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Sweeney Todd the Musical

Updated on February 13, 2014

Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: music, horror, barber shops and English meat pies!

The story of the murderous barber - who killed his customers - and his pie-woman accomplice - who baked them in pies - was one I grew up with. It was a scary fairy tale told to the children by my English mother, who learned it as true-history. In fact, in her London neighborhood everyone knew which pie shop had once been Mrs. Lovett's... and ate there.

So I was very excited to be asked to design the theater set for a production by WaterTower Theatre of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

This was my first introduction to the work of Stephen Sondheim. What an introduction! Kinda like being side-swiped by Mozart or blind-sided by Gershwin... a little startling. Honestly, it took me a while to grasp the music, to come to grips with the Scale, the Depths, the SCOPE of this show. Somehow the title "musical" is misleading - this is not exactly The Sound of Music.

Dark stuff. Very dark. But I was disappointed to discover that the tale of Sweeney Todd was not a true story. (Disappointed? Sad but true.) The reports were made-up by a Victorian reporter to sell some papers. I was, however, very satisfied by the elaboration of that story in this Sondheim version - the addition of the story of Sweeney Todd's wife and of his revenge. This added a great deal to the original. I warmed to the characters. (Some of 'em. The Judge? Not so much.) I learned to love the lyrics and music. Sweeney Todd the musical is engrossing. Fascinating.

Many, many theater-goers agree with me. Sweeney Todd has fans - pretty enthusiastic fans - as does composer Stephen Sondheim.

Join the club.

This Lens is all about the Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd, plus references to various other versions, including the latest film starring Johnny Depp as the deranged barber.

NOTE: Quotes in black boxes are from Stephen Sondheim.

(The illustration above is, I believe, public domain and comes from Mister Ron's Basement.)

Swing your razor wide! Sweeney, hold it to the skies!

Stephen Sondheim, image borrowed from IMDB
Stephen Sondheim, image borrowed from IMDB

Stephen Sondheim

This American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote Sweeney Todd... and many other major works for stage and film. He's won pretty much everything: Tonys (eight so far, more than any other composer) plus a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre; several Grammys; and a Pulitzer Prize. He may be the best known composer working on Broadway.

Born March 22, 1930, Stephen Sondheim grew up with a famously difficult family. His mother seems to have been materialistic and celebrity seeking and who took out the stresses of her divorce out on her son. But it was through her that he met the Hammerstein family. Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II - half of the famous theater song writing team Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Among Sondheim's famous shows are: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Assassins. Besides those, Sondheim wrote lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Almost incidentally, he's also songs for film, including the Academy Award winning "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from 1990's Dick Tracy. other honors followed - he has a Broadway theater named after him.

Sondheim has fans. He is probably the only living composer with a quarterly journal published about him, certainly his work has been much studied and very influential.

"If I cannot fly, let me sing."

— Stephen Sondheim

Oscar Hammerstein II, image borrowed from Popular Song.org
Oscar Hammerstein II, image borrowed from Popular Song.org

Oscar Hammerstein II

According to Stephen Sondheim, "Oscar Hammerstein was a surrogate father during all those many days, and weeks and months when I didn`t see my own father."

Oscar Hammerstein II, it can be argued, was the most influential Broadway lyricist ever - while working in a couple famous partnerships with Jerome Kern then Richard Rogers. (Not to mention mentoring Stephen Sondheim.)

Together, Hammerstein and his partners pioneered the idea that a song in a musical was not an interlude in the plot, but part of telling the story - often the most critical moment of the story. Showboat first demonstrated this. Hammerstein's ouvre includes Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

I fell into lyric writing because of music. I backed into it.

Barber, believed public domain
Barber, believed public domain

Sweeney Todd's Story

To the Victorian urban myth of a murderous barber who slays his customers and gives their bodies to the pie-woman downstairs for disposal - at a tasty profit! - Sondheim and his collaborators add a complex back-story explaining WHY.

(And a subplot romance, of course, this IS a musical... though even the romance twists darkly.)

This is the tragic story of a naive Barber and his beautiful wife - of the coveting of this neighbor's wife by a wicked Judge - of power used against the poor - of miscarriage of justice - of tragedy, madness, and most of all... of REVENGE.

Sweeney Todd is a blood-curdling revenge tale. The musical begins with Sweeney Todd's irreverent burial and the cast of Victorian Londoners singing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

There could be a detail synopsis here... but, frankly, I think it's better just to watch the story unfold as it's told.

(But if you want Spoilers, check Wikipedia.)

Wikipedia on Sweeney Todd

Visit this Wikipedia article for a detailed synopsis of the musical's plot and for photos of the various casts etc.

Since these photos are all copyrighted, I won't reproduce them here. But they're worth a look!

All the best performers bring to their role something more, something different than what the author put on paper. That`s what makes theatre live. That`s why it persists.

When the audience comes in, it changes the temperature of what you`ve written.

Latest Broadway Cast - "The ballad of Sweeney Todd"

This song starts the show and pretty well sets up the plot, explaining just who Sweeney is and why he's... upset.

On Tour to Your House

The original cast sings the whole show for you, right in your living room!

Original Broadway Cast - Singing "Pretty Women"

In London's West End

There's what sounds like a terrific version of Sweeney Todd finishing up in London - with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett.

Wish I could see it!

"One difference between poetry and lyrics is that lyrics sort of fade into the background. They fade on the page and live on the stage when set to music."

— Stephen Sondheim

Sweeney Todd and Sondheim on DVD

It's not enough to read about a musical - you need to HEAR it!

Sweeney Todd in Concert
Sweeney Todd in Concert

Sweeney Todd works beautifully in concert.

 

One of the hardest things about writing lyrics is to make the lyrics sit on the music in such a way that you`re not aware there was a writer there.

Other Sondheim on DVD

One of the great things about Sondheim is how varied his work is. Not exactly "fomulaic" huh? Check out his full range.

Sunday in the Park with George
Sunday in the Park with George

I love the set design for this famous Broadway show.

 
Into the Woods
Into the Woods

I've designed sets for this... kinda "woods," more "woods," and yet more "woods." (Although squashing the Baker's house with a giant's foot was pretty fun!)

 

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit

and the vermin of the world inhabit it...

London in Sweeney's Day

Fleet Street, London, in the mid 1800s
Fleet Street, London, in the mid 1800s

Sweeney Todd's barber shop was reputed (at least in the musical) to be on Fleet Street - the traditional home of London's newspapers and printers.

This engraving shows Fleet Street in the mid 1800s, when (if Sweeney were real) he might have been working there. In the distance is the dome of St. Paul's. Is that woman selling pies from her tray?

Charles Dickens's character Sam Weller would have advice about buying one from her: people ought to buy pies only, "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten."

Scenic design for Sweeney Todd - WaterTower Theatre - Addison, Texas

WaterTower Theatre's production of Sweeney Todd, set designer Clare Floyd DeVries
WaterTower Theatre's production of Sweeney Todd, set designer Clare Floyd DeVries

And here's the set design I came up with. My first musical. My first Sondheim.

A little intimidating to design maybe?

RECENT NEWS! I've been contacted to design the set for an English language theater in Prague. Sounds very cool.

DeVries Design Diary Blog

A post with several variations on a set design for Sweeney Todd in Prague 2012.

Sweeney Todd for the Prague Playhouse - design by Clare Floyd DeVries
Sweeney Todd for the Prague Playhouse - design by Clare Floyd DeVries

Here's the latest version of the Sweeney Todd set for Prague.

Prague Playhouse - Sweeney Todd

A vid about the up-coming production in Prague (including a few of my set sketches).

Lyrics have to be underwritten. That`s why poets generally make poor lyric writers because the language is too rich. You get drowned in it.

Barber's Hair Chart

Books on Sondheim

Study up! Sondheim's lyrics and ideas repay close attention.

Stephen Sondheim: A Life
Stephen Sondheim: A Life

It fascinates me that the perfect student and the perfect teacher really did meet up.

 

Sondheim Links

Look here for lots of current information on stephen Sondheim and his work.

If you`re dealing with a musical in which you`re trying to tell a story, it`s got to sound like speech. At the same time it`s got to be a song.

The Latest Cast Sings... - "Johanna"

The romantic song...

Sondheim on Sondheim's Lyrics and Shows

The latest volume, the continuation of, THE definitive book on Sondheim by Sondheim. Perfect for the SERIOUS enthusiast.

I'm in the middle of reading this now and it is very interesting: full lyrics with all sorts of comments from Sondheim on the hows and whys of the writing and each show's development. LOTS of personal opinions. He's obviously an extremely intelligent man and an amusing and thoughtful writer - with strong opinions!

more Sondheim on Sondheim

The first volume of Sondheim on Sondheim. Why don't you own it already?

Musicals are, by nature, theatrical, meaning poetic, meaning having to move the audience`s imagination and create a suspension of disbelief, by which I mean there`s no fourth wall.

When you know your cast well and their strengths and weaknesses, you can start writing for them, just the way Shakespeare wrote for his actors.

Barber Shop, public domain
Barber Shop, public domain

Barber Shop with, um, grumpy barber - Image is believed to be public domain.

Set Up Your Own Home Barber Shop

But, please, not Sweeney Style.

Wahl Home Barber Kit #79524-3001
Wahl Home Barber Kit #79524-3001

While I sharpen my razor. Where's the straight razor?

 

Or Open Your Own Pie Shop!

Experience the best of British cuisine in your very own home.

Meat pies are amazingly popular in Britain and the old Commonwealth - especially in Australia.

Paste and Meat Pies
Paste and Meat Pies

Click of this illustration to read authentic recipes for meat pie crusts from "The Illustrated London Cookery Book", by Frederick Bishop, published 1852. At Chestofbooks.com

A painting of meat pies by Jacob van Es - Wikimedia
A painting of meat pies by Jacob van Es - Wikimedia

I love this recipe (hardly hard enough to be called a "recipe"). I cook meat pies a lot in cold weather because they're fast, filling, easy, and they use up left-over meat in a way my family actually Requests!

Can't beat that.

Cook Time

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: roughly 1 1/2 hour

Serves: 2-4

Ingredients

  • Pie crusts. I use the Pillsbury crusts that come rolled in the grocery store's dairy/cookie refrigerator case. Home-made would be wonderful!
  • Cooked Meat - usually left-over
  • Vegetables to compliment the meat
  • Gravy - either left-over from the roast or thickened stock etc.

Instructions

  1. STEP ONE: Since this pie is usually inspired by that roast or steak we had two days ago, the first step is always to pull that out of the refrigerator, then to check my pantry for complimentary foods.
  2. Beef roast or steak is great with mushrooms! (I like mushrooms with most meats.) Veal is traditional with ham. Chicken calls for celery. Potatoes work with most anything, as do carrots. Green beans or peas can be tossed in with most meats. (Peas are perfect with salmon or lamb.) Leaks are good... beets, on the other hand, would be icky and would stain everything else. Consult your pantry and your family's preferences.
  3. Then look for a base for the pie gravy: the roast's gravy is best, but you can start with canned stock or even broth if you thicken it. If you're making a chicken or salmon pie consider using cream instead.
  4. STEP TWO: Chop onions (or leeks or green onions) and saute in a little olive oil or butter until translucent.
  5. STEP THREE: If you're starting with stock - something that compliments your meat - put it in a saucepan and start reducing it. Maybe add a splash of sherry! If starting with gravy, heat it up. (All this can happen in that onion pan.) Start pre-heating the oven to, say, 350 degrees F.
  6. STEP FOUR: While that's cooking, chop your meat into bite-sizes. Also any other ingredients.
  7. STEP FIVE: Spread the pre-made or home-made pie shell into a pie pan (crockery looks best on the table later). While you're doing this, microwave any raw veggies or spuds until aaaalmost cooked.
  8. STEP SIX: Fill the pie dish (with its crust lining) with the meat and veg and those hot onions.
  9. STEP SEVEN: Check on your gravy. What you want is a nice thick, rich liquid. Stock will probably need to be thickened with flour. (Several spoonfuls of flour mixed with cold water till thick-soupy, then mixed with some gravy till thin-soupy, then added to the saucepan. Stir till thickens.) Once your liquid is fairly thick, pour it onto your meat n' veg. How MUCH gravy depends on your tastes - I tend to add about a 1/2" depth. The minimum must be enough to keep the pie moist as it cooks.
  10. STEP EIGHT: Lay the upper crust on top and pinch it at the edges. Either cut a couple slits for steam or install a pie-bird. (Kids love pie-birds!)
  11. STEP NINE: Bake your pie. Timing depends on your oven, but all you're really waiting for is for the crust to brown since your ingredients were cooked before they went into the pastry and most were already hot too.
  12. STEP TEN: While the pie bakes is the perfect time make a salad, to set the table, to pour drinks...
  13. When golden brown, whip your pie from oven to table. Serve!
Cast your vote for Easy-Peasy Meat Pie

Links to More Meat Pies

Other people (besides Mrs. Lovett and me) make meat pies too.

Movie poster from the 1936 British film.
Movie poster from the 1936 British film.

Film Versions of the Story

There were two early film versions of the Sweeney Todd story - in 1926 and 1928. This British 1936 film version was directed by George King and starred Tod Slaughter (perfect name!). I haven't seen it yet, but I'm pretty sure it's a straight, non-musical version.

Gotta love this over-the-top movie poster, with its ghastly looking customer ("Really, I only wanted a trim!") and its hyperventilating text.

You can buy the film referenced in the poster above: its DVD cover has a more Sherlock Holmes sort of vibe.

Sweeney Todd -Film Versions

Sweeney Todd 12-inch Figure - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd 12-inch Figure - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Gotta love action figures. But where to display it? By the shaving mirror or in the kitchen?

 

What Do You Think of Sweeney Todd? - (Need a Haircut? Just a Trim...)

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    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      The songs just wrap around me.

    • serendipity831 profile image

      Drake McSherry 5 years ago from Milwaukee, WI

      I definitely need to go see this when it comes to my town. Love it!

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @cynthiannleighton: Thank you. The story does make you nervous about that next haircut or shave!

    • cynthiannleighton profile image

      cynthiannleighton 5 years ago

      Hm. Do need a haircut. Just a bang trim Yikes! I do like your lens! The way you use the black boxes it feels like you're sitting in my computer narrating. Good job.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @WriterJanis2: The Depp film is a lot of (horrid!) fun... but, honestly, with the right cast the live theater version is even stronger.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Saw the movie with Johnny Depp. Very quirkey, but enjoyable.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 6 years ago

      @sociopath-free: "Ghastly" is exactly the word! Thanks for visiting.

    • sociopath-free profile image

      sociopath-free 6 years ago

      Love Sweeney Todd. It's a great kind of ghastly :)