There is one criticism of the music in Sweeney Todd—and more generally with everything that Stephen Sondheim has written: the lyrics are so dense that it is very easy to miss them. I was just taking a break and listening to the song “Epiphany.” I quite like the song, the melody is lovely and the refrain goes right along with the cynical side of my soul, “We all deserve to die.”
But as I listened to it today, I heard a lyric I hadn’t caught before, “For the rest of us, death will be a relief.” So it hit me that Sondheim had not, in fact, written a song about a homicidal man who thinks that everyone deserves to die because all of humanity is terrible. It is a song about a homicidal man who thinks that the bad people of the world deserve to die for their crimes and the good of the world deserve to die in the sense that good little girls and boys deserve presents on Christmas.
In it’s way, it is a more political song than “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It is a song about class. Clearly, the movie (and the play) take place in the English dystopia of the middle 19th century. But it is still the same society that we live in today. And as much as we have made improvements on it, there is a large part of the political elite in this country that wants very much to return to 1848 London. Paul Ryan would never admit it, but his “philosophy” would lead us to just such perfect a place where we don’t have to worry about “a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” You sir! How ’bout a shave?
The key lyrics are these:
There two kinds of men, and only two:
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.
It does rather evoke the line from 1984, “A boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But it isn’t some totalitarian government doing it; it’s our mythical “job creators”—not stamping, just applying constant pressure.
There are thus two kinds of people in the world: those who deserve to die and those who deserve to die:
You sir! How ’bout a shave?