Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Zalman, Paige. “Operatic Borrowing in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.” American Music 37 (Spring 2019): 58-76.

Since its Broadway premiere in 1979, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd has been described by audiences, critics, and scholars as being particularly operatic compared to other works of musical theater. The work’s technical demands, use of operatic musical devices (such as leitmotives), and performances in major opera houses contribute to its perception as both an opera and a musical. Sondheim also borrows from several operas—Il barbiere di Siviglia, Pagliacci, L’elisir d’amore, and Wozzeck—and employs these allusions to characterize Sweeney Todd and his rival, Adolfo Pirelli. In Pirelli’s number “The Contest,” Sondheim parodies the famous “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia by adopting the aria’s virtuosic displays and patter style. Sondheim also references the traveling charlatan Doctor Dulcamara from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. By parodying these comic works, Sondheim characterizes Pirelli as an exaggerated showoff and ultimately a fraud. Sweeney Todd on the other hand is a much more serious character, and his operatic models reflect this. Todd resembles operatic outsiders such as Britten’s Peter Grimes and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and his shaving scene in Act 1, number 16 is similar to the shaving scene in Berg’s Wozzeck. Sondheim also quotes a passage of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s verismo opera Pagliacci in Todd’s number “Epiphany.” Whereas Pirelli’s number parodied its sources, Todd’s number borrows to increase its dramatic effect. Elsewhere in Sweeney Todd, Sondheim alludes to several other opera conventions and art song styles. While Sondheim’s implementation of operatic styles in Sweeney Todd often begins the discourse on opera vs. musical, the specific parodies and allusions can work to break down the distinction altogether and open up new lines of interpretation.

Works: Sondheim: Sweeney Todd (61-67)

Sources: Rossini: “Largo al factotum” from Il barbiere di Siviglia (61-63); Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore (63); Leoncavallo: “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci (65-67); Berg: Wozzeck (64-65)

Index Classifications: 1900s, Popular

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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