If you’re like me, Sweeney Todd might not be what first comes to mind when you think of a great musical. Other than the 2007 movie starring Johnny Depp, which I never actually saw, I was completely unfamiliar with the story of Sweeney Todd. Naturally, when I heard QCT was bringing this show to Quincy, I was curious. Why is Sweeney Todd considered to be so remarkable by so many? What is it about the story and the music that impacts the audience so greatly? They say art imitates life, and if that’s true, how does Sweeney Todd capture the human experience?
Sweeney Todd first opened on Broadway in 1979 with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and based on the book by Hugh Wheeler. The musical is actually based on the play Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, written by Christopher Bond in 1973. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
At its heart it’s a story of tragedy and revenge. Sweeney Todd is unjustly accused, exiled, and his family stolen. When he returns to London fifteen years later, he determines to punish those who unjustly punished him. So he kills them one by one and then with the help of the local baker, Mrs. Lovett, turns them in to meat pies. Sweeney Todd’s darkness is best expressed in his own words: “Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief, for the rest of us death would be relief.” He sees his acts of vengeance as his salvation and is “alive at last,” and “full of joy.”
One bright spot in the show is the love story between Johanna, the daughter of Sweeney Todd, and Anthony, the sailor who rescued Todd and helped him return to London. It’s love at first sight for Anthony, who vows to rescue Johanna from the asylum where she has been imprisoned. The song he sings, simply entitled, “Johanna” is stunningly beautiful and moving.
The music of Sweeney Todd is masterful. The bulk of the show is sung rather than spoken. According to Richard Eder, who reviewed Sweeney Todd after it opened in 1979, “it is in many ways closer to opera than to most musicals…….Mr. Sondheim has composed an endlessly inventive, highly expressive score that works indivisibly from his brilliant and abrasive lyrics.” In his review, Eder also remarks on the rhythms of the music: the “pounding” of the “Sweeney Todd Ballad” and the “rapid patter” songs of Mrs. Lovett.
Sweeney Todd is dark, haunting, and disturbing. We are shown a character that has been completely consumed by revenge and has become utterly deranged. Sondheim himself often said that Sweeney Todd was about obsession. What Sweeney Todd really shows us is how powerful revenge is and how it consumes the vengeful person themselves. And maybe that’s the way this artistic work imitates life and provides a glimpse into the horrors of a life given to revenge. Perhaps as he says, we all do deserve to die, but Sweeney Todd serves as a reminder that revenge is the darkest path, and it can’t ever bring true joy.
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