In the unlikely event you’re unfamiliar with the Sweeney Todd story, the plot can be summarised easily: Todd, a Fleet Street barber, unabashedly murders his clients and their corpses are profitably made into delicious meat pies by his obliging neighbour, Mrs Lovett. ‘We’ll serve anyone… to anyone’ as the lyric artfully puts it.
Todd is, of course, a Victorian serial killer, though his exploits predate that very modern label. He is, moreover, probably one of London’s most enduring villains. In recent years, Sondheim’s portrayal of Todd has done much to keep his name alive. An unlikely Broadway hit in 1979, blending elements of comedy and horror, it introduced the character to the United States, garnered legions of fans and ultimately made a relatively obscure piece of London folklore world famous. Yet, in the UK, the birts have always enjoyed the antics of this particular monster in film, television and theatre, and discerning visitors to our metropolis can even enjoy a Sweeney Todd ‘attraction’ at the London Dungeon. But where does the tale of the butchering barber originate?
It has long been assumed that Todd’s fictional exploits were based on a true story. Many people are still convinced that Todd’s crimes were as real as those of Jack the Ripper. The facts, however, are somewhat different.
Sondheim’s musical is, in fact, based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, which introduced a psychological background to Todd’s crimes (he was the victim of a ruthless judge who raped his young wife and transported him to Australia). With Burton’s movie likely to garner worldwide attention, this may now become the accepted story; it is certainly already better known than the Victorian original. But, whatever the details, it seems likely that Sweeney Todd and his gruesome dinners will be with us for many years to come.
Having been in this musical (I was Judge Turpin), I found a deep appreciation to this work. One would think it is just another black comedy, but I submit that it is the greatest musical of all time. The melodies, and the clever libretto make it a such a joy to listen to. You can’t hold back the chills when you hear “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” echo in your ears. There hasn’t been, and I think it will be tough to match the depth of story/musical proficiency that is in this beautiful musical. I would be in it again and again.