting twice. This is an actor who can also multi-task while investing his props and actions with life. RE: The scene in which he is required to pretend pleasure, sing pain, and still manage to precisely shave a man so close, you can smell the blood. What Leppert dials down in his physical representation is diametrically amplified in the pure passion his operatic voice is capable of conveying. Much of his performance’s colors come in the singing, for it is the voice that is the most personal connection of all. Sweeney embraces that fact, and suddenly Leppert is nowhere to be found; so complete is his portrayal. Sweeney’s heart-wrenching scream after the discovery he has murdered his love is not Leppert singing or acting; it is pure primal theatre arising from the organic moment, and it hurts everything, as it rightly should.
Yeal Reich as Mrs. Nellie Lovett:
Like Leppert, Reich loses herself in the part of Mrs. Lovett and brings a unique interpretation of the character. In Reich’s realization, Lovett is carried down the path of evil not simply because she is Sweeney-swayed, but also because she gone; her rational synapses have become the dry fires beneath her flavorless lard pies. She has no flavor and therefor has no need of taste, of passion. Sweeney’s return changes all that. Other Lovetts have their place (Angela Lansbury’s sharp purposeful coconspirator or Helena Bonham Carter’s more vulnerable turn), but Reich manages to infuse her character with a sad and sentimental loose screw. How does she do it?
The Scene: Mrs. Lovett meets [meats?] Sweeney for the first time. We see in Mrs. Lovett some sense of recognition, even before she, herself comes to such a realization. Reich is able to convey that complexity and yet make it appear it is something we as an audience are just making up. We’re not. It’s there. Mrs. Lovett knows she knows before she knows, and those are the kinds of layers Sondheim is going for. We hear it in the music as majors and minors interact and trade places…a proper actor for Sweeney Todd is emulating this musicality in their craft. Her literal action, forthright complaining about her state of affairs. Her essential actions: to be heard, to be seen, to bend a sympathetic ear. She offers to prove her pies are the worst. Try them! They suck! But with subtle eyes and gestures of the face, we see that within Mrs. Lovett, there is something deeper, some recognition.
The Scene: Being Waltzed by Sweeney into the Oven
Again, Reich manages to convey something beneath the surface—a desperation. She, as Lovett, has revealed her lie and now seeks compassion, understanding. Reich manages to not only sing, but sing with her body. She is physically aligned with what she expresses musically; a unity not often seen at the level of the College musical. The complexity of her performance is the kind that let’s us know, in advance, she’s going to get tossed into that oven by Sweeney—she knows it’s hopeless to convince him otherwise, but she tries—yet when it happens, when he tosses her off like the has-been Mrs. Lovett never wanted to be, it’s a complete surprise.
Reich’s work distinguishes itself by its complexity. One would suspect she did not employ economy or simplicity in her actions and tactics. This may have been a matter of choice, and we are oft encouraged to be precise as actors in the detail of character points, and there is no doubt that complexity for the audience can arise from such precision employed by the actor. But it can be argued that not knowing something precisely as an actor, as the character might not know something precisely, can lead to even deeper truths—if there could be said to be such a thing. But then again, acting isn’t true…is it? Perhaps the craft simply leads toward things which are delicious, and regardless of the filling, are nevertheless, the meat of the matter.