Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen Who never thereafter were heard of again. He trod a path that few have trod, Did Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
If ever there was an example of "God is in the details," it's the line that opens this show: "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd." Detail 1: the use of "attend" to mean "listen to" is just archaic enough to tell the audience that this will be a period piece. Detail 2: the idea of a "tale" suggests that the audience not take the story realistically but as a fable, and opens them up to accept the bizarrerie of the events which follow; it also promises a story that will unfold like a folk ballad, foreshadowing the numerous choruses of the song that will pop up during the course of the evening. Detail 3: the alliteration on the first, second and fourth accented beats of "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" is not only a microcosm of the AABA form of the song itself, but in its very formality gives the line a sinister feeling, especially with the sepulchral accompaniment that rumbles underneath it.
If all of that seems like the kind of academic hyper-analysis which regularly shows up in studies of literary forms, I can assure you that even if the audience is not consciously aware of such specific details, they are affected by them. [Oscar]Hammerstein, in the Introduction to his book Lyrics, wrote: 'A year or so ago, on the cover of the New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine, I saw a picture of the Statue of Liberty. It was a picture taken from a helicopter and it showed the top of the statue's head. I was amazed at the detail there. The sculptor had done a painstaking job with the lady's coiffure, and yet he must have been pretty sure that the only eyes that would ever see this detail would be the uncritical eyes of seagulls. He could not have dreamt that any man would ever fly over this head and take a picture of it.
He was artist enough, however, to finish off this part of the statue with as much care as he had devoted to her face and her arms and the torch and everything that people can see as they sail up the bay. He was right.
When you are creating a work of art, or any other kind of work, finish the job off perfectly.
You never know when a helicopter, or some other instrument not at the moment invented, may come along and find you out.'
His point is well taken and well made, although if I'd known it at the time, I could have suggested to him that the sculptor might have had another reason for his painstaking attention to the top of her head: the disassembled statue was lying on the ground in the middle of Paris for all to see for months before it was assembled and shipped to America.
Hammerstein also claimed that the opening number is the most important song in a musical because it establishes tone, character, information and everything in between. If that's true (and it is), I would add that for the same reason the first line of any song is the most important line in it, which in turn means that the first line of the opening number is crucial to an audience's acceptance of everything which follows.
It was a lucky moment for me, therefore, when "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" swam into my consciousness. As Tennessee Williams wrote, "Sometimes there's God so quickly."
Excerpted from Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim. © 2010 by Stephen Sondheim. Just published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Follow us on Twitter: