Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Broadway Musical Thriller Analysis

Categories: Theatre

Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) is among the latest adaptations of the Sweeney Todd story. The play stars Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd, the ex-barber who returns to London after fifteen years of imprisonment on a false charge and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, owner of Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie Shop (home of “the worst pies in London) and Todd’s eventual accomplice. My impression of the play is very favorable; the remarkable acting and singing performances by all actors involved, along with the noticeable efforts of the production, lighting, and sound crews make for a fully thrilling and captivating experience.

Musical director Paul Gemignani had some of his most brilliant work to offer in this play. The frequent songs of the actors, as well as the recurring orchestrations of off-scene characters during breaks in the action, help set the emotional tone of the play as well as advance the plot.

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An example of song brilliantly used to further the plot is seen in Mrs. Lovett’s (Lansbury) cheery yet sadistical tune, “Seems An Awful Waste”, which takes place after the murder of Todd’s first victim. Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop suffers from a lack of meat due to high meat prices, and through a cheery, upbeat solo she proposes to Todd that they take the body and carve out the meat to be used as material for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. The use of song rather than simple words to advance the plot at this point represents Sondheim’s mastery of the musical, which is on full display throughout the play.

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Each major character is involved in at least one solo or duet. Judge Turpin, played by Edward Lyndeck, sings a romantic duet, “Pretty Women”, with Sweeney about his pretty ward whom he intends to marry, Johanna (also Sweeney’s daughter). The music is among the most strikingly masterful aspects of this play as a whole, and makes the viewing experience enjoyable and thrilling throughout.

Costume designer Franne Lee’s efforts fundamentally contributed to the development of the characters throughout the course of the story. An example of her efforts’ impact on the story is seen in the changing costumes of Todd and Mrs. Lovett throughout the story. Mrs. Lovett starts out in old-looking, plain clothes and apron, all dusted with the powder from her meat pies, which testifies to her desperate situation. Todd arrives in London with similarly plain clothes: a plain, old white shirt, plain khakis, and old suspenders, also testifying to his equal desperation and lack of any money. As their gruesome business begins to flourish, Todd begins to don a coat and a tie, and Mrs. Lovett goes through a series of extravagant outfits, all intended to emphasize their success in their business. It is in examples like these that Lee’s efforts contribute to the development of characters and plot.

The efforts Ken Billington, director of stage lighting, thoroughly enhance the dramatic tone of the play. At the same time, the dynamic lighting of the play subtly develops characters, in particular the character of Sweeney Todd, and contributes to the evolution of the plot as well. An example of this comes early in the play. Right after Mrs. Lovett informs Sweeney that his wife has died and his daughter is in the custody of judge Turpin, and later hands Sweeney the blade he had used as a barber before his imprisonment, Sweeney (obviously thinking of putting the razor to use other than shaving) triumphantly and manically yells, “At last! My arm is complete again!” Right at that moment the set is suddenly bathed in cold, blue light. The coldness of the blue represents the fact that Sweeney is becoming insane. This abrupt light switch, accompanied by dramatic music in the background, also sets a frightening tone for the audience, as they see their main character lose his sanity. The lighting experience contributes greatly in this way to the tone of the play throughout, subtly playing on the audience’s emotions.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is yet another example of the timelessness of the Sweeney Todd story. The beautiful music, acting performances, set, lighting, costume, and more make for an unforgettable viewer experience. Stephen Sondheim yet again showcases his mastery as a director, and prolific lead actors Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury do not disappoint. Viewers are blown away by their performances, and those of the supporting cast, in their gripping emotion and beautiful songs. This play is not only a must-see for thriller aficionados, but for anybody interested in the epitome of the elegant musical.

Works cited

  1. The Sondheim Review. (n.d.). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. https://www.sondheimreview.com/show/sweeney-todd/
  2. Plotnick, K. (2004). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32(4), 186-193. https://doi.org/10.1080/01956050409601994
  3. Zinman, T. (2015). A stage performance analysis of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Theatre Topics, 25(2), 163-175. https://doi.org/10.1353/tt.2015.0022
  4. Green, K. (2001). Stephen Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical. University Press of Mississippi.
  5. Knapp, R. (2011). The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity. Princeton University Press.
  6. Mikic, D. (2017). The Art of the Ensemble: A Study of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Springer.
  7. Sondheim, S. (1990). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (vocal score). Rilting Music, Inc.
  8. Jones, J. M. (2012). Broadway and Movie Hits: The Best Songs from the Biggest Shows… and Films. Hal Leonard Corporation.
  9. Sondheim, S. (2010). Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Knopf.
  10. Taylor, D. (2010). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. Aeon Books.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Broadway Musical Thriller Analysis. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/sweeney-todd-the-demon-barber-of-fleet-street-broadway-musical-thriller-analysis-essay

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