Songs from Musicals: #38, “Parlor Songs,” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Honorable mentions: “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” “A Little Priest”

This is an admittedly weird song to pick, one of the first to get cut from the average production. Sweeney Todd is more than strange, though: it’s a class-conscious comedy about a serial killer and his lover, who takes the bodies and puts them into her all-the-rage meat pies. I think it’s a fitting choice.

Other composers will muck around in the musical conventions of another era just for fun, or to show that they can; for example, Jason Robert Brown does this fairly well. Stephen Sondheim can live in that mode from show to show, though, and as virtually all of his work is set in the past, he has ample occasion to go to that well in FolliesAssassins, and, of course, in Sweeney Todd. “Parlor Songs” is the canniest representation of that Victorian musical mindset, complete with basically obsolete instruments and a repetitive song structure that makes it easy for the illiterate to learn not just the tune but the lyrics as well.

What I like about “Parlor Songs,” aside from that darn catchy tune for “The Tower of Bray,” is the delicious humor in the scene, the same kind of humor that pervades the entire play. The scenes with Pirelli in the street are all priceless, and of course Mrs. Lovett’s a scream, and songs like “A Little Priest” are a masterclass in puns. Even in the black irony of Sweeney Todd mistakenly killing his wife because she appears to stand in the way of his plan to avenge her, there’s something that deserves a knowing chuckle or two.

“Parlor Songs” is much more sitcom than any of those moments, but it feels like it could have been stolen from Mirror Universe Frasier. Couched deep in the musical, Beadle Bamford has been informed that there’s a suspicious smoke rising from the chimney of Mrs. Lovett’s bakehouse. Mrs. Lovett has to scramble in between verses of the ditties that the Beadle has found in a songbook in her parlor. “Mr. Todd, he’s got the key, and he’s not here right now,” she says. The Beadle is unperturbed…

But if two bells ring in the Tower of Bray…

…until he hears someone singing along in the bakehouse. It’s Toby, of course, who would be only too happy to open the door for the Beadle, but Mrs. Lovett intervenes. Toby’s crazy, she says. “We locks him in for his own security,” she tells the Beadle. The Beadle is still unperturbed.

But if three bells ring in the Tower of Bray…

Since you’re a fellow music lover, ma’am, why don’t you raise your voice along with mine?

By the fourth bell (there are twelve, as Mrs. Lovett learns, much to her dismay), the weird trio are singing in harmony about just what will happen to your love if four bells chime in the Tower of Bray.

Given that more than half the characters with names die in the space of the remaining twenty-odd minutes in the play, this is a surreal little song. Fie on the people who cut it.

 

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