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“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is Back on Broadway

A tormented barber turned into a serial killer whose victims end up as the main ingredients of meat pies is not the typical story for a musical, much less a comedy. But the magic of theater made it possible, and the audience is thrilled once again.

As a quintessential dark musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is just back on Broadway for the fourth time, after opening in 1979, 1989, 2005.

Set in the mid-19th Century London, Sweeney Todd first appeared as the villain of the penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls (1846–1847). It is not totally clear who created this character: critics have said it was probably James Malcolm Rymer, though Thomas Peckett Prest, Edward P. Hingston, George MacFarren, Albert Richard Smith, and George Dibdin Pitt have all also been credited.


It reminds of some Charles Dickens’ characters, regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. In fact, two of his books have indirect references to the Sweeney Todd’s legend. In The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), for example, a protagonist admits being grateful that his own “evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis.” And some works by Victor Hugo come to mind, with their themes of justice, revenge and redemption.

This tale of shavings with slit throats has been retold many times, including plagiarized versions in books and stage. Before becoming a musical, it was a drama play. Various versions were presented in the British theatre in the second half of the 19th Century, and it was first produced on Broadway in 1924.

Two years later, Sweeney Todd (1926) was the first movie version, a 15-minute British silent production featuring G. A. Baughan in the title role, directed by George Dewhurst. Another silent version was made in 1928 by Walter West, shot also in London.

In 1959 a ballet version was performed by the Royal Ballet, choreographed by John Cranko, with music by Malcolm Arnold.

In 1973, British playwright Christopher Bond wrote the most elaborated version of all, giving a human “motive” for the crimes: before being Sweeney Todd he was Benjamin Barker, a barber wrongfully convicted who spent 15 years in an Australian penal colony, escapes and returns to London. There he seeks revenge on the corrupt judge responsible for his ordeal after finding out he raped his wife and plans to marry their daughter that was abducted and raised by him.

With that background, the tale of Sweeney Todd could also be considered a Greek tragedy, as destiny drives the main character in a spiral of despair and inevitable misfortune, and a victim of the Industrial Revolution. That is the version that Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) adapted into a musical that first opened on Broadway in 1979, staged by Harold Prince, with Angela Lansbury, one of most awarded actresses in Golden Globes history with six wins and fifteen nominations.

In 1982 Lansbury reprised the role in a TV movie adaptation, which won three Emmys, including Best Director in a Variety or Music Program (Terry Hughes), and Best Actor (George Hearn). In 1997 another TV version (The Tale of Sweeney Todd) was led by Ben Kingsley, earning him a SAG award nomination.

A scholarly annotated edition of the original 1846 serial was published in 2007 by the Oxford University Press with the title of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, edited by Robert Mack. It mentions that claims that this barber was a real person were first made in the introduction to the expanded edition of The String of Pearls in 1950, and have persisted until today.

In 2007, Tim Burton’s adaptation was a success, with a worldwide gross of over $153 million. It won two Golden Globes for Best Picture – Musical/Comedy and Best Actor (Johnny Depp) and got nominations for Best Director and Actress (Helena Bonham Carter). The cast also included Golden Globes winners Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen. It later got 3 Oscar nominations, winning as Best Achievement in Art Direction.

As all its predecessors, the “quasi-operatic pop” 2023 Broadway revival with its simple set and basic dark lighting is already a big bet to the 75th Tonys, whose nominations will be announced early next month. The cast is led by Josh Groban -charted in 2007 as the number one best selling artist in the USA, and an Emmy, Grammy and Tony nominee-, next to Annaleigh Ashford and Ruthie Ann Miles, both Tony awarded. All directed by Thomas Kail, Tony winner for Hamilton and husband of Michelle Williams.

“The nearly three-hour show is about 80 percent sung, which is why some people call it an opera (…) Sondheim’s masterpiece, restored to its proper size and sung to the hilt by Josh Groban, makes a welcome Broadway return… the show isn’t just one of the greatest American musicals but several,” critic Jesse Green summarized last month for The New York Times.