Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd is a fictional barber and serial killer appearing as a character in various English-language works starting in the mid-19th century. The phrase is also Cockney rhyming slang for the Flying Squad, particularly in the shortened form "The Sweeney".


Early history

Todd first appeared in a penny dreadful called The People's Periodical, in issue 7, dated November 21, 1846. The story in which he appeared was called "The String of Pearls: A Romance" and was probably written by Thomas Prest who created a number of other gruesome villans. He tended to base his horror stories on grains of truth, sometimes gaining inspiration from real crime reports in The Times.

"The String of Pearls" was made into a play in 1847 by George Dibdin Pitt and opened at the Hoxton Theatre, taking on the subtitle "The Fiend of Fleet Street" and billed as being 'founded on fact'. It was something of a success, and the story spread by word of mouth and took on the quality of a legend, often told as if it were true.

Various versions of the tale were staples of the British music hall for the rest of the century.

"Sweeney Todd, The Barber" is a song that assumes its audience know of a stage version, and claims that such a character in real life was even more remarkable. Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1956, attributed it to R. P. Weston, a song writer who was active (at least) from 1906 to 1934.

In the British Army during World War II, soldiers named Sweeney were routinely nicknamed "Todd," and Todds known as "Sweeney", after the well-known story.

British playwright Christopher Bond wrote a 1973 play Sweeney Todd.

Sondheim version

Stephen Sondheim wrote and composed the musical theater play Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, with book by Hugh Wheeler, and based on the Bond play. He called it a "musical thriller" and (because of its sparse spoken dialogue) "virtually an opera".

It tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a London barber who in the story's past was sent as a prisoner to Australia by the unscrupulous Judge Turpin, who desired and subsequently raped Barker's wife. Years later, Barker returns to London calling himself Sweeney Todd and craving revenge against the Judge. He moves into a flat above a pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett, who becomes his partner in crime. After being foiled in his attempt to kill the Judge, he goes mad and begins cutting throats indiscriminately; their bodies are then ground up to make the meat pies sold by Mrs. Lovett. Though Todd initially thinks he can have both his revenge and personal happiness with Mrs. Lovett, he is still deeply scarred by the loss of his wife and daughter, an emotional trauma exacerbated by the shocking revelation of his wife's true fate. In the end, Sweeney Todd has become so completely consumed by revenge that he is, in turn, destroyed by it. The show ends, to say the least, in a bloodbath. Every major character is either dead or mentally scarred by the experience. Unfortunately for Sondheim, this ending, with no redemption and no "happy clappy" end number, led to the show not being a huge success with the audiences during its early years. Many consider it now to be have been too much ahead of its time back in 1979; a decade later, audiences would be more receptive of other musicals with tragic endings, like Miss Saigon.

The Sondheim work contains the notable songs "A Little Priest," "Pretty Women," "No Place Like London," and "Not While I'm Around."

Opened on Broadway at the Uris Theatre on March 1, 1979 and starred Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Musical of 1979. It also starred Victor Garber as Anthony Hope, Sarah Rice as Johanna and Ken Jennings as Tobias Ragg. The original Broadway production played 557 performances. A Broadway revival appeared in 1989.

Early in the 2000s, this Sweeney Todd gained acceptance in opera companies throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. Bryn Terfel, the popular Welsh bass-baritone performed the title role at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002. It was performed at the Royal Opera House in London during the 2003-2004 season.

There will be performances at the Komische Oper in Berlin during the 2004-2005 season, in German language, directed by Christopher Bond, the playwright whose version led to Sondheim's.

Since Sondheim

Peter Haining, a horror and crime story writer, wrote a book in 1993 entitled Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet, in which he argues that Sweeney Todd was a historical figure committing his crimes around 1800, citing a number of sources. However, his claims were not widely accepted, and other investigators were unable to locate some of the sources he cites.

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