Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The story of the murderous barber who dumps bodies in a shared cellar, the baker next door and her strangely delicious pies, is a deliciously scary old wives' tale, but it turns out it's a true story and the perfect subject for a different type of musical.

Feature by Marcie Hume | 17 Mar 2006
The story of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is an exemplary story of the poverty-stricken London of days gone by, the rampant desperation and lawlessness leading another of its citizens to a life of crime. It is often said that this old story of a barber and a straight razor is fictional (as Sondheim's musical declares itself to be), but the foundation of truth underlying the story has been uncovered in recent years.

Sweeney Todd was in fact a real person, born into 18th century London. He was abandoned around the age of 12 when his parents went out in search of gin and never returned. At 14, while serving a sentence in Newgate Prison for petty larceny, he convinced the prison barber to take him as an apprentice. When released at 19 he worked as a "flying barber", practicing his trade where he could, until setting up shop on Fleet Street.

He created a rotating trapdoor which dumped his victims into the basement below his shop while on the other side flipped up a clean, empty barber's chair; and, in line with the musical, the customers did often end up as meat pie filling at a popular bakery nearby.

He disposed of his victims' remnants in the catacombs of a next-door church, where people held vinegared hankies over their faces in order to stand the stench whilst sitting through services. That stench was the catalyst of Sweeney Todd's eventual conviction. He was, as was any good criminal of his era, hanged. Fictionalisations started circling almost immediately and Sweeney had his place secured in the culture of Bogeymen.

Sondheim's version of the story, which first played on Broadway 25 years ago, alters the story a bit but still includes the requisite straight razor and pies. The original production opened to great reviews and starred Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett the crafty pie-maker (although Lansbury may perhaps be more famous for her overconfident sleuthing on Murder, She Wrote).

The musical covers the themes that horror stories often do: misery, malice, revenge and human vulnerability on the wild Fleet Street of olde London, all within the safety of a musical. The story of Sweeney Todd unavoidably highlights - in both an amusing and chilling manner - a common contemporary difficulty: in the relative comfort of the modern world, how can we understand what life would have been like in a world where such extremes of behaviour were seen as not only the norm, but as necessary for survival?

The current production, in honour of the 25th anniversary of the musical, began in London's West End, moved to Broadway and is now on a UK tour, stopping at Glasgow's Theatre Royal fro mMarch 20-25. The production stars Jason Donovan, a pop singer, musical theatre star and former Neighbours actor, whose face and large-font name grace the posters around town.

This version of Sondheim's musical is a little more abstract, which many reviewers have found enlivening while others have been left perplexed. The actors in the West End and Broadway versions played instruments in addition to their acting roles, including flute, glockenspiel, clarinet, piano, cello, accordion and double bass. It remains to be seen if such multitasking will occur during the UK tour.

Some aspects of this version of Sweeney Todd are reminiscent of the most experimental theatre: Sweeney carries around a little white coffin and calls it his chair, and when someone is killed the actors pour blood from one bucket to another. But oftentimes it is such reinvention that breathes new life into a show that has been produced many times. It is the type of theatre that relies on your fondness for the innovative nature of such performances, and also perhaps on your penchant for gloom and shadows.

Since this recent production has received wide commendation, it has been suggested that a Sweeney Todd film will be made next year, starring Russell Crowe no less. But so far the film is still in the rumour stage. Regardless, it seems clear that another wave of the story's lasting popularity is washing over us.
Sweeney Todd runs from March 20-25 at Theatre Royal, Glasgow.