Musical Monday: Sweeney Todd

SweeneyTodd-LibrettoName: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Credits: Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler.

Summary: The musical takes place in 19th Century England and tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a barber unjustly imprisoned for years by a corrupt judge. As “Sweeney Todd,” Barker re-establishes himself as a barber, then slakes his thirst for revenge by murdering his customers and disposing of the bodies with the help of Mrs. Lovett, who bakes them into meat pies.

Broadway Premiere: Opened in 1979; ran until 1980. A national tour followed. In 1980, one of the performances from the tour was recorded for a PBS broadcast (in 1982).
Broadway Revivals: 1989 and 2005.
Movie: Released in 2007, directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett.

Broadway: Nominated for 9 Tony Awards. Won 8, including Best Musical.
Revival (1989): Nominated for 4 Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. 0 wins.
Revival (2005): Nominated for 6 Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. 2 wins.
Movie: Nominated for 3 Academy Awards. Won 1, for Art Direction

Rating: R (movie rating – for gory violence)

Why This Musical: It would be easy to read the summary and dismiss this musical as creepy and over-the-top (a barber who slits people’s throats and has his accomplice bake the bodies into meat pies!), but it’s a show with heart and depth. First of all, the music and lyrics are written by Stephen Sondheim, a man who’s revered in musical theatre circles for his complex scores and creative phrasing. Sweeney Todd is by turns funny, achingly sad, gruesome, and frightening, all centered on the themes of revenge and obsession. It has been revived and performed all over the world, in theatres, opera houses, and concert halls. Different performances have interpreted the show in all sorts of ways, including a rock version and a play-within-a-play where it’s performed by the inhabitants of an insane asylum. It’s a musical that demands a lot of its performers, in that it’s almost entirely sung-through, and the lyrics are tricky (seriously—listen to “A Little Priest”!). Even though there’s no way to justify how horribly the two main characters behave, I found myself rooting for them throughout the show.

My Connection: Back in 1993, when I was working on an archaeological dig in Turkey, the project director invited some of us over to his rental house one evening. He told us he had a recording of an operetta that we simply HAD to watch! This turned out to be the 1982 PBS recording of Sweeney Todd. Suffice to say, we were all a little creeped out that our director was obsessed with this musical (he’d stop the tape at regular intervals to point out his favorite parts!). However, the songs stuck with me, and I’ve listening to the soundtrack for years. In 2010, I grabbed the chance to see a live version, performed by the Drury Lane Theatre in Chicago. I’ve also seen the movie a few times—the blood is a bit much for me, but the casting is great. Plus, Alan Rickman (Snape!) plays the despicable Judge Turpin.

Where to See It: If you’d prefer to watch the theatrical version, the 1982 PBS broadcast is available on DVD from Amazon. For the movie version, Target and Wal-Mart are offering it as part of a Johnny Depp 2-for-1 DVD bundle with Sleepy Hollow. The soundtracks for the original Broadway show, the 2005 revival, and the movie are all available on iTunes. It’s also a show that’s performed regularly by local theatre groups.

Favorite Songs:
“The Worst Pies in London”
“A Little Priest”

Final Thoughts: Gorgeous soundtrack! Definitely worth a listen, and it’s a great intro to Sondheim because it’s one of his better-known musicals (in addition to Into the Woods). The movie version is also decent—and it’s a great late-night watch for the Halloween season!



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