A History of 'Sweeney Todd': Why Stephen Sondheim's Pies Never Get Stale


Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's musical about revenge, lust, murder and cannibalism, has found yet another home in New York City — downtown, at the Barrow Street Theater in an immersive production staged in a pie shop. 

The story of revenge gone wrong was performed just a few years ago in a concert featuring the New York Philharmonic, and a few years before that on Broadway, with a major motion picture served up in between those two. The latest production has earned rave reviews, as did the 2007 movie and the 2005 revival. Slitting throats while singing is hardly a typical idea of a fun night out, so what is it that keeps bringing actors and audiences back to Sweeney Todd?

The show's history 

Often referred to as a modern opera, Sweeney Todd, which features music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and story by Hugh Wheeler, tells the tale of a barber named Benjamin Barker who was happily married and the father of a young daughter. A lustful judge falsely sentenced Barker to prison in Australia. Fifteen years later, Barker has returned to London, hell-bent on avenging himself at any cost. He joins forces with Mrs. Lovett, a pie-maker with a few ulterior motives of her own. 

With an ensemble functioning as a Greek chorus and one of the densest, wordiest librettos ever written, the musical serves as a commentary on society, morality and religious piety as well as serving (forgive the pun) a thrilling story of suspense. 

The barber hits Broadway

The musical first bowed on Broadway in 1979 starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Despite winning eight trophies at the 1979 Tony Awards, the production ran for 557 performances — a surprisingly short number given how popular the musical is. The somewhat brief run could be credited to the show's incisive commentary on morality, which closes Act One with the main characters and possible romantic interests dancing joyfully while cracking jokes about eating other humans. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's lack of faith in institutions — religious, political and law enforcement — mirrored the United States after Vietnam and Watergate. Sweeney Todd provided a stark contrast to the burgeoning conservative trend in politics, which would result in Ronald Reagan winning the presidential election by a landslide, as well as Republicans winning control of the Senate for the first time since 1955. 

Pleading insanity on Broadway 

Directed by John Doyle, known for his minimalistic, scaled-down productions, this 2004 revival featured the actors doing double duty. In sharp contrast to the big-scale 1979 production, the show consisted of only one set, which resembled a psychiatric hospital, and 10 actors, who also doubled as the musicians. (Sweeney Todd, played by Michael Cerveris, played the guitar, and Patti LuPone's Mrs. Lovett played a tuba.)  

The musical was revived just as George W. Bush was re-elected to the presidency on a platform of Christian conservatism and fighting terror, despite decreasing support for Bush and his intentions for the War on Terror. Parallels could be drawn between the president and the musical's outwardly pious but secretly hypocritical Judge Turpin.  

Sweeney on the big screen 

Directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, this 2007 film was gritty and grimy, unapologetically portraying the superficial dirtiness of London as well as the ugliness that lay underneath. One year before Barack Obama ascended to the White House in a blaze of promise of hope and change, this movie exposed exactly why Sweeney sang, "They all deserve to die," while looking out at the world. Engaged in a seemingly endless war and a floundering economy, America was disillusioned and cynical, perhaps in need of an outlet in the same way that Sweeney himself was. 

Money talks 

Sweeney came back to New York in 2014 when the New York Philharmonic presented a concert production with Emma Thompson making her New York musical debut as Mrs. Lovett. The acclaimed British actress stole the show from her co-star Bryn Terfel by infusing Mrs. Lovett with a warm practicality. Despite participating in the murder and cannibalism that fills Act Two, Thompson's Lovett really just wanted to make some money, get married and live "by the sea" with Sweeney. The performance spoke to the economic uncertainty that continued to pervade American culture despite slow growth and the seeming impossibility to pursue the American dream. 

Sweeney, Post-Truth and Trump 

Staged in a tiny Off-Broadway theater in downtown New York, the latest production of Sweeney Todd features the cast climbing on the audience's tables, walking amongst them and staring directly into their eyes as they sing. The intimacy is entertaining, but it's also extremely uncomfortable to watch a clearly unhinged man exercise power over people unable to defend themselves. Judge Turpin's lust for his adopted daughter, Johanna, strikes an especially distressing note. The show, which opened in early March, is currently running Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre.  

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