May is a mad month. A month of random musings about various topics related to musical theatre. Feel free to share your thoughts on each topic in the comment box below.
The Scariest Song in Musical Theatre
When I think about scary songs in musical theatre, the first show that springs to mind is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It mean, the scariest song in musical theatre just has to be something from Sweeney Todd. But which one? I find the vamp that plays under “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” truly unsettling. Really scary. And then there is the Judge’s song, though I think this is rather more creepy than scary.
The one I am going to go with is “Epiphany”. When naming this song in such a discussion in the past, I was once told that Sweeney is so unstable throughout the show that this really isn’t really the deeply frightening, revelatory moment that I think it is. My response? I think that assessment somewhat shortchanges both the show and the character. There may be some instability in the character at first, due to what he had experienced in London when he was known as Benjamin Barker, what has happened between then and his return to that city, and the things he has discovered since his return. But there is a clear development from the bitter, hurt and yet hopeful man who returns expecting to find his wife and child waiting for him to the man who realises that this is impossible and then to the ‘demon barber’ he becomes after “Epiphany”. Furthermore, what is absolutely brilliant about Sweeney Todd is that “Epiphany” does not represent him completely losing his mind: it represents a crack in his mind, one which only engulfs him fully in the moment when he realises that the Beggar Woman he cast aside in his first moments in London is his wife. That the character’s development is so much more extended a process makes the loss of his mind all the more human, all the more effective and even tragic when compared to other adaptations of the Sweeney Todd legend (including the Tim Burton adaptation of the stage show itself), which all get lost in the melodrama that is the foundation of the story in its most basic form.
So “Epiphany” it is. Oh, well – I’ll throw in a runner-up for good measure: “Lonely Room” from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!. There’s a song that also reveals the complexity of what is going on beneath the surface of a character.
So – what would your choices be?