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’.