Jeff Clarke is the Artistic Director of Opera della Luna, bringing Sweeney Todd – the Victorian Melodrama to Wilton’s Music Hall.
The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared on the stage in London in 1847 at Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, in a melodrama, ‘The String of Pearls’, based on a popular “penny dreadful” serialised story.
Now it returns to London’s East End in a new production at historic Wilton’s Music Hall – the only
surviving Grand Music Hall in the world.
Theatres like the Britannia at that time had large permanently employed orchestras, and the first ‘Sweeney Todd’ would have been performed with a score of orchestral music. Opera della Luna restores the musical element of story-telling with an orchestra of 10 musicians, and music penned by British opera composers of the Victorian age.
Sweeney Todd – the Victorian Melodrama is at Wilton’s Music Hall Tuesday 25 – Saturday 29 April, 2023.
Tell us about your version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Wilton’s Music Hall. It is billed as a Victorian melodrama.
The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared on the stage in London in 1847 at Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, in a melodrama, ‘The String of Pearls’, based on a popular “penny dreadful” serialised story. I have long wanted to investigate Victorian melodrama – seriously; and by “seriously” I mean that I think the form is often sent up, deemed unworthy and of poor quality, but we have no actual means of judging what the original performances were like.
Tod Slaughter, a character actor who revived Victorian melodramas at his theatre at Elephant and Castle in the 1920s and subsequently on early black and white films, is largely responsible for creating a false impression of the style, as he celebrated “hammy” acting and created a perceived style of Victorian acting which is not necessarily accurate.
What exactly is a melodrama?
The term derives from the restoration of theatre in Stuart England, when only two venues in London (Drury Lane and Covent Garden) were licensed to perform “legitimate” drama. Other theatres could only function by presenting musical items, at first called burlettas if they were comic, and melodrama if they were more dramatic.
But these pieces had to be basically musical if they were to be permitted to be performed outside the two licensed or “patent” theatres. The Theatres Act was not repealed until 1843 by which time all sorts of ruses around it had been devised, but by then it had become customary to perform all plays with music. Henry Irving had an orchestra of 40 players for his Shakespearean productions!
Did ‘Sweeney Todd’ have music when it was first performed?
Almost certainly, but all those scores have long been lost. When the Grecian Saloon in City Road closed, (and that is one of the many East End theatres that would have presented ‘Sweeney Todd’), its library of music went to Drury Lane. That collection, as part of the Drury Lane Archive is now in The British Library. Although it contains the music for a number of melodramas, ‘Sweeney Todd ‘has not survived.
How would this music have been performed?
All theatres worth the name had resident orchestras. Both the Grecian, and the Britannia in Hoxton which commissioned the first stage version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ permanently employed orchestras of 10-12 players, to which freelance additional players were added when required. That is why we have commissioned a score for 10 musicians for our production at Wllton’s Music Hall’.
We have turned to theatre music of the period, or rather music by theatre composers of the period: Michael William Balfe who wrote many English Operas for Drury Lane, and Julius Benedict who was resident Musical Director at Drury Lane and wrote a number of orchestral scores. We are using themes from their works and integrating them into the production in the way that we see other music was used in melodramas of the time.
So is it a bit like a film score?
Exactly like a film score. Or a video game score – not that I know much about video games. But both forms use music very much in the way it was used in the theatre in the mid 19thcentury. We have largely dispensed with music in straight drama in the theatre these days, except perhaps for productions of Shakespeare.
As you are an opera company, will there be songs too?
A few, but I want to avoid it turning into a musical. We know from playbills that songs were interpolated into the script. There is only one lyric in the original script which is a sort of choral number at the beginning of Act Two, celebrating Mrs Lovett’s pies. As we don’t know what the tune would have been we may not keep that. But we are adding a song for Johanna and a song for Sweeney. Both come from an opera by Balfe that was written a few years before Sweeney and they would have been popular airs at the time
So have you cast your usual singers?
Yes. Not all of them will sing, but firstly all our regular performers are very good actors so there is no reason not to use them, but more importantly we want to integrate the music with the action, so it will be a distinct advantage to have a cast who are musically aware and can time the action with the music.
Finally, What would you say to anyone thinking of booking tickets for Sweeney Todd – a Victorian melodrama?
Come and be shocked, terrified, and amazed; and most important of all: hiss the villain, – the notorious Fiend of Fleet Street!