It has a sung-through structure, which means that nearly the whole book is set to music. This is done very rarely among musical composers these days and showed the musical to be of a certain generic Sonheim-set. It is old-fashioned in all the right amounts and just the right side of operatic. The lyrics are smart - and sometimes rude, ‘There's a hole in the world like a great black pit and it's filled with people who are filled with s**t’, sometimes shrill, ‘City on fire’, sometimes just weird; ‘My friends’, the barber Sweeney directs to his razors.
Stephen Sondheim isn’t to be condemned entirely on this point. The failure of the love story between Johanna and Anthony is made up for by the fantastic characterisation of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett. An almost unrecognisable Michael Ball is brooding, intense, scary and funny in all the right parts as Todd. But it is Imelda Staunton who steals the show as Mrs Lovett. Funny, cruel, sympathetic, she has none of the lost glamour of Helena Bonham-Carter’s Mrs Lovett but this is an altogether less glamorous production than the film. This is to its credit.
The witty duet between Staunton and Ball, ‘A Little Priest’, closing the first act, is the most memorable and funniest moment of the whole musical. Its black comedy captures the style of the whole macabre comedy - fun, ridiculous, dark. It is for the same reason that each of Sweeney’s graphic murders gets a big laugh. It is a Renaissance-meets-Victorian musical Revenge Tragedy. This means, naturally, there is graphic violence at every corner of this show. There is barber’s chair throat-slitting, and a scene of self-flagellation provoked by forbidden lustful thoughts. It is not a musical for children.
It is a funny, interesting production with great acting from Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. Plotting and characterisation is variable, but in terms of music it’s a classic, complicated score, where the story is told credibly and intelligently through the music and lyrics.