Customer Reviews: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Broadway Version)
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I have been watching this 1982 production of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" for almost twenty years on videotape, so releasing it on DVD would be greatly appreciated. The cast features three of the original stars of the 1979 Broadway production: Angela Lansbury in her Tony Award winning role as Mrs. Lovett, Edmund Lyndeck as Judge Turpin, and Ken Jennings as Tobias Ragg. Well, you can also add to this list Cris Groenendaal and Betsy Joslyn, who play the young lovers Anthony Hope and Johanna, since they were members of the original company. Len Cariou had been replaced in the title role by George Hearn, who was still two years away from winning the Tony Award for his performance in "La Cage aux Folles." On Broadway Hearn played opposite Dorothy Louden before teaming up with Lansbury for the show's touring company and eventually this Showtime production of the musical.
Stephen Sondheim has said that if people insist on putting "Sweeney Todd" into a category it would be black comic operetta, which is as good a way as any of defining its uniqueness. If you are going to have a barber who slits the throats of his customer team up with a woman who bakes the corpses into meat pies, then black comedy would be the way to go. But what makes "Sweeney Todd" so marvelous is that it mixes the dark comedy with chilling horror. For the most part the comedy is carried by Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett, starting with "The Worst Pies in Lond," while Hearn's Todd provides the chills, beginning with the hauntingly beautiful "My Friends," sung to his razors. Of course, it is "A Little Priest" that brings these two elements together, but while it is no doubt the show's signature piece it is not the supreme dramatic moment. That comes right before that glorious end to Act I when Hearn signs "Epiphany," which for me remains the song I would most like to be able to do on Broadway, although I can forget about matching Hearn's tour-de-force performance.
When you consider that the last three songs of Act I are "Pretty Women," "Epiphany," and "A Little Priest," it is difficult to imagine a show having a stronger ending before Intermission. There is a sense in which Act II does not measure up, but that is become the bloody climax to "Sweeney Todd" rests more on action than songs. I can still remember watching it for the first time, in live performance fortunately, and thinking that they were reaching the point where things were going too far and the tragedy was about to become too complete. The only real complaint about this video production is that unlike the original cast album or what you are subjected to in live performance, the steam whistle that accompanies each slash across a victim's throat does not make your nervous system explode.
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on July 10, 2004
"Sweeney Todd" has been out of print for many, many years. Video copies went for enormous sums, and I had to settle for an aging video copy I recorded when the show was first aired on television 22 years ago. I understood that there were some copyright issues that stopped the show from being re-released, which have apparently been resolved.
Although I usually curse Warner Brothers for having the worst track record of any major studio for not releasing their extensive library of films to DVD, today I applaud them for giving us back this wonderful show with its delightful performances on DVD. Not only can we relish Angela Lansbury in her Tony-winning role as Mrs. Lovett, but we get the extra bonus of seeing George Hearn as Sweeney, to my mind the best Sweeney I've ever seen (and I've seen two others as well -- Len Cariou, who originated the role on Broadway and was probably the sexiest Sweeney (making Lovett's attraction for him perfectly understandable), but without Hearn's depth and a bit too American (or rather, Canadian), and Denis Quilley, who performed the role in London. Although Quilley's acting and singing talents were a match for Hearn's, he was physically not exactly right.
As for the Mrs. Lovetts I've seen, the West End production's Sheila Hancock will always be my favorite for her ability to capture all the comedic aspects of the role (as Angela Lansbury does too) while still managing to plumb the pure evil depths and total amorality of the character. Ms. Hancock had the ability to make the theatre-goer laugh his head off one moment, and then to send chills down his spine the next. But who could not love Angela as well? And aside from Ms. Lansbury, one gets a chance to see several others from the original Broadway cast reprise their roles for this production, including the wonderfully sinister, powerfully voiced Edmund Lyndeck as Judge Turpin and Ken Jennings as Tobias. (Toby is not an easy role to cast, since one has to practically be a castrato to sing it.)
I was also fortunate enough to see the original Broadway production before the cuts were made -- the shortening of the barber competition (a wise decision), the elimination of the self-flagellation scene in which Judge Turpin, brandishing a whip, is seen in a black robe, his buttocks exposed (this should never have been cut but was probably considered too outragious for the out-of-town tourists to handle), and the removal of the Tower of Bray number (which, again, was a wonderful pastiche and very funny, as it added to rather than detracted from the suspense, and hopefully will one day be re-evaluated and restored to future productions). But at least, the missing numbers are all on the cast album for admirers of the show to enjoy.
The role of Anthony was replaced in this production by Cris Groenendaal (who was in the chorus in the original), and who has a stronger voice than Victor Garber, who originated the role, but Garber is a stronger actor, as can be surmised from his long and successful career, both in musicals and non-musicals. I also enjoyed Betsy Joslyn as Johanna, which is a silly and comedic role which she milks for all its worth, and yet still remains a chip off the old block. It's Johanna, after all, who grabs the revolver from Anthony to shoot Mr. Fogg in cold blood.
Finally, before receiving the DVD, I was fearful that I might be looking at something with faded color bleeds and poor video quality simply transferred to a different media. But I am happy to report that the show has held up well, both visually and audibly. In fact, in this L.A. production, the only thing I missed from the Broadway production (other than the cut numbers) was that in the original theatre, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett make their final appearance rising through a hole in the floor from an elevator beneath the stage, as if coming back from hell for a brief encore. Now THAT was an entrance!
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on May 5, 2004
Much care has been taken on this DVD transfer. The sound, which was always muddy on the original VHS release is much crisper and clearer. The organ prelude which was faded on the VHS release continues now right up until the factory whistle.
One person here commented that he could not hear the audience. The audience is there in the extreme left and right channels just as always. Maybe you need to get your sound system tweaked? Or use the 2 channel stereo mix. But it's all there.
Best of all this transfer brings out details in the orchestra that were never heard before.
The performances remain as vivid as when this production was first broadcast in 1982. I have always had minor reservations about Betsy Joslyn's cross-eyed Joanna and some of the cuts made in the show: The tooth-pulling section of "The Contest", the Judge's whipping number, and most of the "Parlour Songs" were trimmed form the show due to overlength. The road tour set is not as elaborate as the one used on Broadway (in the opening and closing numbers Sweeney Todd rose out of the stage on a lift... very effective!) but this is the SWEENEY TODD that Hal Prince staged.
One other bit of good news that no one else here has mentioned: There are subtitles so you can follow along the trickier lyrics. Strange that there are none on the DVD's of INTO THE WOODS, PASSION or SUNDAY IN THE PARK. It's most welcome on SWEENEY TODD.
Of course it is best to see stage musicals live in the theatre, but this video production offers a good approximation of what it was like when SWEENEY TODD was unleashed on us 25 years ago.
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on March 30, 2002
The LA production that was filmed is electrifying, the performances staggering and the set mind-boggling. George Hearn is frightening, thunderous, and passionate in the role. Angela Lansbury is deliciously devious, and delectably unscrupulous, and gives comedy relief to an otherwise horrific subject matter. I've never seen Len Cariou play the role, but he's on the original cast CD. Hearn plays Todd with explosive, raging anger, while Cariou sounds like his Todd is more seething and brooding. Cariou is a lava flow compared to Hearn's volcano. Both are effective, but I prefer Hearn's Todd and would give an arm to have the 1982 performance on DVD. Not my arm, of course.
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on April 6, 2004
I had this performance of the L.A. Production on LaserDisc and alas, both of my LaserDisc players bit the dust! I've been emailing Image Entertainment for months begging them to issue this on DVD. (...)
I just viewed the San Francisco Symphony "Concert Production" (with the participation of Sondheim and George Hearn) and it, too, is excellent, thought the theatricality on a symphony stage cannot match the staging even as done in the Los Angeles "road company". And THIS version has a true treasure of Sondheim -- for which he tailored the vocal role down to the NOTE, we hear -- the marvelous Angela Lansbury!
I'm pre-ordering mine right now!
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on May 9, 2004
"Sweeney Todd" is considered by many to be one of the best musicals ever written and a personal best for composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. And trust me, folks, the personal best of the man behind such beloved musicals as "Company," "Funny Thing..." and "Into the Woods" is a sight to behold. Not only is the show recognized as a modern classic in musical theatre circles, but has even found a place in the repetoire of opera houses around the country. This recording preserves the tour of the original production, with most of the sets and Hal Prince's original Broadway staging intact. You get all of Sondheim's gloriously complex score and the few but ever-so-important book scenes done in full costume, props and all. George Hearn is brilliant in the title role, and all of the actors do a fine job with their roles (with the exception of the actress playing Johanna, who sings prettily but tries too hard to get laughs out of a character not written for laughs).
But the real treasure of this disc is Angela Lansbury, whose Tony-winning Mrs. Lovett is worth the price of admission alone. Her coniving, scheming gem of a pie shop owner is one of Broadway's legendary performances, and we are truly lucky that the performance was preserved for future generations. She seems to be in even better voice than on the original cast recording, absolutely owns the stage, and plays wonderfully off of George Hearn's Sweeney. Many fine and talented actresses have done wonderful things with the role (witness the stellar Patti LuPone in the 2001 concert version if you don't believe me), but Angela Lansbury will always own what is without a doubt one of the greatest roles in the entire musical theatre cannon. Fans of the show, Sondheim, or musicals in general owe it to themselves to pick up this DVD and experience one of the most darkly comic musicals ever written, featuring one of the finest star turns ever.
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on July 19, 2002
Though Dvd has not been released yet, I can only tell you how
much I've enjoyed seeing this on PBS and wanting this for
reasonable home-ownership price. ...
Angela Landsbury is great as Sweeney Todd's hilarious cohort
running the "pie making/barber shop" on Fleet Street. The tunes,
the acting, the entire glory of the cast,costumes, and decorations making this production---outstanding. I've seen
the other versions---this one with Angela Landsbury is, in my
opinion, the best!
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on May 19, 2004
I was lucky enough to SEE this version of SWEENEY live when it was taped in Los Angeles (they had to apologize for the brash lighting necessary for the video taping!). Recordings of live Broadway quality performances are rare enough, but this is one of the TRUE GEMS! Fabulous performances, great story and what fulfilling music! If you love either Broadway or Sondheim, or what to know what the BEST is like, this is your DVD. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION
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VINE VOICEon February 12, 2008
Buy this DVD for the moving performance and the magnificent voice of George Hearn in the title role, as well as for the classic comic romp of Angela Lansbury, whose voice and splendid diction are also thoroughly suited to the complexities of the music. In "Sweeney Todd," Sondheim is at his most melodious. Although it is hard to choose my favorite among songs such as "No Place Like London," and "Not While I'm Around," the third ensemble of "Johanna," in which the hauntingly beautiful melody stands in sharp contrast to the ghastly action onstage, ranks high.

Almost all the voices are equal to Sondheim's brilliant score, which belongs in the pantheon of grand opera. The exception is the girl playing Johanna, whose shrill soprano voice is forced to such an extent that it goes sharp; thus one loses not only the thread of the melody, but also the lilting beauty of the "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" song. As one who loves the audio CD, in which soprano Sarah Rice floats effortlessly through the aria, I was severely disappointed.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast is splendid: especially the Beggar Woman, Anthony the Sailor, and the boy Toby (The DVD edition has more or less toned down the extent of Judge Turpin's perversions, which are blatant in Edmund Lyndeck's incredible version of "Johanna" in the audio CD.). Unfortunately the DVD does not provide the cast list on or inside the box, so I shall have to go back to the end of the disc and see who's in it besides the stars.

Nevertheless, the stars are shining brightly in this dark comic opera over a London that seems more like Paris of the Grand Guignol, the horror spectacle which once sent shivers down the spines of Parisian theatre goers. Even though the horror of the plot is unlikely to thrill the jaded modern audience, the performance of George Hearn certainly will.
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I saw this on Broadway (with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, et. al.) Now it is my favorite ever! (Sondheim is DA MAN!, sorry Weber...) Not your corny song and dance stuff, here (even though I like that, too.) I remember when buying tickets for this at the Uris theater (before the big Tony wins) and asking other people in line, "What is this about, anyway?" They told me that it "was kinda gory and sometimes people walk out of the theater." Well, not one person near me could even take their eyes off of the stage, let alone leave. Now, I think those people were trying to get my space in line.
Anyway, this is musical masterpiece. You will find these songs running through your brain years later. Even at the slightest mention of a related word or phrase, you will flash back to the first time you saw it. You will enjoy every character, and every minute. Now we just have to convince them to sell it to us.
Also, I thought I saw this on Great Perfomances with Angela and Len Cariou? Am I mistaken? Where is that version? I could be wrong, I will never forget Cariou's face from the stage over twenty years ago. I think he even sang the National Anthem at the 1979 World Series. That was an odd moment--hearing that voice (and remembering the play) then hearing "...the home of the brave." Angela Lansbury is THE role. You will never watch "Murder She Wrote" in the same way again. Get this DVD if you can, or settle for the soundtrack for now.
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