The purpose of this song was to introduce a big piece of the story to the audience, and to do so as carefully as possible. I mean, let’s face it, the audience is going to be grossed out. (Half of the audience left during intermission on opening night. No doubt this occurrence continued for a few weeks at least.) Sondheim’s main purpose for adapting Christopher Bond’s play in the first place was to see if he could write a musical that would scare people. But even so, he had to reveal this bit of the story lightly and decided to do that with using something familiar to musical theatre audiences: a list song. Even though “A Little Priest” does qualify as a list song, there’s certainly more to it that it ultimately can’t be considered only a list song; “Let’s Fall in Love” it is not. There’s intent, there’s development, and while it may be very slight, it’s still there. This song introduces a new plot, after-all.
It’s well known (and, quite frankly, easy to tell) that Sondheim’s inspiration for Sweeney came from Bernard Herrmann’s movie scores. That quality is not so much present in this piece, apart from the first several bars. The music changes slightly with one instrument [forgive me, I won’t try to even guess what instruments take part in pieces of music, even if I am 98% sure] that comes in right when Lovett mentions Pirelli’s “plump frame”. The mood becomes lighter, it’s the first hint of the playfulness. Listen to what is going on outside of that one instrument though, there’s still a sinister sound underneath. (Appropriately so.) I love moments like these in Sondheim’s music. Those moments that you don’t notice until your 7th, 20th, or 51st listen. Typically, Sondheim would use mood like that to build on what is going on, but here it’s strictly to accommodate the audience. Well, that’s my best guess anyway from what I know of Sondheim’s work and what this piece is trying to accomplish. But it does seem clear that Sondheim made “A Little Priest” upbeat, clever and fun for a specific reason - to help the audience remember that they are indeed at a musical. He knew full well that one shouldn’t send an audience to the lobby with a dark number about killing people and baking them. Instead he used a well-loved musical theatre device, composed in waltz-time, and made pun after pun about one’s occupation.
There’s also the matter of Sondheim using this piece as an opportunity to show off his rhyming skills, particularly with “The trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased. Try the priest.” Not only does he use the familiar poet/know it rhyme, I think it can be assumed that the "s" sound in “it’s” is intended to go with "deceased" and "priest". (It goes with the waltz-time anyway.) Sing it aloud and you’ll notice “it’s” gets dragged out in the delivery. This pattern is revisited with “Beadle isn’t bad ‘til ya smell it and notice how well it’s been greased. Stick to priest.” Then there’s the moment where Sondheim admits that not even he can find a rhyme for every word. (In a different context, I bet you he could have.) Lovett offers various meat pies to Sweeney, but he rejects every offer, asking for something more *insert adjective here that rhymes with previous offer*, and Lovett finally outwits Sweeney by offering him “locksmith”.
p.s. Something I credit Sondheim for may actually be something Jonathan Tunick (an orchestrator who worked on most of Sondheim’s shows) did for the piece. For example, in “Not While I’m Around” when Lovett sings to Toby, I’ve heard it was Tunick who put in that haunting violin accompaniment.
p.p.s. This is a new series of write-ups on Sondheim's music that I've decided to do. Figured it'd help me get back to blogging more. (I'll actually most likely have another post up this weekend on tonight's season premiere of Doctor Who.) These posts may not always be as informative, they could just turn out more fangirl-y, but I will try my best to avoid that. And again, anything I point out are simply my observations and not facts, unless I say so. (e.g. Herrmann being an influence on Sweeney's score.)