The Ballad of Sweeney Todd

The Ballad of Sweeney Todd

2005 Broadway Revival Cast starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone

Composers who write for symphony orchestra have frequently disparaged their Broadway and Hollywood colleagues for outsourcing the orchestration of their music to other people rather than doing it themselves. But it’s a long-standing tradition that’s never gone away for a variety of reasons, some artistic and some just practical. Even a composer as trained as Stephen Sondheim turns over the job of orchestrating to someone else. Although Sondheim’s piano scores are impeccable in their precision—he studied with Milton Babbitt after all—his primary orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, is largely responsible for the idiosyncratic timbral world we’ve come to know as Sondheim’s.

So what happens when you strip out the orchestration of a Sondheim musical and completely rescore it? Does it still sound like Sondheim? That’s exactly what Sarah Travis has done with the most orchestral of Sondheim’s works, Sweeney Todd, reducing the orchestration to merely ten parts. The result is a radical transformation along the lines of Josh Rifkin’s recording of the Bach B-Minor Mass in which parts traditionally sung by choruses were given to solo vocalists instead. Like Rifkin’s Bach, Travis’s Sondheim has remarkable clarity and allows the listener to focus on some of the subtler details of Sondheim’s score such as its numerous inner voicings and cross rhythms. But while Travis is the one who brought these arrangements to fruition, the real mastermind behind the idea was director John Doyle whose specialty is deconstructing musicals to their barest essentials and having instrument-playing cast members themselves serve as the orchestra, kinda like what John Eaton has been doing with the Pocket Opera company for years. And Patti LuPone on tuba as well as singing Mrs. Lovett is also quite a surprise. Who knew?


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