A friend was over the other day and began poking fun at my collection of scripts to musicals. “Why do you have all those? What’s the point without the music?” Most were copies I had picked up for research or leftovers from shows I’d been in, but as I considered the question, I realized some do actually stand pretty well on their own. Among those scripts that do something more in the text than offer perfunctory dialogue to link together songs in which music is allowed to do all the heavy lifting, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s book and lyrics to Sweeney Todd may be among the best. (And what better for a Friday the thirteenth?)
That a focus on storytelling – rather than less-readable story action - will be central to the script’s structure is evident from the opening lines in “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” an introductory narrative that frames the narrative as a retelling and prefigures the central place characters’ diegetic stories will take. Even within the plot, a great deal of space is given to expository backstory, concurrent relating of action, and visions of the future. Set in verse, the character’s narratives retain a kinship to the framing ballads. Sweeney Todd, shortly after entering, offers a hazy story of his exile and upon meeting Mrs. Lovett hears a more elaborate version of the same from her perspective. Though retreading similar territory, these two versions illuminate the desires and drives within each character and lay the groundwork for the conflicts to emerge between them.
For a play, Sweeney delves unusually often into statements of action, a strategy sparse in action itself but illuminating individual characters’ perspectives in moments of deviation from what has been previously seen or heard: mostly clearly in the narrative section of the deceptive letter Sweeney composes to the villainous Judge Turpin. The lies underlying the moment pile up, setting different expectations for each character and building tension for what will come. And for a comedic departure, Mrs. Lovett’s vision of an idyllic future in “By the Sea” is a sort of storytelling in the mode of relating a dream, a tale of what will come told with certainty as though it had. The active parts of the script are equally balanced by a collection of moments in which the action freezes to allow the characters to recount their own stories, telling rather than showing, but revealing nonetheless.
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