Attend the Tale: The Lurid Literary History of Sweeney Todd

Waylon JordanHorror HistoryLeave a Comment

Mention the name Sweeney Todd today and most modern horror fans’ minds will turn to Stephen Sondheim’s sensational stage–and later screen–musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Sondheim’s version of the story may be the most famous of the last 175 years, and has been performed by some of the most talented theater companies around the world long before it ever came to life on the big screen under the direction of Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter.

Mr. Todd’s history goes back much farther than the 1979 Broadway premiere of Sondheim’s musical, however. In fact, it began in literary form in 1846 in a penny dreadful serial titled “The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance.”

“The String of Pearls” Synopsis

That original story painted Sweeney Todd as an unmitigated villain who killed his victims by pulling a lever on his barber chair that sent them crashing down a chute into the basement where, hopefully, their necks would break. When he wasn’t so lucky, he would descend the stairs and slit their throats with his razor.

Once dispatched, he would cart the bodies by way of an underground tunnel to Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie shop where she’d bake them up to sell to the public.

Things go awry for Mr. Todd after a sailor named Thornhill, last seen entering the shop, goes missing. Thornhill had been meant to deliver a string of pearls to a woman named Johanna. It was a gift from, Mark, a man she loved who was presumed lost at sea.

Suspicious of Todd’s involvement in Thornhill’s disappearance, Johanna dresses up like a boy and goes to work for his shop after his former assistant Tobias Ragg is locked away in an asylum upon accusing the barber of being a murderer.

Eventually, Todd is exposed as the villain he is when massive piles of body parts are discovered under the nearby church that is also connected to the barber’s shop by underground tunnels. Furthermore, it is discovered that Johanna’s long lost Mark has been imprisoned for ages by Mr. Todd and forced to cook the meat pies for Mrs. Lovett’s shop.

Mark manages to escape and enters the pie shop, announcing to the customers that they are actually eating people. I’ve often wondered if Soylent Green doesn’t owe just a little bit of it’s success to old Sweeney.

In the fallout that comes after his exposure, Todd poisons Mrs. Lovett and is eventually captured and hanged for his crimes.

Adaptations

Nope, we’re not even close to Mr. Sondheim yet!

The tale of Sweeney Todd and “The String of Pearls” was so popular that it was adapted for the stage before the original story’s ending was even revealed in serial form, and soon everyone was doing their own version of the tale from the grand guignol theaters of  Europe to America and back to London for newer versions making Sweeney Todd a household name in Victorian England.

Sweeney Todd

And then, in 1970, playwright Christopher Bond took the tale and gave it his own spin.

In Bond’s version of the tale, Sweeney Todd became a slightly more sympathetic character. He wasn’t a killer from the start. Instead, he was a barber whose beautiful wife became the object of obsession for an evil judge who raped the woman and then had Todd transported to Australia on trumped up charges.

Upon his return to London, he begins his bid for revenge, falling in with Mrs. Lovett and hatching a plot to boost her pie sales while seeking an end to the evil judge’s life.

It was in 1973 that Stephen Sondheim saw a production of Bond’s play. It planted the seeds for his own adaptation which has become, by far, the most well-known version of the tale in the last four decades.

Singing Sweeney Todd

Sondheim took the material to his long-time collaborator Harold Prince and though the director was reticent at first, he was soon won over by Sondheim’s scoring ideas merged with his own ideas of making a statement about life in the Industrial Revolution–Prince’s sets would eventually come to look and feel like an old iron foundry with movable set pieces that actors could turn throughout to set different scenes.

Though it took a bit of convincing on his part, Sondheim found his leading lady for the comically villainous Mrs. Lovett in Angela Lansbury and for the titular role, he brought in actor Len Cariou.

Further, Sondheim turned the smaller roles and extras in the chorus into an actual Greek Chorus who would come onto the stage en masse to narrate certain passages through song, lending an almost operatic feel to the show.

On opening night, audiences were in shock at the tale of bloodshed, cannibalism, and revenge, and though reception by critics was somewhat lukewarm, it would go on to run for 557 performances on Broadway before it set out on tour with Lansbury still attached to the role of Lovett.

Cariou was replaced by George Hearn for the tour, and in the final leg of Sweeney Todd on the road, the production was filmed for broadcast on television. You can still purchase that production on DVD, and I cannot tell you how much I recommend it.

 

Since its initial run at the Uris Theater in New York, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been performed all over the world and has seen numerous revivals on Broadway and in London’s West End.

In my opinion, Sweeney Todd contains some of the composer and lyricist’s best work. The darkly hilarious “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea” perfectly offset soaring ballads and more serious pieces like “Johanna” and “Epiphany.”

Sweeney on Screen

Of course, eventually Hollywood came to call upon Sondheim, and in 2007 Tim Burton’s gritty adaptation of the show hit the silver screen.

Now don’t come after me, but of all the version of this show that I’ve seen, Burton’s is by far the weakest. They simply had to cut too many things in the adaptation and they went with “name” talent over real singing actors. While I appreciate much of what they did in the film version of the story, you’ve not really seen this show until you’ve seen it in its entirety and by actors who are more accomplished vocalists than Depp and Bonham-Carter.

The film version of the musical was hardly the first screen adaptation of the story of Sweeney Todd, however. For that, you have to go all the way back to 1926. Unfortunately the film, which was directed by George Dewhurst and starred G.A. Baughan in the title role, has been lost.

The story was adapted for the screen again in 1928 and again in 1936, this time with George King directing. King’s version was actually chosen as one of the first 200 films to be broadcast on television and was first seen on WNBT Channel 1 out of New York City.

It has since been adapted by the BBC more than once, and has captured audiences each and every time.

But why Sweeney?

So why is it that this story has so captured the imagination of authors, playwrights, and filmmakers? What is it in the tale of Sweeney Todd that draws audiences to it again and again?

Of course, there is the lurid nature of the tale. Murder most foul and the unexpected twist of feeding human flesh to unexpected shop patrons is a sensational idea!

But is that all? It’s certainly part of the reason why I love it, and I’ve often wondered what I would do if I found out that I’d unintentionally taken part in cannibalism. Of course, I’m a bit weird so maybe only I have those thoughts.

While I’m sure academics could and would give you a host of reasons, I think it comes down to basic human nature.

Sweeney Todd could be anybody. He could be your neighborhood barber or even worse your neighbor.

There is both a repulsion and a slight thrill innate in human beings when they find them connected to such circumstances. One only has to read or watch the news after a heinous murderer or serial killer is captured to see it. Friends, neighbors, and acquaintances line up for interviews to talk about how they never would have suspected the killer of doing such terrible things.

Whatever the part of our brain is that drives human to relish that contact with such horrifying circumstances, I would lay money on it being the same part that has kept the story of Sweeney Todd alive.

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Waylon Jordan is a lifelong fan of genre fiction and film especially those with a supernatural element. He firmly believes that horror reflects collective fears of society and can be used as a tool for social change.