As bitter, grim, and horrible as Harold Prince's original 1978 production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd was, at least it had the virtue of being ironic. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations were gorgeous, Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou's singing was glorious, and together their beauty disguised the work's black heart, saving the audience from facing the work's darkest truth: we all deserve to die because we always kill the thing we love.
There is nothing ironic about John Doyle's 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd. With Sarah Travis' orchestrations reducing the score to nerve and sinew and Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris' singing stripping the melodies to flesh and blood, there's nothing left between the audience and the work. With the actors performing the score on-stage, there's no room for instrumental virtuosity and the music sounds less seductive than rough, raw, and primal. With the hotly sensual LuPone singing Mrs. Lovett, there's no space for sentimentality, and her character sounds less practically cannibalistic than urgently passionate. With the wildly concentrated Cerveris singing Sweeney Todd, there's no time for triviality, and his character sounds less a man driven to revenge than a man driven beyond revenge to nihilism. Together with the rest of the cast's haunting performances, Travis' harrowing orchestrations and Doyle's unrelenting direction, LuPone and Cerveris force the audience to face the world's darkest truth: we all deserve to die because we always kill the thing we love and that thing that makes us love we call beauty. Nonesuch's sound is all too real.