When a Broadway musical is not a success, sometimes no cast album is recorded, or, if it is, that turns out to be the only representation of it on disc. But there are also cases in which a recording seems definitive, such that no subsequent recording seems necessary. That may help explain why, although Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd was a much-celebrated work, often cited as his finest achievement and also called the best musical of the 1970s, the double-LP original Broadway cast album led by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury remained the only full-scale recording of the score for 21 years. In that time, Sweeney Todd was revived once on Broadway with no attendant recording; it was performed often regionally and internationally; and it was taken up by opera companies. That last development led to this second recording of the show undertaken by the New York Philharmonic as a live, non-staged concert performance in May 2000 and preserved as a two-disc set on the orchestra's own record label. The original idea seems to have been to mix Broadway musical performers and opera singers, to suggest the work's crossover operatic appeal, with opera's Bryn Terfel starring in the title role and Broadway's Patti LuPone as the female lead, Mrs. Lovett. In the event, Terfel bowed out due to illness at the last moment and was replaced by another Broadway veteran, George Hearn, who was able to step in easily due to his extensive familiarity with the role, having earlier replaced Cariou on Broadway, performed the show on its first national tour, and been seen and heard in a television broadcast (for which he won an Emmy) later released as a home video. That significant substitution, however, tends to tilt this version of the show more toward Broadway than the opera house despite the presence of such opera stars as Heidi Grant Murphy as the ingénue Johanna and Stanford Olsen as Todd's rival Pirelli. But the opera singers have been cast in appropriate roles for their vocal abilities. Johanna, for example, is a soprano who has something of an aria in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," while the comic Pirelli, in "The Contest," is intended to suggest both Verdi and Gilbert & Sullivan.
Of course, another element in bridging the Broadway/classical divide is the orchestra itself, which actually gets top billing. Even not used to its full capacity, it is, as Sondheim notes in the 130-page accompanying CD booklet, twice the size of the largest Broadway orchestra, giving the composer's largest score its biggest arrangements. The addition mostly comes in the form of all those extra strings, and they help a lot. Still, it's the cast that makes this hastily brought together production a success. In some cases, the triumphs are at least a trifle surprising. LuPone, one of Broadway's major divas of the last quarter of the 20th century, nevertheless had not tackled Sondheim until this point. Unlike Lansbury and some others, she plays down Mrs. Lovett's appealingly amusing aspects, unflinchingly making her the monster she should be. And Neil Patrick Harris, best known as a youthful TV star (Doogie Howser, M.D.), turns out to be an excellent Toby. One oddity of this recording, however, lies simply in its status as a live recording. Much celebrated Sweeney Todd may be, but it is also a dark work, concerning the revenge of a wronged barber who goes mad and becomes a serial killer. In that sense, the reactions of the audience, including laughter and, at times, thunderous applause, can be a little disconcerting.