Lessons


My husband poured a bowl of cereal for breakfast. He shook the box and poured a little more. Finally, he pulled the bag out of the box and inspected the underside.

“I don’t think there are any raisins in this raisin bran.”

I sang my reply, “Times is hard, times is hard.”

You may, or may not, recognize the line from “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical tragedy about an avenging, murderous barber. I have spent the last three months helping my high school students prepare. Interesting how material works its way into our subconscious. Constant contact does that.

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His face was pale and his eye was odd.”

Sondheim’s work was published in 1979, and the music world is still debating whether the show is a musical or an opera. The work includes spoken dialogue and some very difficult music. To accommodate the natural rhythms of language, Sondheim employs mixed meters – three beats in one measure, five or seven beats the next. The mixed meters also enhance the drama. The sudden changes in the number of beats per measure and the resulting change in accents are unsettling and keep listeners off balance. The work’s tonal language is extremely chromatic, featuring stunning and haunting dissonance. Mastering Sondheim’s unexpected chords takes time. The notes look odd on the page, feel uncomfortable in the hand. They jar the ear. On opening night, an audience member who is a professional musician asked me if the music was minor or modal. Truthfully, I had not analyzed the score; I was simply holding on to the augmented chords for all I was worth.

“He trod a path that few have trod,”

Certainly few have the creativity to take the path of Sondheim. Thankfully, fewer still choose the path of Todd.  The murderous barber is the stuff of Victorian legend. He first appeared in “The String of Pearls: a Romance,” a serial story published in The People’s Periods and Family Library in 1846-47. Like most respectable legends, Sweeney Todd may actually have a kernel of truth. In 2007, British author Peter Haining published a carefully researched book titled Sweeney Todd: the real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sondheim’s character is a tragic figure set on avenging the wrong he suffered at the hands of a corrupt legal system.  Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, is an escaped convict who was found guilty of a false charge and sentenced to Australia for life. On his return to London, he kills first to protect his identity, then to feed his madness, and finally, to reap revenge on the Judge and the Beadle who destroyed his family.  The man who inspired the legend is, if possible, a still darker character. He was a thief and mass murderer who robbed his victims and finished them off with a straight razor.

“ . . . did Sweeney, did Sweeney Todd,”

Todd’s first victim was Adolpho Pirelli. Pirelli, a barber claiming to have shaved the pope, and Tobias, his street-urchin salesman, hype a miracle hair elixir in the public square. Pirelli, or “Daniel O’Higgins when it’s not perfessional(sic),” recognized Todd and demanded half his earnings  as hush money. Our production featured both Pirelli and Tobias as pants roles, male characters are portrayed by females.  In opera, the roles of young men are often sung by mezzo-sopranos; Joan Sutherland spent a great deal of her career in knee breeches.  Our lady Pirelli decided to forego the rented wig that looked like a prop for Captain Hook and instead pinned up her own black hair. She made a convincing Italian, but with her hair in two small buns, she also looked like Princess Leah gone to the dark side.

Anthony, the romantic lead who rescued Todd and later falls in love with Todd’s daughter, was outfitted in a vintage sailor suit. The actor was told he looked like he belonged on a Cracker Jack box. I told him not to be insulted, that the association fit. That product was once advertised with the slogan, “When you’re really good, they call you Cracker Jack.”

“The Demon Barber of Fleet . . . ”

In our productions, when you’re really good, you get to wear the medal. The gentleman who directs our musicals has established a wonderful tradition involving a St. Genesius medal. The saint was an actor in Rome during the 3rd-4th century. He converted to Christianity and was beheaded for his faith; he is now revered as the patron saint of actors. Our director has a medal that was given to him by his high school director. Before each performance, he selects one or more students who through effort, reliability, talent, and attitude have made an outstanding contribution to the show. Those students wear the medal during the show. It is a coveted honor.

“. . . Street”      

So what did we learn from this romp on the boards?
If one maintains constant contact with material, and in due time, it will seep in. We should be aware of this phenomenon and carefully choose where and on what you will spend your time.

Creating something of worth and beauty requires effort.  And beauty is worth the effort. Creativity requires discipline. And focus. And plain old hard work. And sweat. And putting away cell phones.

Never give up.  Persistence pays off.

Team work requires individual effort.  Respect for others. Cooperation and consideration.

Preparation was a long, hard slog. Lots of people said we could not do it. Personally, I had a sick knot in the pit of my stomach when “Sweeney Todd” was chosen. But our director had a vision and a plan. And determination. And our able and talented band director managed to round up a terrific group of volunteer musicians for the pit. The students worked hard. And in the end, we proved to be the little school that could.

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