Fleet Street’s fearsome barber made a return visit to the New York stage in concert form May 4-6, and, for once, all the questions that bedevil “Sweeney Todd” — Do we prefer it big or small? Is it opera, musical, Parkay? — seemed thankfully irrelevant next to the lasting grandeur of the Stephen Sondheim musical itself. It perhaps goes without saying that the audience was on its feet at the end, letting loose a collective roar only slightly less ferocious than George Hearn’s Sweeney at his most single-mindedly razor-sharp. But one intends all due respect to Hearn and Patti LuPone, the latter in ravishing (if bizarrely accented) voice, to point out that the score — and Andrew Litton’s conducting of it — were the occasion of the evening. For the sounds of the New York Philharmonic alone, this gala “Sweeney” was a night to savor.
“Sweeney” completists, at the same time, can be forgiven for focusing their attentions elsewhere, since this concert’s casting was grabbing headlines well before Litton picked up his baton. For over a year now, the idea was to yoke an opera superstar (Bryn Terfel) untested in the world of Sondheim with a Broadway diva (LuPone) who, surprisingly, was a Sondheim virgin, too, despite having belted out “Being Alive” (among others) on countless Sondheim anthology bills. Unlike the celebrated Lincoln Center concert version of “Follies” in 1985, a lineup rife with proven Sondheimians, this “Sweeney” promised the opportunity to hear a familiar score in some decidedly unfamiliar hands.
As everyone knows, it didn’t turn out like that, with a sciatica-plagued Terfel dropping out, to be replaced by Broadway’s second Sweeney, George Hearn, an alum of that same celebratory “Follies.” (Furthering his Sondheim link: Hearn’s Tony nom this week for “Putting It Together,” the only nod received by the short-lived Sondheim revue.) And with Hearn in the eponymous hot seat, comparisons of another sort couldn’t help being made — with Len Cariou, Broadway’s original Sweeney, who headlined (thrillingly) London’s own concert performance of the musical earlier this year.
As it happens, Hearn elicited his own deserved bravi, not least for steering an unwaveringly vengeful course amid a deliciously antic LuPone, her hands flapping in emotional extravagance and (later) alarm, and a scuttling, crotch-grabbing Audra McDonald, the latter cast wildly against expectation as a (lusciously sung) Beggar Woman. Not to be overlooked were a heavyweight array of male opera reliables: John Aler (The Beadle), Paul Plishka (Judge Turpin) and, especially impressive, the preening, mustachioed Pirelli of Stanford Olsen.
Hearn was off the night I attended “Putting It Together,” so it’s fair to say that I was unprepared for the size and scope of his voice, even if the shift between registers wasn’t always that artfully made. On the other hand, it’s not easy to chill a 2,600-strong house with merely a whistle, however ominous: Indeed, from the outset, his baleful “you will learn” to Anthony Hope (Davis Gaines, flirting with vocal overkill in a role he has sung in Los Angeles and in London) setting the tone for what was to come, this was a Sweeney hell-bent on retribution unwilling to stop until he had sucked much of Industrial Age London into his own personal hell.
What the performance lacked, if anything, was some shading to a monomania that reaches its peak with Sweeney’s exultant, and scarifying, “I’m full of joy”: Cariou’s wrecked majesty conveyed a more moving sense of the Sweeney that, in a kinder world, might have been — and perhaps once was. Conversely, one could never fault a vibrato-heavy LuPone for an absence of variety. Despite sounding at times more Fanny Brice than Fleet Street (“Tawd” for “Todd” and so on), LuPone’s Mrs. Lovett deployed the actress’s singular comic gifts; not many performers could stop a show with a raised eyebrow and the single word, “locksmith,” as she did during “A Little Priest.” (On the accent front, incidentally, LuPone could have taken her cue from Neil Patrick Harris’s pitch-perfect Tobias.) At the same time, the stakes raised to a literally lethal level in act two, LuPone never shortchanged the desperation that drives an essentially foolish character on. There have been greater Mrs. Lovetts (Julia McKenzie’s 1990 Royal National Theater London turn remains unsurpassed), but few suffused with as much affection for the task. LuPone looked as if she was having a ball and, as a result, her public did, too.
What Lonny Price’s well-drilled concert staging — its ranks elegantly swelled by the New York Choral Artists — couldn’t do was provide any newly cohesive interpretation of “Sweeney,” as opposed to a powerhouse presentation of it. One awaits, for instance, another production to honor the full Britten-ish fury of a piece about a man possessed — for all Sondheim’s compositional vigor — by a murderous inner music that goes unheard. (To that extent, it’s tempting to regard Sweeney as the horrific antithesis to another iconic Broadway figure, “The Music Man’s” Harold Hill, who admits to forever hearing his own band in his head.) For the moment, though, we can be more than pleased by the music that thundered across Avery Fisher Hall, with the Philharmonic fueling a “Sweeney” to make the listener swoon.