From The Annual Register of London in 1785, the entry read: “A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been for a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her. A young gentleman by chance coming into his master’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in much liquor, mentioned his having seen a fine girl home, from whom he had certain favors the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’s throat from ear to ear and absconded” (Haining 34).
Thus began, according to one hypothesis, the infamous tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber whose homicidal activities at 186 Fleet Street have chilled and thrilled the hearts of Londoners for over 200 years. The historical Sweeney Todd, hanged for murder in 1801, may have been the most successful serial killer of all time, some accounts attributing 160 unfortunate customers to his victim list (Haining 96). Sweeney’s saga has passed through so many retellings that what facts remain about this menace are enshrouded in layers of colorful exaggeration. One fact remains: the dark deeds of Sweeney Todd have crowned him the king of melodramatic villains.
Attend the Tale
Forty-five years after the crime spree, Thomas Peckett Prest adapted the story of Sweeney into a serial entitled “The String of Pearls: A Romance” published in The People’s Periodical and Family Library. Beginning in November 1846, the story stretched across eighteen episodes in this penny newspaper printed appropriately on Fleet Street. The convoluted plot concerns a string of pearls which disappears along with its bearer in the vicinity of 186 Fleet Street. Miss Joanna Oakley, the intended recipient of the pearls, contacts the police when she fears foul play. Through various clues and horrifying discoveries, the police finally conclude that over the years Sweeney had been killing his customers for the money they had on them. To dispose of their remains, he carried them through underground tunnels to Mrs. Lovett’s bakery a few blocks away where they have supplied the stuffing for her meat pies. Their gruesome game ends when Todd is caught in the act by police and Mrs. Lovett dies of poison left for her by Todd. Joanna receives her pearls and her long lost fiancé, who has been trapped in Mrs. Lovett’s cellar baking the unsavory pies against his will.
Sweeney’s exploits reached a greater public when the prolific George Dibdin Pitt in March 1847 presented “The String of Pearls, or the Fiend of Fleet Street” as a melodrama at the Royal Britannia Saloon, where it soon became a long-running success. As is evident in the title change, the appeal of the piece rested primarily in its nefarious protagonist. While criminals had become the center of attention in melodrama since the appearance of Mack the Knife in The Beggar’s Opera, these antiheroes usually had possessed some admirable characteristics, until Sweeney. In notes to the play, Montagu Slater says, “Pitt made the great discovery that there was no need to whitewash the criminal; on the contrary he were better black-washed. The important thing is to make him a supreme criminal, a demon” (Pitt 97). His devilish nature was intensified by the fact that he showed no remorse for his evil deeds. His motivation was entirely selfish; he seemed to live by his own warped standards of morality, if such concepts even entered his mind. He was a villain one could love to hate, for he evoked no sympathy from anyone.
Audiences were also entertained by Sweeney’s ingenious murder weapon, his disappearing barber chair. Bolted to a trap door in the floor, the chair would flip over, sending its human contents plummeting into the basement, while a duplicate chair would swing up to take its place. This melodramatic device, resembling the childlike fun of a magician’s trick and the spookiness of a haunted house, was a delight to spectators fascinated by the stage spectacle of the 1800s.
The setting of Sweeney’s crimes was well known to audiences. Fleet Street in the 15th century had been a thriving business sector, but by the 16th century most of the important shops had moved. Due to the general malaise of an unemployed public and to an influx of taverns, lawlessness set in. The many byways, alleys, and tunnels on Fleet Street provided plenty of criminal hide-outs and escape routes. By the 18th century Fleet Street had regained some of its former importance because of the influence of St. Dunstan’s church, a crack-down on crime by police, and the popularity of many exhibitions and street shows that drew people from all over London. Two famous attractions, the waxworks and the “Giants of St. Dunstan’s” (two mechanical figures that struck the church clock), were located next to number 186, the establishment of Sweeney Todd. The crowds that gathered there would offer easy pickings for a maniacal barber (Haining). These familiar surroundings must have added to the chilling excitement of the melodrama, conjuring up vivid images in the spectator’s mind of meeting this odd fellow on the way home.
In 1973 a British playwright named Christopher Bond took this creaky old corpse of a play and pumped new blood into its rusty veins. The resurrected Sweeney, still as lethal, has a different kind of madness in his eye, a motivated purpose to his life, and a somewhat more human, even tragic, quality to his soul.
In the black-and-white world of melodrama people are divided into two distinct categories, the unblemished hero and the despicable villain. Melodrama focuses more on sensational surprises and last-minute rescues than character development. Bond transformed the plot, giving the characters some depth and psychological motivation for their crimes. In the early plays a clear line was drawn between the virtuous heroine and hero, Joanna and her fiancé, and their villainous counterparts, Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd. In Bond’s version, Sweeney is the victim of cruel injustice at the hands of the wicked Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford. He is deported to Australia on false charges, his wife stolen from him and now presumably dead; his daughter has never known him as a father. Such suffering motivates and dramatically justifies his thirst for revenge.
However, when he begins his insane quest for genocide (“They all deserve to die”), the line dividing good and evil becomes blurred. No longer does villainy struggle with virtue, but wickedness begets wickedness as a just cause becomes a bloody crusade. The old Sweeney was an object of boos and hisses; Bond’s Sweeney divides the audience’s emotions, for he is both a pitiable creature and an abomination.
In the character of Sweeney Todd, Bond saw the potential for a tragic figure, although keeping the tone tongue-in-cheek. In a personal interview (1982) Sondheim commented on Bond’s character: “Sweeney’s Hamlet. They’re both eaten up by revenge. Hamlet can’t quite take the action, so he is consumed in an existentialist way, Sweeney in a very active way, but they’re people who get destroyed by their need for revenge, in both cases justified.” This tragic likeness would not survive critical scrutiny if measured by a strict definition of tragedy, but just the semblance of such qualities raises Bond’s play above the level of melodrama.
There are four major characteristics that distinguish Bond’s work from earlier versions. First, Sweeney’s motivation for murder is not greed but revenge, dramatically, if not morally, justified by the cruelties he and his family have suffered. Even his mad onslaught against the entire human race is somewhat understandable. When Mrs. Lovett relates the plight of his wife Lucy, Todd cries out, “Will no one have mercy on her? Then I will have no mercy either. None” (Bond 4). All men are judged guilty because they allow such evil to exist, so Sweeney appoints himself as their executioner.
Second, Sweeney exists in a fallen state. Benjamin Barker, his former self, was apparently a good and upright man who encouraged his wife for her virtue “instead of leaving his bed for a couple of nights” when the Judge began making improper advances (Bond 4). However, his idealism was his tragic mistake; he felt that virtue would be his protection. Such naiveté led to his fall. Now he has changed his name not only for secrecy but also as a sign that he is that man no longer. When Mrs. Lovett asks his name, he replies, “Todd, Sweeney Todd. The other man is dead” (5). The cruelties of men have killed the innocent Barker. Perhaps a glimpse of this idealist is present in Anthony, Sweeney’s savior and friend. Throughout the play Todd’s malevolent spirit is balanced somewhat by Anthony’s unending exuberance and optimism. For one, London is a glorious homecoming; for the other, London is the pit of hell. Todd distrusts everyone, while Anthony places complete faith in his mysterious friend, making one think that Sweeney must have exhibited some good qualities at one time. This tragic fall gives Sweeney a sympathetic aspect that the original character completely lacked.
Third, Bond’s sophisticated plot and language elevate the nature of the tale. Sondheim notes, “It had a weight to it . . . because he wrote certain characters in blank verse. He also infused into it plot elements from Jacobean tragedy and The Count of Monte Cristo. He was able to take all these disparate elements that had been in existence rather dully for a hundred and some-odd years and make them into a first-rate play” (“Musical Theater” 16). In addition, Bond’s work possesses an intelligent sense of humor. After his contest with Pirelli, Todd makes a subtle reference to his own legend. After his shave, the Beadle tells him, “Remarkable! Hardly any pain at all! If you can carry out all your work as well as you’ve done on this gentleman, I swear you must be the most famous barber in London,” to which Todd responds, “I hope to become so.” Such adroit irony maintains the playful atmosphere of this otherwise dark piece, reminding the audience that the bloodletting is all in fun.
Fourth, the new play presents a degree of social commentary on the times in which Sweeney Todd was written. Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies are no longer merely creepy but are symbolic of the dog-eat-dog philosophy that pervades a mechanistic, materialistic society. Man loses his identity and therefore is trampled on by those who covet what he has but do not recognize his rights as an individual. Given such a world, Sweeney reasons that he is only repaying mankind for the miseries it has inflicted upon him.
Anthony, visiting Fogg’s asylum, complains that Joanna does not look mad; Mr. Fogg responds: “Alas, she is. As mad as you or I. Why, who is maddest – he who’s shut away or he who puts him there? What more unnatural act is there to deny a fellow creature air and light? . . . Why sir, it is the act of a cruel and desperate lunatic.” When Anthony protests, “But you preside over this place,” Fogg admits, “And therefore it is fitting that I should be the maddest man in here. What else can you expect in a world as mad as this?”
Many reviewers of the musical debated the extent of Bertolt Brecht’s influence on the show, the Marxist playwright known for his scathing attacks on social injustice. Sondheim denies any direct influence: “That’s because it takes place in Dickensian time, and the only Brecht they know is The Three Penny Opera. A chorus comes out in rags and starts to sing a song and they suddenly say ‘It’s Brecht!’ and of course it isn’t Brechtian at all. It’s absolutely the reverse of Brecht. His whole theory, his importance in the history of the theater, is the so-called alienation effect, having things deliberately not involve you. The idea of Sweeney is the idea of a horror movie, which is to say, ‘I want to tell you a story. . . and this happened . . . and the door suddenly opened!’ That’s not Brecht.” He also explains that “man devouring man” is not a specific Brechtian reference: “It’s sung by an insane man at an insane moment in his life. It’s not the author’s thesis. I don’t believe that. That’s not what the show is about” (interview).
Whereas Bond’s play jumps from a dark corner to say, “Boo!” Sondheim’s musical thriller engulfs the imagination and retreats into the darkness, taking the spectator with it. Sondheim feels that the addition of music greatly increases the size of any drama, transforming it into a different theatrical experience: “What I did to Chris’ play is more than enhance it. I had a feeling it would be a new animal. The effect it had at Stratford East in London and the effect it had at the Uris Theater in New York are two entirely different effects, even though it’s the same play. It was essentially charming over there because they don’t take Sweeney Todd seriously. Our production was larger in scope. Hal Prince gave it an epic sense, a sense that this was a man of some size instead of just a nut case. The music helps to give it that dimension” (interview).
Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd owes more to French Grand Guignol than to English melodrama. This 19th century theater form specialized in violent plots, supernatural settings, and terrifying stage effects, but as Sondheim says, “Grand Guignol is no longer done well on stage because the movies have taken it over – Friday the 13th and Halloween – and there’s a huge market for it. I always wanted to do it on the stage to see if you could scare people with music, especially a 20th century audience which just came off the street where there are much worse things going on” (interview).
Music is indeed the mystical power behind the engrossing impact of Sweeney Todd. Over eighty percent of the production is set to music, either sung or orchestrated underneath dialogue. The score is one vast structure, each individual part meshing with others for the good of the entire musical machine. Never before or since in his work has Sondheim utilized music in such an exhaustive capacity to further the purposes of the drama.
The production opens with a street chorus singing “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” a theme that winds through the catacombs of this tale, popping up in unexpected places. When at times the charm of such numbers as “By the Sea” and “Not While I’m Around” may temporarily invoke an untroubled world, the ballad re-appears to remind the listener of mysterious forces at work underneath the surface. To create a sense of gloom, Sondheim begins the piece in a very low register and adds a scurrying, low accompanying figure that periodically crescendos slightly as if something were about to happen and then does not (London Weekend Television interview). In this show, song is almost inseparable from dialogue; there are no comment songs, no inner monologues and no narrators as in previous shows. Nevertheless, the ballad establishes an overall presentational quality to the drama:
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
He served a dark and a vengeful god.
What happens then – well, that’s the play,
And he wouldn’t want us to give it away,
Not Sweeney Todd.
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Within the ballad appears the first of many leitmotif phrases that return to haunt the mind, uttering unspoken secrets. As the chorus rises to a climactic “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney! Hold it to the skies!” the melodic line sounds the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) motif from the 13th century Mass for the Dead (we hear this traditional theme also in Rachmanninoff’s symphonies and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique). Later the motif recurs in other guises as well. When Sweeney sings to his razors, the phrase “See this one shine, How he smiles in the light, My friend” is an inversion of the Dies Irae. In “Epiphany” the motif appears subtly in the low brass accompaniment starting just before the lines “They all deserve to die! Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, Tell you why.” On this day of wrath Sweeney’s razor becomes the Grim Reaper’s sickle as he executes justice on the human race for its sins.
Sondheim carefully delineates characters with his musical touch. On his first entrance Anthony’s “There’s no place like London!” soars joyfully; when sung by Todd, it falls into a minor key. In another instance Toby’s innocent “Nothing’s gonna harm you, Not while I’m around” turns into a menacing reprise as Todd and Lovett search for the young escapee who now knows too much. Clearly nothing but harm is on their minds.
Rapid changes of meter occur in several numbers, notably in Mrs. Lovett’s “The Worst Pies in London” where “the dislocations in the meter give emphasis to her attempts to swat the flies that plague her as she kneads the dough: 4/4, 2/4, 3/4, 5/4, 3/4, 5/4, 4/4, etc” (Blyton 23). This song is an excellent example of Sondheim’s ability to integrate music with the action of the character, providing the actor specific business to play. “Those of us who write songs should stage each number within an inch of its life in our own heads when we write. … They may not use anything in your blueprint at all, but they have something to work on, something to build from” (Sondheim, “Musical Theater” 17).
Crowds act as more than a chorus in this musical. Sondheim dislikes choral pieces in traditional operas where everyone assembles to sing the same music and lyrics for no reason. Like Richard Wagner, he feels that only the music is served in such cases, not the drama (London interview). In “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” Sondheim splits the crowd into several factions, some in favor of the elixir, others against it; many are totally uninterested. This variety of reactions is more natural and exciting than one homogeneous response, mirroring the audience’s feelings of ambiguity about Todd. Although the contest is obviously constructed to win support for Todd as the crowd applauds wildly in his favor, knowing that Sweeney is only trying to lure the Beadle into his trap makes the audience somewhat uneasy over joining the applause.
This dramatic tension is produced not only by the content of the lyrics but also by several musical elements throughout the score. Wittke writes, “[Sondheim’s] prevalent use of the blue note [a flatted 3rd or 7th in a major scale] makes the major and minor pitches unstable and generates the necessary psychological ambiguity of the show” (311). The minor mode, common in English folk music but rare in Broadway musicals, is quite distinctive in such songs as “These are my Friends. ” Although use of the minor key does not always indicate mysterious and sinister moods, here it combines with haunting lyrics as a foreboding sign that Sweeney’s sanity might be in question; establishing a spiritual bond with one’s razors is not exactly the occupation of a sound mind.
Several songs use the tritone or augmented 4th (play C and F# on the piano), called the diabolus in musica for its sinister sound, which Wittke notes is a perfect symbol for this show. For example, the first act closes on a harmonic tritone as this demonic duo sings the final chords of “A Little Priest.” Intermission must have been an uncomfortable hiatus.
The most terrifying use of music in the production is undoubtedly Sweeney’s “Epiphany.” Although frightening in its own way, “A Little Priest” is comic relief next to this nightmarish number. This pair of songs at the end of Act I is the most significant musical addition which Sondheim made to Bond’s version. In the play Sweeney’s mental collapse and the subsequent “Meat Pie Connection” take place in less than half a page of dialogue, much too quickly for the full psychological impact. Sondheim carefully reveals the developing ideas in Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s demented minds.
Sondheim took a month to mix motifs, monstrous dissonances, and the Dies Irae for the proper blend of madness in “Epiphany.” The music is jarring, frenetic, leaping back and forth between phrases as Sweeney’s mind begins to crack. The judge’s escape has pushed him beyond the point of no return. Now his price is all mankind:
Not one man, no,
Nor ten men
Nor a hundred
Can assuage me . . .
And I will get him back
Even as he gloats.
In the meantime I’ll practice
On less honorable throats.
The title of the piece is significant. One definition of “epiphany” reads: “A sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality.” Sweeney discerns at this point that revenge is not a short and easy road and that there is little justice in this world, but perhaps another meaning is more appropriate: “An incarnation of a god or a divine being.” Sweeney does not merely change directions; he has become the earthly emissary of ultimate darkness. In a mad vision he has “heard music that nobody heard” and must obey the summons of his “dark and hungry god.”
After a psychologically motivated first act, the rest of the show is mostly action. However, Sondheim uses previously developed musical themes to make thematic connections between past and present. The melody of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” is heard again with altered lyrics in “More Hot Pies,” indicating that the pies, like the elixir, are not exactly what they seem. As the song continues, a customer asks Mrs. Lovett for her recipe. She slyly avoids revealing her “family” secret, but the answer comes when the same tune is used to describe both Sweeney’s chair and the pies “fit for a king.” If only the patron could hear it, music would point to the source of these succulent treats.
As the new barber chair “swings into place from the heavens like a gift from the wrong kind of gods” (Kerr), and the butcher and the baker prepare for the arrival of “fresh supplies,” Todd and Lovett’s exchange, “Psst! Excuse me. Psst! Dear, see to the customers” is a fragmented version of the scurrying madness motif in the orchestration of “No Place Like London” and the beginning of “Epiphany.” The results of Todd’s insanity are now manifesting themselves in very ominous ways.
In his most inventive use of motifs, Sondheim tantalizes the audience with musical clues as to the true identity of the Beggar Woman. Very subtly he suggests a connection between the falling semitones of her “Alms! Alms!” and Sweeney’s phrase, “Lucy lies in ashes.” Later, in Act 2, as she is looking for the Beadle, orchestration from “There was a Barber and his Wife” plays just before her entrance. Seeing the barbershop rekindles old memories in her addled brain; her crazed song, “Beadle deedle deedle dumpling,” the same tune she sang to proposition Sweeney and Anthony at their first meeting (“Ow would you like a little squiff, dear, A little jig jig”), was the music which played so elegantly at the Judge’s party many years earlier on the night of her rape. Finally, when Sweeney in his haste slashes the Beggar Woman’s throat, the “Lucy lies in ashes” theme rises from the orchestra as a terrible dirge. Fate has had the last laugh: Sweeney’s sins have killed the only thing he ever loved.
What Sondheim thought of as “a small horror piece” (interview) became a colossal portrait of the Industrial Revolution in the hands of director Hal Prince. At first, Prince was not interested in directing the show; to him it was just another melodrama, not very experimental structurally. Then he discovered a metaphor which expanded the story into an essay on the human condition.
On the stage of the Uris Theater in New York (now called the Gershwin), this little barbershop of horrors was transformed into a mountain of steel in motion. Prince’s scenic metaphor for Sweeney Todd was a 19th century iron foundry moved from Rhode Island and reassembled on the stage, which Jack Kroll aptly described as “part cathedral, part factory, part prison, that dwarfed and degraded the swarming denizens of the lower orders.” For Pacific Overtures Prince’s directorial philosophy had been “Less is more,” but for Sweeney Todd he decided, “Less is boring. More is more” (London interview).
The massive scope of this setting went beyond even Sondheim’s intentions. “Hal is very much influenced by [the experimental Soviet director] Meyerhold. Meyerhold would recognize one of his children, because [for Hal] it’s all about scale and size and space and light – epic theater.” Sondheim admits that his conception of the show differed from that of Prince: “Hal’s metaphor is that the factory turns out Sweeney Todds. It turns out soulless, defeated, hopeless people. That’s what the play’s about to him; Sweeney Todd is a product of that age. I think it’s not. Sweeney Todd is a man bent on personal revenge, the way we all are in one way or another, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the time he lived in, as far as I’m concerned” (interview).
For Prince the age is everything; he said that the show is not just about revenge but about “the incursion of the industrial age and its influence on souls, poetry, and people” (Gussow 15). Several times Sweeney is referred to in mechanistic terms: “Sweeney pondered and Sweeney planned/ Like a perfect machine ‘e planned.” Sweeney’s plight represents the condition of industrialized man: he has become a cog in the Great Machine. His soul is replaced with whirring belts and whining gears, and his feeble flesh is compelled to do its inhuman bidding.
Throughout the production a factory whistle, “the hard, pervasive sound of authority, of oppressive economic power,” pierces the air in a shrill blast. Howard Kissel recognized its shrewd significance: “What distinguishes Sweeney Todd from simple Victorian dramaturgy is its deliberate theatricality, its desire not just to scare us, but to invest the horror with irony. 19th century realism assumed its audience was naive and innocent: post-Brechtian theater presumes its audience is theatrically knowing and socially guilty. When it is used to punctuate moments of horror, the whistle, blaring and abrasive, implies an awareness that it takes quite a lot, nowadays, to shock us.”
Although Sondheim says he disagreed with the director’s interpretation, Prince based his mechanistic vision on social commentary in the lyrics themselves. Sweeney describes London as “a hole in the world like a great black pit”:
At the top of the hole
Sit the privileged few,
Making mock of the vermin
In the lower zoo,
Turning beauty into filth and greed …
McLaughlin remarks, “Obtaining and keeping power and profits are the primary goals of the society presented here. The necessary result of these goals is the objectification of people; people become tools to be used and discarded by those with money and power. The Beggar Woman haunts the play as a reminder of our tendency to dismiss and deny the humanity of others” (33). However, both Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett soon become guilty of the crimes of society they criticize. When he achieves his “Epiphany,” Sweeney decides “They all deserve to die,” not only the “privileged few” but their victims as well: “The lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us, death will be a relief.” In their macabre parody of private enterprise, they “objectify people, first denying their humanity by using them for their own purposes and then literally turning them into objects: meat pies” (McLaughlin 34). Beckoned by the call of his dark god, Sweeney follows the path of his persecutors to their bloody end.
Blyton, Carey. “Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.” Tempo 149 (1984): 19-26.
Bond, Christopher. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Samuel French, 1974.
Gussow, Mel. “Sweeney Todd: A Little Nightmare Music.” New York Times, February 1, 1979.
Haining, Peter. Sweeney Todd: the Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Barnes and Nobles, 1993.
Kerr, Walter. “Is Sweeney on Target?” New York Times, March 11, 1979.
Kissel, Howard. “Sweeney Todd.” Women’s Wear Daily, March 12, 1979.
Kroll, Jack. “The Blood Runs Cold.” Newsweek, March 12, 1979, 101-3.
London Weekend Television. “Sweeney Todd: Scenes from the Making of a Musical.” November 7, 1980.
McLaughlin, Robert L. “No One is Alone: Society and Love in the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim.” Journal of American Drama and Theater 1991: 27-41.
Pitt, George Dibdin. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. ed. Montagu Slater. Howe, 1928.
Sondheim, Stephen. Interview at his home, New York, June 3, 1982.
Sondheim, Stephen. “The Musical Theater.” Dramatists Guild Quarterly (Autumn 1978):6-29.
Wittke, Paul. “Review of Records: Sweeney Todd.” Musical Quarterly 66 (April 1980): 309-313.
Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Co. MacMillan, 1974.