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The Prologue to 'Sweeney Todd' -- Stephen Sondheim

Guest poem submitted by Matt Chanoff:
(Poem #960) The Prologue to 'Sweeney Todd'
 [A Man:]
 Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
 His skin was pale and his eye was odd
 He shaved the faces of gentlemen
 Who never thereafter were heard of again.

   He trod a path that few have trod.
   Did Sweeney Todd.
   The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

 [Another Man:]
 He kept a shop in London town
 Of fancy clients and good renown.
 And what if none of their souls was saved?
 They went to their maker impeccably shaved

   By Sweeney,
   By Sweeney Todd.
   The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

 [Company, variously:]
   Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!
   Hold it to the skies!
   Freely flows the blood of those
   Who moralize!

 His needs were few, his room was bare.
 A lavabo and a fancy chair.
 A mug of suds and a leather strop,
 An apron a towel a pail and a mop.

   For neatness he deserved a nod,
   Did Sweeney Todd,
   The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

 Inconspicuous Sweeney was,
 Quick and quiet and clean 'e was.
 Back of his smile, under his word,
 Sweeney heard music that nobody heard.

 Sweeney pondered and Sweeney planned
 Like a perfect machine 'e planned.
 Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle,
 Sweeney would blink and rats would scuttle.

 Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle,
 Sweeney would blink and rats would scuttle.
 Inconspicuous Sweeney was,
 Quick and quiet and clean 'e was.

   Like a perfect machine 'e was,
   Was Sweeney!
   Sweeney!
   Sweeeeeeneeeeey!

 [Todd appears from the grave]
 [Todd and Company:]
 Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
 He served a dark and a vengeful god.

 [Todd:]
 What happened then - well that's the play,
 And he wouldn't want us to give it away,
 Not Sweeney.

 [Company:]
 Not Sweeney Todd
 The Demon Barber of Fleet Street!
-- Stephen Sondheim
I first heard this only a month ago, at the San Francisco concert production
of the play. I then went out and bought the CD and have been listening
often. The first song in a musical has to do a lot of work. It's got to tell
you who the story's about, what's happening, and hint at why it's happening.
In Sweeney, it's got to make the faintly ridiculous character of a barber
seem menacing, and it's got to leave you wanting more. Most expository songs
are lousy - too dense with stuff you've got to remember to be any fun. In
contrast, this one is a masterpiece.

Sondheim starts with a crowd and a series of rumors. You get the sense of a
half-legendary figure, a bogeyman.  The legend grows and grows, to the point
that you cringe when, near the end, Sweeney steps out of the grave to give
you his take and introduce his story. You don't know exactly why he's
killing people, but the fact that he shaves gentlemen, that their souls
aren't saved, that the clients are fancy, all lead you to believe that it's
a class thing - he's killing rich people, bad rich people. Then come the
lines:
  "Freely flows the blood of those
   Who moralize!"
He's after rich hypocrites.

Another terrific thing about these lyrics is the way the story imbues
ordinary things with menace.  Look at the inventory of his shop:
  "His needs were few, his room was bare.
   A lavabo and a fancy chair.
   A mug of suds and a leather strop,
   An apron a towel a pail and a mop."
What's more prosaic than a pail and a mop? Except that here, just 30 seconds
into the play, you know he needs them to clean up the gore. "Lavabo," by the
way, is the perfect word. When I first heard it, I thought they said "barber
pole," which would have scanned and fit the sense perfectly. Why throw in an
archaic word instead?  According to the dictionary, a lavabo is (1) the
ceremonial washing of the hands and recitation from the Psalms by the
celebrant before the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches,
and (2) a washbowl that is attached to a wall and filled from a water tank
fastened above. Sweeney's clients think it's there for washing up, but the
religious meaning is both implied and mocked.

Like Hannibal Lecter, Sweeney is preternaturally skilled and cunning. My
favorite couplet is:
  "Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle,
   Sweeney would blink and rats would scuttle.
Here's a rhyme that manages to be ingenious and subtle simultaneously, and
give you sense of pure evil.

For the true story of Sweeney, check out
[broken link] http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial9/sweeney/

For details on the musical, check out
[broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/9432/sondheim/sweeney.html

Matt.

[thomas adds]

Homicidal barbers? Say no more! See
http://www.montypython.net/scripts/barber.php

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