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Friday, October 23, 2009

13 Days of Halloween: The scariest song

While shivering over the scariest stage plays yesterday, I neglected to mention Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The sung-through musical seems so sharply different from scary "straight" plays that it belongs in another category altogether.

The vast majority of pop tunes about monsters and murderers tend to be cool, not creepy, from “Mack the Knife” to “Werewolves of London.” Pop music offers plenty of tracks for your Halloween party, including your average heavy metal Satanic anthem and seemingly every other song by The Cramps or Oingo Boingo. (My favorite is "Screaming Skull" by The Fleshtones.) But with rare exceptions like Primus’ “Mr. Krinkle,” they’re more for rocking you out than haunting your sleep.

On the other hand, Sondheim's Grand Guignol musical from 1978 includes lovely solos and psychotic arias, none more blood-curdling than “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Framing the musical, “Ballad” offers a portrait of murderous psychology from its very first words: “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.” It’s like a hundred Penny Dreadfuls distilled into less than five minutes. (Ironically, Tim Burton's film version only includes an instrumental version of the song. Maybe he was chicken.) This performance version from 2006 Tony Awards broadcast begins and ends with "Ballad" and includes bits of Patti Lupone's "The Worst Pies in London" and Michael Cerveris' "My Friends." The latter, a love song to a straight razor, builds to the horrific kicker, "My right arm is complete again!"

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