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The Sweeney Todd Phenomenon

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

It wasn’t long before dramatists saw the potential of the Sweeney Todd story. In the same month that the final episode of the serialized novel was published in The People’s Periodical in March 1847, the first theatrical version appeared on stage under the story’s original title, The String of Pearls. Written by George Dibdin Pitt, it was the first version to use the catchphrase now most associated with Todd – ‘I’ll polish him off’. This was soon followed by another stage version in around 1865, under the title Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or, the String of Pearls by Frederick Hazleton. Meanwhile various other versions of the story were appearing in print, often either hugely swollen or greatly abridged, all using Sweeney Todd as the title.

In 1926 the first film version was made, quickly followed by the first surviving version, directed by Walter West and produced by Harry Rowson for Ideal Films Limited. The subsequent film version of 1936 starred the aptly named Todd Slaughter in the title role – this was a much simplified version of the story based on the earlier Pitt and Hazleton dramatizations. Meanwhile the story was finding its way into other media: in 1935 there was a radio play by J. P. Quaine; there was already a popular comic song of ‘Sweeney Todd the Barber’ and in 1956 Stanley Holloway recorded another version (which begins: ‘In Fleet Street, that’s in London Town/ When King Charlie wore the crown,/There lived a man of great renown/T’was Sweeney Todd the Barber’).

Then there was the ballet adaptation (1959) with music by Malcolm Arnold, and the first stage musical in the same year, again based on Pitt’s original play; it featured Barry Humphries in the role of Jonas Fogg. Various other play versions followed, crowned by Christopher Bond’s play, first staged in 1973. It is this version that was to serve as the primary source for Stephen Sondheim’s ‘musical thriller’, which premiered at the Uris Theater in New York on March 1st, 1979, to be revived at regular intervals ever since…

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