In Gioachino Rossini’s opera buffa Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816) and Stephen Sondheim’s horror musical Sweeney Todd (1979), stories of young women imprisoned by unscrupulous guardians are presented in the medium of lyric theatre. While widely divergent in tone, both works are adaptations of previously popular narratives in which barbers act as the playful (and occasionally murderous) allies of the female captive: Il Barbiere di Siviglia is one of many operas adapted from Pierre Beaumarchais’ Figaro Trilogy (1775-9), while the character of Sweeney Todd first appeared in T. P. Prest’s novel The String of Pearls: Or the Barber of Fleet Street (1850) and later became a frequently recurring character in Victorian penny dreadfuls.1 Although written more than one hundred and fifty years apart, Sweeney Todd and Il Barbiere di Siviglia both illustrate how music can operate within a dramatic narrative to control both tone and pace while shaping representations of gender, class, and time.
In lyric theatre, music acts as more than the accompaniment to dramatic events on stage, influencing pacing and structure, and taking on symbolic and thematic significance. Moments of song are disruptive, halting plot progression as characters stop to sing with unsettling composure at pivotal moments. In this paper, I will question the assumption that opera and musical theatre have different methods of controlling narrative time, arguing instead that there is significant consistency in the way diegetic and non-diegetic music operates within different sub-genres of lyric theatre. I will then analyse the thematic similarities between Sweeney Todd and Il Barbiere di Siviglia to draw out the implications of this narrative logic, suggesting that both these texts can be read as explorations of the tension between patriarchal authority and the threat presented by the feminine voice, while paradoxically reaffirming conventional associations of gender: between femininity and stagnancy, and masculinity and action. [End page 1]
In The Musical as Drama Scott McMillin draws the distinction between two orders of time in the narrative musical: book time, which relates to the progression of the events of the plot; and lyric time, the way in which narrative is illustrated through music. Dramatically, lyric and book time compete in the musical, as “plot is suspended for the time of the number, which carries the characters into new versions of themselves.”2 McMillin suggests that these structural peculiarities explain some of the reluctance for narrative theory to engage with lyric theatre: “Characters expand into song and dance, resisting expectations that action is progressive, substituting repetition instead, and making intellectuals uncomfortable.”3
Neither Il Barbiere di Siviglia nor Sweeney Todd are through-composed, the nineteenth-century operetta and the modern musical sharing the stylistic similarity of having lyric moments frequently interrupted by either spoken dialogue or semi-sung recitative. Correspondingly, the way that music and dialogue (or recitative) is used in these pieces to shape the audiences’ perception of time is very similar, although used to considerably different effect.
According to integration theory, a type of narrative analysis most frequently applied to opera and the post-Oklahoma! American musical,4 all components of musical theatre (including music, dance, story and production design) combine to form an artistic unity.5 McMillin suggests that integration theory (clearly grounded in analysis of Wagnerian opera and Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama6) does not properly account for the complexity of music use in the narrative musical, referring specifically to Todd and Judge Turpin’s duet ‘Pretty Women’ in Sweeney Todd:
Integration theory would say that “Pretty Women” arises out of the situation and is part of Sweeney’s delay. It is what ruins the moment of revenge, allowing time for Anthony to arrive just as the razor is about to descend. That is technically true, but is does not account for the effect of the song, which is to add harmony, melody, and rhythm to the ghastly relationship between the revenger and his intended victim. The dimension of song suspends book time in favor of an incongruous moment of lyric time. These two have no business singing with one another, especially not singing so well.7 [End page 2]
This juxtaposition of horror and lyricism identified by McMillin defines many of the song transitions in Sweeney Todd, but also characterises the narrative progression of the piece as a whole, driven dynamically by both Sweeney’s revenge quest and the emancipatory romance of the two young lovers. Fittingly, this first act altercation between lyric and book time also marks a collision between the two major plots: Anthony’s entrance with news of Joanna prevents Sweeney’s act of revenge. Here song disrupts plot, signalling the musical’s shift between thematic modes and appearing to halt the progression of time, playing a structural role that mimics the emotional incongruity of paring graphic violence with melodic accompaniment.
A significant exception to the standard semantic operation of lyric and book time occurs during songs classified by Carolyn Abbate in Unsung Voices as “phenomenal” performance; pieces of music intended to be understood as a performance by a character for an audience of other characters within the text (rather than song being a mode of dialogue, as it is generally considered in music drama).8 None of the songs in The Wizard of Oz (1939) are phenomenal, as singing is constructed as a type of speech within the narrative, whereas in The Sound of Music (1965) most of the songs are phenomenal, as Maria teaches the Von Trapp children to sing. Within the two classifications of time in the narrative musical, phenomenal music (described by McMillin as “diegetic”9) is, unlike other music, not understood to halt book time,10 and as such often takes on considerable dramatic significance. In The Sound of Music, for instance, the Von Trapp children escape the Nazis during their choreographed encore performance of ‘So Long, Farewell’ at the Salzburg Music Festival.
Diegetic/phenomenal performance is similarly used as a ruse to distract antagonists and facilitate escape in Sweeney Todd and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. In the case of Sweeney Todd, when Beadle Bamford visits to investigate the foul smells emanating from the pie shop chimney, Mrs. Lovett encourages him to play ‘Sweet Polly Plunkett’ on her harmonium; a ballad of a “lass who alas loves a lad / Who alas has a lass loves another lad”11, then a second song ‘If one bell rings in the Tower of Bray’ (158-9), to drown out the calls of Tobias, the boy Mrs. Lovett has locked in the bakehouse. She happily reprises the second song later in the scene to cover the sound of the Beadle’s murder at the hands of Todd (161). As book time continues through these numbers, significant plot events can occur while characters are singing. [End page 3] There are several similar instances of diegetic music in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, beginning with Act 1, Scene 1, when Count Almaviva and a band of musicians appear to serenade Rosina,12 but is used with the most significance to the plot in the singing lesson given by a disguised Count Almaviva in Act II, where Rosina’s guardian is lulled to sleep by her voice, allowing the two lovers to speak privately:
As Rosina is only able to sing about the conditions of her captivity once Bartolo has fallen asleep, the singing lesson here illustrates another aspect of diegetic song – the potential of dramatic events to interrupt performance. This does not occur with non-diegetic music, as book time and associated plot events typically pause for the duration of the piece.
This aria is another example of a more specific type of diegetic performance, the narrative song. Like diegetic music, the narrative song is performed within the piece by the characters for other characters, but it also comments reflexively on the action of the greater piece. As described by Abbate: “The reflexive capacity of narrative song (which often tells the opera’s own story in compressed or disguised form) […] sets up interference with the very idea of progressive musical narration. Narrative song, despite its apparent musical simplicity, thus represents one of opera’s most elaborate points of tension.”13 Rosina identifies the song she is singing before Bartolo falls asleep [End page 4] as from the fictional opera ‘L’Inutil Precauzione’ (‘The Futile Precaution’) which directly mirrors the plot of the greater opera: “When a heart by Cupid’s arrow / Has with fire of love been lighted, / Every tyrant power united, / Every torment is in vain.”
Sweeney Todd opens with reflexive narration: accompanied by brooding orchestration reminiscent of the final ‘Storm’ section of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ (Op.33a), the deceased Todd rises from the grave to join the company’s chorus, narrating his own story in third person:
TODD and COMPANY
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
He served a dark and a vengeful god.
What happened then – well, that’s the play,
And he wouldn’t want us to give it away,
TODD and COMPANY
Not Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street…
In this scene, what appears to be a straightforward framing device is actually the first instance of narrative song in which reflexive narration comes to play a significant role in governing tone. Another is ‘There Was A Barber And His Wife’ (9-10), introduced by Todd and reprised by Mrs. Lovett: “There was a barber and his wife, / And he was beautiful, / A proper artist with a knife, / But they transported him for life” (15). The song’s simple melody is reprised frequently throughout the musical, often directly after a horrific event, identifying Todd’s mistreatment at the hands of the law as the motive for his violent behaviour and complicating the dark comedy that arises from the performance of precisely timed murders to an orchestral score.
The consistency with which Sweeney Todd and Il Barbiere di Siviglia deploy music is significant when viewed in the light of the two pieces’ considerable thematic and narrative similarities. Both these adaptations share the narrative trope of the struggle against a guardian’s overbearing possession of his ward and, as such, they can be understood as examples of the ‘Innocent Persecuted Heroine’ story type, as defined by Cristina Bacchilega (following Steve Jones): [End page 5]
I. Act One – the heroine is persecuted or threatened in her family home;
II. Act Two – the heroine is attacked, interfered with, or otherwise abused in her attempt to be married;
III. Act Three – the heroine is displaced, slandered or calumniated after she has given birth to children.14
In Il Barbiere di Siviglia the first two of these acts are represented as Bartolo tries to prevent Rosina from escaping to marry the disguised Count Almaviva. In Sweeney Todd all three stages are presented, the first two acts in Anthony’s romance with Todd’s imprisoned daughter Joanna, and the final act in the parallel of Todd’s wife (who is also Joanna’s mother), who appears in the opening sequences of the musical as a destitute woman driven onto the streets after her rape by Judge Turpin.
The Rapunzel Variant (Aarne-Thompson Classification 310) of the Innocent Persecuted Heroine folk story type typically concerns a young woman held by a witch as punishment for the actions of her parents, only to escape with the use of her own hair and the assistance of a desirable suitor. Sondheim engaged with this narrative trope specifically in his 1987 musical Into the Woods (with book and direction by James Lapine), an exploration of the darker facets of frequently sanitised folk-culture fairytales, featuring a more traditional Rapunzel: a woman kept captive by a witch who discovers her ward’s dalliance with a prince and cuts off all her hair in punishment. The plots of both Sweeney Todd and Il Barbiere di Siviglia follow a further slight variation of this story type: the young heroine has been placed with an undesirable male guardian who pursues her sexually upon adolescence, competing with a significantly younger suitor who is assisted in his attempt to woo and release her by a barber. Both stories are complicated by the symbolic significance of hair, frequently associated with sexual maturity, sexual perversion, and gender transgression.15 The grooming of hair holds strong literary associations with social conditioning and control; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when both of these works are set, intricately coiffed hair was an indication of status, though maintenance of this status indicator required the constant assistance of a hairdresser. 16 Hairdressers were therefore intimate with the upper classes, but never considered their social equal. The inherent tension of this situation is intensified when gender is taken into consideration, as Don Herzog anecdotally identifies: [End page 6]
In 1789, crusty traditionalist John Bennett, infamous as an opponent of women’s rights, complained: “Ladies are certainly injudicious in employing so many male friseures about their persons. The custom is indelicate…” […] The concern is for the tense economies of anonymity, body space, and sexuality […]17
While the barbers in these stories are not the suitors of the heroines, they each assist young men in defeating older men of apparently greater socio-economic status (although in the case of Il Barbiere di Siviglia Count Almaviva is only posing as an impoverished student), helping to overthrow patriarchal power in the name of romantic love.
In addition to the symbolic class function of the hairdresser, in Sweeney Todd hair takes on additional grisly associations as the detritus of human life, acting as a symbolic counterpart to the ephemeral voice. Here hair functions as a synecdoche of the physical body and therefore personal identity, as described by Anthony Synnott: “Hair not only symbolizes the self but, in a very real sense, it is the self since it grows from and is a part of the physical human body; furthermore, it is ‘immortal’ since it survives death.”18 While death is a frequent theme of lyric theatre (and particularly opera), Sweeney Todd’s focus on bodies after death is unusual; human remains are rarely bought and sold on stage. Even Joanna’s escape plot hinges on the role of hair as a personal identifier and object of exchange value, as Anthony poses as a wig-maker in order to search the mental asylum where she is being held captive (165-7) after a thorough coaching in the profession from Todd: “There’s tawny and there’s golden saffron, / There’s flaxen and there’s blonde…” (143).
When considering the narrative use of music, the thematic similarities between Sweeney Todd and Il Barbiere di Siviglia are significant for two reasons. Firstly, both stories require a manipulation of time between stagnant scenes of imprisonment – signified by songs where the heroine reflects on her captivity, such as ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ in Sweeney Todd (24) and Rosina’s Act 1, Scene 5 aria in Il Barbiere di [End page 7] Siviglia (“Once a song at break of day / In my heart did light a flame” ) – and fastpaced scenes of escape. Secondly, these similarities make these two pieces ideal for illustrating the complicated relationship between gender and narrative music.
The gender associations of the different components of lyric theatre are hotly contested. In her seminal polemic Opera, Or the Undoing of Women, Catherine Clément argues that female characters in Romantic-era opera are repressed and overshadowed by the unyielding progression of the musical score, read as masculine.19 Conversely, other critics have argued that lyric music tends to be associated specifically with femininity and female characters. In nineteenth-century English opera for example, Ahlquist identifies that “[u]nderlying structural factors created this particular balance between music and drama and the link between spoken oratory and masculine authority.”20 These structural factors included standing licensing arrangements for theatre venues and the practice of reworking of popular pieces like Il Barbiere di Siviglia for use as star vehicles for famous non-singing performers.21 In Sweeney Todd, Sondheim forges a strong connection between melodic music and female characters, and between spoken-word performance and male characters; most frequently in exchanges between Todd and Mrs. Lovett, such as Sweeney’s unmelodic ‘Epiphany’ (93-6), directly followed by Mrs. Lovett’s comic ballad ‘A Little Priest’ (97-108) at the conclusion of Act I. Similarly, Judge Turpin’s growled erotic self-flagellation in ‘Mea Culpa’ (193-6) is set in contrast with Joanna’s sweetly melodic ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ (24) in Act I.22
In ‘Towards a Psychopathology of Opera,’ Jeremy Tambling suggests a psychological reading of opera derived from Jacques Lacan’s concept of identity construction through the mirror and Julia Kristeva’s exploration of the abject. Tambling extends the “hostility to the things associated with bodily limits and borders”23 of the abject to the human voice, due to its origin in the mouth and throat, considered as markers of sexual difference in psychoanalytic conceptions of the body. With regard to the female voice, Tambling cites Kaja Silverman’s description of opera as an ‘acoustic’ mirror, arguing that sound, as precursor to other sense phenomena of the world, questions the threat of maternal assimilation: “Neither inside nor outside, it challenges borders and boundaries, and so challenges abjection, the fear of not establishing such borders.”24 While both Joanna and Rosina are marked as sexually desirable by the sweetness of their voices, Sweeney Todd is more thoroughly [End page 8] permeated by anxiety about bodily borders and limits: as a horror story that hinges on the unknowing consumption of human flesh, but also in the silencing and eventual unwitting murder of Joanna’s mother Lucy, deranged by grief and unidentifiable to her husband and daughter.
According to conventional analysis of the American narrative musical, heterosexual courtship in lyric theatre is typically symbolic of the resolution of social tension between two sectors of society.25 Although Il Barbiere di Siviglia significantly predates this theory, the pattern is clearly apparent in Count Almaviva’s wooing of a middle-class woman while disguised as a lower-class youth. The story’s resolution rewards Rosina’s beauty and constancy with a socially advantageous marriage, while it punishes her possessive and miserly guardian. Alternatively, this narrative pattern is frustrated in the case of Sweeney Todd’s two romantic couples: Todd violently kills Mrs. Lovett, only to be killed in turn by her loyal apprentice Tobias; and while Joanna and Anthony escape alive, they have little agency and leave considerable bloodshed in their wake. Narrative analysis of Sweeney Todd typically sidelines the romantic plot of the younger couple, interpreting Todd’s violent rampage as a dramatisation of the alienation of the worker caused by industrialisation in an investigation of modern psychological estrangement.26 The successful courtship of Joanna and Anthony is not accompanied by any broader resolution of social anxieties.
Sweeney Todd deliberately parodies the Innocent Persecuted Heroine story trope and its associated characters, occasionally in specific musical passages, such as Figaro’s famous virtuosity aria in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in Pirelli’s act one solo:
[End page 9]
This song refers not only to the musical structure and phrasing of the earlier work, but is also followed by the violent slaughter of Pirelli, Todd’s professional rival who has been pretending to be Italian, a reference to the Commedia dell’arte traditions of comedic impersonation, which are also incorporated into Beaumarchais’ play in the multiple disguises taken on by Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
Unusually, given the near omnipresence of music in musical theatre and opera, the concept of music itself is not frequently granted specific symbolic significance in lyric drama beyond general gender associations. However, in both Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Sweeney Todd, music and noise are directly associated with disorder and insanity. In this way, lyrics that reference noise and music within these works become reflexive, in a very similar way to narrative song. In Il Barbiere di Siviglia, music is evoked as a fairly benign force, albeit one with the power to destabilise events, most notably in the sestet at the end of the first act, where Berta, Rosina, Figaro, Bartolo, Basilio and the count sing together in confusion:
[End page 10]
In Sweeney Todd, the thematic associations of music are more sinister, with lyrics specifically linking Todd’s mental instability with his musicality, first in the prologue, where a female chorus sings: “Sweeney heard a music that nobody heard”(3, repeated in the epilogue at 190). This link, between psychotic behaviour and sound, is made more explicit after Todd’s complete psychotic break following his first encounter with Judge Turpin, a lilting waltz marking his commitment to fully musical horror:
For what’s the sound of the world out there? […] It’s
man devouring man, my dear,
And who are we To
deny it in here? (98-9)
Here Todd describes cannibalism (in a rhetorical, Darwinian sense) as an audible sound, and decides to embark on his literal cannibalistic rampage.
Throughout Sweeney Todd, Sondheim exploits the incongruity between gruesome events and song, but with particularly compelling consequences when these musical associations are linked explicitly to melodic femininity. This is achieved by the association of Sweeney Todd’s innocent persecuted heroine Joanna with a caged bird, beginning with her song ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’: “Have you decided it’s safer in cages / singing when you’re told? / My cage has many rooms / damask and dark… / Nothing there sings, / not even my lark”(24-5). This association is reinforced through book patter, as in the first act when a bird seller tells Anthony, “We blind ‘em [the birds], sir. […] Blind ‘em and, not knowing night from day, they sing and sing without stopping, pretty creatures”(28), dialogue recalled in Fogg’s description of Johanna’s behaviour in the asylum: “She sings all day and night and leaves the other inmates sleepless”(166). In this thematic context, women’s song is disruptive and unsettling, mirroring the structural role of song in the dramatic progression of lyric theatre.
The complex symbolic relationship between music and narrative time informs the way that a simple narrative trope is expressed in different sub-genres of music drama. [End page 9] In both Sweeney Todd and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, both young women and music are beautiful and ostensibly guileless, while also possessing a dangerous and destabilising energy. In both dramas, it is also most frequently female characters who provide reflexive commentary on the action through narrative song. By continuing without interrupting stage time, these songs draw audiences into the heroine’s world of captivity. This similarity in the way time functions in both pieces indicates that the operation of time in an early nineteenth-century number opera and a modern musical theatre work is broadly analogous.
About the author
Carolyn Burns is PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, currently researching the adaptation of plays and novels into late twentieth century English-language opera.