Sweeney Todd has an enormous emotional range, perhaps the greatest of any musical, from pathos to slapstick comedy to stunning tragedy. One of its most intense, even overwhelming, moments comes near the end of Act One, in Todd’s solo, “Epiphany.” The benighted barber had just come maddeningly close to getting his revenge on the corrupt judge who exiled Todd to a hellish prison colony (from which he’s just escaped), caused his wife to take poison, and is now about to force Todd’s young daughter (whom he’s made his ward) to marry him. Quintessential melodrama! You can listen to “Epiphany” from the original 1979 Broadway cast album (on YouTube, free and licensed).
This number samples and reworks several earlier songs. It simultaneously shows Todd’s mental disintegration, and Sondheim’s formal mastery, through the weaving together of several key musical motifs, including the traditional Dies irae (Wikipedia includes text and music: pronounced DEE ess EE ray; literally ‘Day of Wrath’) from the Requiem Mass. Every element of “Epiphany” reveals character (of both Todd and the lovelorn Mrs. Lovett, who watches everything, providing an implicit second point of view), furthers the plot, and stuns us in the audience, perhaps cathartically. Here is the complete “Epiphany” lyric.
In a larger context, Sondheim’s number might also remind us of a comparable moment (including similarities in the two lyrics) in Otello, Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 operatic masterpiece based on Shakespeare’s Othello, with Iago’s spellbinding aria (video below), “Credo in un Dio crudel” (“I believe in a cruel God / who created me in his image…” – see the great librettist Arrigo Boito’s text in Italian and English). The number is here performed by Sherrill Milnes, the legendary American dramatic baritone, in a Metropolitan Opera telecast from 1979, the same year as Sweeney Todd’s premiere. Sondheim’s musical is sometimes performed internationally in opera houses.
Watch the evolution of the “Epiphany” number (direct jump link to minute 34:55 from the 1980 documentary), including a clip from the 1936 Sweeney Todd non-musical movie, 1980 London rehearsal footage with director Hal Prince, comments by source playwright Christopher Bond, and insights from Sondheim. The LINK HERE is to the complete 85-minute *highly recommended* 1980 British documentary, Sweeney Todd: Scenes from the Making of a Musical, written and directed by Alan Benson.
Also, take a look at what happens next in Sweeney Todd, in my analysis of the stunning ‘two-part’ Act One finale – as the psychological terror of “Epiphany” modulates into one of the funniest, pun-niest duets in Broadway history, “A Little Priest” (here is a look at that number’s evolution).
“BONUS” Here is a recent Korean staging that includes excerpts from “Epiphany,” “Wait” and “A Little Priest,” from OD Company and Lotte Entertainment, circa 2019.
Begun January 27, 2022 / Updated February 17, 2022