What follows is by no means intended as a conventional plot summary.
Since the Sondheim-Wheeler-Prince Sweeney Todd is a "musical thriller,"
it would be inappropriate to give away all aspects of the plot. There
are also important musical clues that will remain undisclosed.
During the Prologue two gravediggers are seen digging a burial place at
the front of the stage. A man in a white smock, a foreman perhaps or a
supervisor of the gravediggers, enters and starts the machinery whirring
and humming. The machines make their own special music. An organist
begins to play a prelude. A piercing whistle sounds, and workmen tear
down the British Beehive as if to suggest the disintegration of an
A crowd gathers around the grave and begins The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.
It is a grim yet rollicking piece and contains a doom-laden musical
adaptation of the opening notes of the Dies Irae, which, of course, is
part of the Mass for the Dead in the Roman Catholic Church. This motif
is first heard with the words, "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney." At that
point a corpse is brought in and placed in the ground. Then out of the
grave slowly rises the demon barber protagonist. He admonishes the
audience that it is watching a play.
The carefully wrought choral writing, the close relationship between
music and dramatic action and the subtle use of the Dies Irae (which, to
this listener, evokes the grotesque, parodistic world of the finale of
Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique), so vivid here, continue throughout the
As the work progresses, the thematic and harmonic relationships, the
splendid use of leitmotifs, the bold and adventurous writing, whether it
be for solo voice or in three, four or six parts, indicate a sensitive
and knowing musician at work. All the reverberations and associations
that reveal themselves on rehearing and deeper involvement with the
score will, I think, convince the listener that here is one of the
finest of all scores for the theater.
The Prologue ends; morning light fills the stage, and the tin wall at
the rear of the set rises, uncovering a panoramic backdrop of a London
dockside complete with chimneys, factories and small craft. Anthony
Hope, a young sailor, and Sweeney Todd alight from a boat. Anthony sings
robustly of his adventures but proclaims that there is No Place Like
London, a positive statement of the glories of the great city. A beggar
woman interrupts their conversation with an anguished appeal for alms,
which is followed by a salacious offer of sexual favors. She approaches
Todd; uneasy, he chases her away. He answers Anthony's paean to London
with a more callous assessment in which he warns the young man that the
cruelty of man is as wondrous as Peru, then drifts into an almost
trancelike state, recalling his past in The Barber and His Wife.
We next meet Mrs. Nellie Lovett, an amoral, pragmatic seller of meat
pies. When Todd arrives, seeking out his former home above her shop, she
describes her wares as The Worst Pies in London. She bustles around
worrying about the flies and her competitor, Mrs. Mooney, who has been
thriving of late by "popping pussies into pies." She declares that times
are hard, even harder than her pies. Todd inquires about the room
upstairs and hears Mrs. Lovett's account of The Barber and His Wife,
which dwells not on the beauty of the wife but the beauty of the barber,
Benjamin Barker. Todd asks her to tell him more, and in Poor Thing she
relates the terrifying story of how the barber's wife, Lucy, was coveted
and seduced by lecherous Judge Turpin aided by the villainous Beadle
Bamford. The Judge sent Barker to prison in exile for life, on a
trumped-up charge, and then Lucy was lured by the Beadle to the Judge's
house, where a grotesque masked ball was in progress. This episode,
acted out on stage in pantomime, culminates with the Judge disrobing and
raping the girl to the music of a minuet. Todd's outcry at the end of
her saga convinces Mrs. Lovett that he is Benjamin Barker. He asks about
Lucy and his daughter, Johanna, and learns that the former took poison
and the latter was made a ward of Judge Turpin.
It turns out that the ever far-seeing Mrs. Lovett has kept Barker's
razors all the years of his absence, and now she happily restores them
to him. He addresses them in the poignantly rhapsodie My Friends,
singing to them as if he were pouring out his heart to a lover,
oblivious to Mrs. Lovett's expressions of affection. Barber and razor
are reunited. He is whole again and has become a machine no less
pernicious than the complex machinery around him. The London denizens
underscore his fate with their searing cry, "Lift your razor high,
We then see Johanna at her window. She sings Green Finch and Linnet Bird
, which reflects her own captive, caged status. Anthony comes down the
street - and falls instantly in love with her (Ah, Miss). He is
overheard by the Judge and the Beadle, who threaten him, but he
determines to win the girl's hand (Johanna).
In St. Dunstan's marketplace a crowd, including Todd and Mrs. Lovett,
gathers around the caravan of Adolfo Pirelli, a mountebank who claims to
be "the king of the barbers, the barber of kings." His drum-beating
assistant, Tobias, tries to interest the men in Pirelli's Miracle
Elixir. Todd smells a bottle and declares it to be nothing but a
concoction of "piss with ink." Pirelli enters in mock Italian-opera
style, and Todd promptly challenges him to a contest to see who can give
a closer, quicker shave and pull a tooth with more dexterity and
swiftness. The contest, judged by the Beadle, is won by Todd, who then
invites the Beadle for a shave at his barbershop over Mrs. Lovett's.
Back at the pie shop, Todd, waiting anxiously for the Beadle, is
exhorted by Mrs. Lovett to be patient. What was the first word of her
entrance number becomes the theme of the song Wait. It's not long before
Pirelli visits Todd. Having recognized Todd's razors and realized his
true identity, he threatens him with exposure. Rather than submit to
Pirelli's blackmailing demands for half his earnings, Todd kills him,
while downstairs Mrs. Lovett charms young Tobias.
The Judge, realizing that Johanna has reached womanhood and he can no
longer keep her captive, unleashes his guilt-ridden lust for her (
Johanna). Desperately trying to hold her, he decides to marry her. The
next day Johanna and Anthony plan her escape. The lovers' duet (Kiss Me)
becomes a quartet when the Beadle suggests that the Judge visit Todd's
barbershop to make himself more appealing to Johanna (Ladies in Their
Judge Turpin's arrival gives Todd the chance to take his revenge. But
the barber waits a bit too long (Pretty Women), and Anthony bursts in
with the news that he and Johanna will marry Sunday. Enraged, the Judge
storms out of the shop. Todd's ire at his missed opportunity is
expressed in Epiphany, in which his frustrated loathing for Judge Turpin
becomes a cry of vengeance on all mankind. The change in Todd, which
began when he was reunited with his "friends," is completed. He is
"alive at last" as he resolves to slaughter indiscriminately until he
has another chance to kill the Judge.
Mrs. Lovett, practical as always, sees the need to dispose of Pirelli -
and the promise of more bloody deeds by Todd - as just the right
stimulus to give her business a lift and make her the envy of all the
Mrs. Mooneys (A Little Priest). "What's the sound of the world out
there?" Todd asks. He and Mrs. Lovett know it is "man devouring man" or,
as Todd puts it, the question of "who gets eaten and who gets to teat."
Together they sing with riotous black humor, imagining all the
characteristics that various persons and professions would give if made
into meat pies. Industrial England might have its inequities, but the
rampaging duo, concluding that "everybody goes down well with beer,"
will take any customer they can get.
The worlds of barber and pie-maker are tellingly intertwined as the
second act opens. Mrs. Lovett's shop has added an eating garden, while
Todd's primitive upstairs room is transformed into a tonsorial palace.
And there is young Tobias drum-beating for the pies to the same music to
which he had hawked Pirelli's bogus elixir.
Mrs. Lovett and her customers take up Tobias' song, she bustling about
tending to pies, patrons, Todd and his newly arriving barber's chair and
the ever-present, intrusive Beggar Woman. A capitalist with a vengeance,
Mrs. Lovett has found the formula to drive Mrs. Mooney out of business (
God, That's Good!).
Anthony's fervent search through London for the now-missing Johanna and
Todd's plaintive thoughts about his daughter become the engrossing
Johanna. It is made even more intense by the arrival and disposal of
customers in Todd's shop via the new chair, which has a trap door
leading to the bakehouse, and by the ensuing nocturnal smoke from the
chimney. The more evil the deed, the more lyrical the music.
Mrs. Lovett's prosperity takes tangible shape in her redecorated parlor,
where she adds up the week's receipts. New wallpaper, a harmonium
acquired from a gutted church and other fruits of her business are
manifest. Now she is determined to persuade Todd to share a better life
with her away from the city. But the monomaniacal Todd is out of reach.
He is virtually impervious to her ruminations on the childhood joys of
the August Bank Holiday, to her remembrances of toes "wiggling around in
the briny" and to the possibility that some day they might have a home
of their own By the Sea. Even her suggestions that he could bring his
"chopper" and do in a guest once in a while fall on deaf ears.
Anthony finds Johanna at Fogg's Asylum, where the Judge committed her as
wrongly as he had committed Todd to prison many years before. The sailor
enlists Todd's aid in freeing the girl, and the barber turns Anthony
into a wigmaker, someone who would be allowed into the asylum to look
over the hair of the inmates. But Todd helps only to use Johanna as bait
to trap Judge Turpin. He writes the Judge a letter informing him that
Johanna will be at the Fleet Street shop that evening.
Tobias shows not only his affection for Mrs. Lovett but also his
suspicion of Todd in the warm, flowing Not While I'm Around. Mrs. Lovett
distracts the boy's simple mind by offering him a chance, quickly
implemented, to work in the bakehouse itself.
While Todd is out delivering his letter, the Beadle pays an unexpected
call at the pie shop to investigate complaints from neighbors about
strange odors. The Beadle sits at the harmonium and plays and sings
while Mrs. Lovett tries to explain Todd's absence (Parlor Songs).
This leads to the Final Sequence, with more Grand Guignol effects,
killings and dramatic escapes. Sweeney Todd reaches its climax, with
Sondheim's masterful musical resolutions enhancing the torrid pace of
The melodrama is over. The cast returns to the stage in an Epilogue to
sing once again The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, this time reminding the
audience that in a world full of Sweeneys revenge begets revenge.
- Robert Kimball