Yeeeah, Something’s Gonna Harm You – Sweeney Todd
Within 48 hours of the September 1st reappearance of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd on Netflix streaming, I had a reader question about it:
Q: In Sweeney Todd, at the end of the scene where Toby sings Nothing’s Gonna Harm You to Mrs. Lovett, she sings it back to him, but the music is suddenly making my flesh crawl when she does. What the heck is going on?? – Wendy T.
I knew the scene she meant.
The music in Sweeney Todd is phenomenal and the lyrics among the most inventive Sondheim ever wrote. And that’s saying something for the guy who came up with
I like the isle of Manhattan
Smoke on your pipe and put that in
THE SCENE: Little Toby has realized Mr. Todd is up to no good, and he’s worried about Mrs. Lovett, without whom he’d be living in a Dickens novel. He sings Nothing’s gonna harm you / Not while I’m around to a trite melody that mirrors his naiveté. We know something that Toby does not: that Mrs. Lovett is a willing accessory to Sweeney’s crimes guilty right up to her meat pies.
While Sweeney has been driven to a murderous spree by a missed chance to kill the judge who ruined his life, Mrs. Lovett is only in it for the filling. So when Toby goes all Oliver Twist on her, you can see her soften a little.
Mid-scene, Toby sees something that confirms his suspicions about Mr. Todd and flips out. To calm him, Mrs. Lovett sits him down and sings the same protective song that Toby sang to her. But we know, from the music alone, that she has decided to kill the boy.
Watch the whole scene for the full effect (3:25). The skin-crawl starts at 2:48:
WHAT’S GOING ON: The music is identical to Toby’s song with one addition: a quiet violin line high above the voice. While Mrs. Lovett is singing in C major, the violin is playing an atonal melody, meaning the notes don’t really fit into any key — the musical equivalent of insanity. As a bonus, the particular notes he chose are creating strong dissonances with the melody — ninths, sevenths, tritones.
Sondheim doesn’t need to hit you over the head — just six quiet disordered notes tell you how different Mrs. Lovett’s thoughts are from her words. If the lines were in the same octave, it would be harsh and unsubtle. By instead putting two octaves of air between them, Sondheim makes the skin crawl.
Is there a piece of music you love or hate but don’t know exactly why? A moment that makes you laugh or cry? Be like Wendy. Submit a question here!
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