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  • Operatic Borrowing in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd
  • Paige Zalman (bio)

Reflecting upon the first time he saw Christopher Bond’s 1973 play Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim confessed in 1979, “I remember thinking . . . that it would make an opera.”1 And in fact, since the 1979 Broadway debut of Sondheim’s musical adaptation of Bond’s play, audiences and theater critics have frequently asserted that Sondheim’s so-called musical thriller resembles opera. The critic Clive Barnes wrote in a review published the morning after Sweeney Todd’s Broadway premiere, “[Sondheim] has finally created what he has been aiming for in most of his later works, a genuine folk-opera.”2 Decades later, viewers continue to express the same sentiment: in 1990, the critic Ann FitzGerald described its music as “the most operatic of Stephen Sondheim’s scores,” and the singer Phillip Sametz claimed in 2007 that Sweeney Todd is “overtly operatic in its vocal and orchestral writing, in its structure, in its sensibility.”3 The theater writer Robert Viagas agrees that Sweeney Todd is a work that is “somewhere between opera and musical theatre.”4

Musicologists and theater scholars, too, have described Sweeney Todd as operatic for a multitude of reasons: the presence of more sung music than spoken dialogue, musical numbers that resemble arias in their technical demands, and Sondheim’s use of Wagnerian leitmotifs.5 For example, [End Page 58] Stephen Banfield has identified fifteen distinct leitmotifs in Sweeney Todd, tracing them throughout the work and demonstrating how they serve as the foundation for the musical numbers in addition to developing richer characterizations.6 Furthermore, Steve Swayne posits that the vocal registers of the characters in Sweeney Todd are similar to those that might stereotypically be found in nineteenth-century opera, citing Johanna’s likeness to a coloratura soprano and Anthony’s likeness to a lyric tenor.7

The composer’s own statements imply that Sweeney Todd is in fact both a musical and an opera. In a 2000 interview with the composer Ned Rorem, Sondheim insisted: “An opera is something done in an opera house in front of an opera audience. And a show . . . musical play, [or] musical comedy . . . is something done in either a Broadway or Off Broadway theater, in front of that kind of audience. . . . I truly believe that when The Medium and The Telephone were done on Broadway, they were shows—even though they were sung-through shows. And when they were done in opera houses, they were operas.”8 Indeed, since its 1984 opera house premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, Sweeney Todd has been performed in numerous opera houses, including the New York City Opera and the Chicago Lyric Opera, as well as several international venues such as the Royal Opera House in London. The renowned operatic baritone Bryn Terfel has even performed the lead role of Todd.

Yet in an interview with David Savran in 1987, Sondheim boldly asserted, “I’ve never liked opera and I’ve never understood it. Most opera doesn’t make theatrical sense to me. Things go on forever. I’m not a huge fan of the human voice.”9 However, later in that same interview and elsewhere, Sondheim expressed appreciation for Britten’s and Puccini’s musical genius, as well as for Berg’s Wozzeck and Bizet’s Carmen.10 He admits that he likes “dramatic song” and “music and lyrics together, telling a story,” which suggests that Sondheim does not necessarily dislike all operas, just those that display the human voice for the sheer sake of its beauty or agility and without significant theatrical purpose.11 He does, in fact, enjoy certain kinds of operas—operas in which the music serves the drama.

Discussions concerning the work’s similarities to opera have not been deterred by the composer’s contradictory statements about the genre. Numerous writers in reviews, journals, and program books have made perfunctory comparisons between Sweeney Todd and the genre of opera as a whole, with few writers seeking detailed comparisons to specific operatic works or specific subgenres of opera.12 However, a small number of scholars have drawn thematic parallels between Sondheim...


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