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Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

Yesterday, Robert Mack, the editor of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, wrote about the many incarnations of the tale. Today Mack looks at Sondheim’s version. This post first appeared on Powell’s.

Stephen Sondheim first came across the Todd story on a visit to London in 1973, when he saw Christopher Bond’s version on stage. Bond had made the story darker and less melodramatic than previous versions, in which Todd was portrayed as an increasingly paranoid homicidal maniac, who murdered simply out of greed. Bond was the first dramatist to provide Todd with a convincing, well thought-out, and fully integrated ‘back story’. At the beginning of the play, Todd’s anger is explained: it is directed exclusively at the local judge and beadle who together, many years before, had destroyed his career, transported him for life as a convicted felon, and (he believes) killed his beloved wife. Todd’s aim is revenge, pure and simple. Only after his initial attempts to do away with the judge and beadle are frustrated does he come to the conclusion that ‘the work’s its own reward’, and decides that until he has another shot at his enemies he will ‘practice on less honoured throats’.

Sondheim followed Bond’s lead in emphasizing how circumstances have led to Todd’s immoral actions: Todd concludes that ‘we all deserve to die!’ in Sondheim’s version; as Todd explains to his accomplice Mrs Lovett, ‘The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat’. Thus the musical paralleled the great Elizabethan and Jacobean ‘revenge’ tragedies in which bloodied corpses litter the stage, and Sondheim brings the audience right up close to the action, the violence, and the true horror of the story. As Sondheim commented on the raw material he was to transform into a piece of classic musical theatre, ‘It struck me as a piece that sings’.

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4 Responses to “Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd”
  1. Mary Nolan says:

    What a great week of postings! Thank you Robert for these delicious commentaries on the history of Sweeney Todd. I’m off to see the film tonight and I cannot wait! But first off to the bookstore to buy my copy of your book!

  2. Robert Mack says:

    Mary — The book is all very well and good — and of course I do hope you enjoy it — but the real genius here is Mr Sondheim, who has not only written the greatest musicals in the Broadway tradition ever, but has proven himself to be one of the most gracious, helpful, and generous men I have ever met. Believe me, you will LOVE the film. It is absolutely fantastic. Depp is great, Bonham Carter is great, they are all great! And I hold the torch for Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone as much as anyone! But I’m sitting here in Devon now listening to the new recording and the orchestrations by Sondheim’s arranger and collaborator Jonathan Tunick. I am awe-struck all over again. As I said, enjoy!!!!

  3. Ellie Pike says:

    Hi Robert – I remember you reading us extracts of your book back in our ‘Past & Present’ Seminars back in 2004! What a treat to see the book publicised on the Borders e-shot that’s just appeared in my inbox! It may interest you to know that one of my friends from Exeter was actually an extra in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop – she had to keep out of the sun last summer as she was told she was too tanned for the role. Anyway, I hope all is well down in the West Country, and that the Judy-worshipping is still going strong! All the best, Ellie.

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