Analysis: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

See “A Note on Analyses” for more information on this type of post.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
First produced on Broadway in 1979
DVD version stars Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn as Sweeney Todd

THEME/STORY: Sweeney Todd is a story of revenge. Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Baker) was exiled to Australia on a trumped-up charge, and returns to London to learn that his wife has poisoned herself and the judge that sentenced him to exile has taken his child. He vows to exact (sweet, sweet) revenge on everyone who has wronged or slighted him by giving them “the closest shave” they’ve ever had.

IMPORTANT SONGS:
“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (Prologue) — introduces the character and mood of the show. We learn that Sweeney Todd is a barber and a murderer (“they went to their maker impeccably shaved”). The mood of the show is clearly macabre and very dark.

“Ephiphany” (end of Act I) — a strong emotional number sung by Sweeney Todd. He was so close to exacting this revenge on the judge, only to have him slip away with Anthony’s sudden arrival. Todd expresses a variety of emotions in this song: anger, at missing his shot; grief, for his late wife; revulsion, at the hypocrites and liars that surround him in London. So much is going on in this song; I’ll readily admit that this may not be “the most important” song as far as story telling goes, but it’s very powerful.

“A Little Priest” (finale of Act I) — This song sets up the events of Act II. Sweeney Todd has killed Pirelli (who turned out to be an ex-employee of Todd who tried to blackmail him), and Todd and Mrs. Lovett are trying to figure out what to do with his body. Though a comic song at it’s core (complete with terrible, awful, not-very-good-but-still-made-me-laugh-out-loud puns), it further solidifies the relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: Todd will exact his revenge against those who wronged him, while simultaneously playing “butcher” for Mrs. Lovett, who believes using human meat in her meat pies will improve their quality. I mean, it’s working for that other woman who is (allegedly) using cats in her recipe.

“Final Sequence” (finale of Act II) — It can be argued that the emotional climax of the show is when Tobias sees the corpse of Beadle Bamford fall down the chute, but even then, the emotions continue to rise and progress throughout the show. Ultimately, the highest climax of the show is when Sweeney Todd, high off of finally exacting his revenge against Judge Turpin, realizes that the old beggar woman he killed was actually his wife, who he assumed was dead. There’s so much going on in this final sequence of music and drama that you’re not quite sure how to feel about it all. On one hand, hooray for Sweeney Todd for finally finding justice for being so wronged; on the other hand, his thirst for blood ultimately drove him mad and turned him into something much worse than he could have possibly imagined.

WHAT I LIKE:

  • Angela Lansbury is a treat!
  • Despite the gruesome subject matter of the show, it is surprisingly light. Mrs. Lovett is a well-meaning and somewhat innocent character, while Sweeney Todd, though jaded and cynical, still acts out of a misguided expression of love.
  • The puns! (“Try the priest.” “Heavenly!”)
  • “Epiphany” is easily one of my favorite songs of Act I, and demonstrates the wide range of emotions one person can feel at any given moment.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but I kind of like stories that don’t have happy endings, where things aren’t tied up in a nice, neat bow. No one is happy at the end of this show. Everyone is tortured and traumatized. It would seem like a cheap cop-out, and ultimately ruin the show, if Sweeney Todd felt relief after all of that murder he did (we know for sure that he killed five people during the course of the show — Pirelli, Judge Turpin, Beadle Bamford, the Beggar Woman, and Mrs. Lovett — but that number is obviously exponentially higher, given the success of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies at the start of Act II).

WHAT I DON’T LIKE:

  • The relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Maybe it’s because I’m being influenced by the present-day success of Suicide Squad, but the way Mrs. Lovett says “Mr. T” makes me think of how Harley Quinn refers to The Joker as “Mr. J,” and it makes me think of how abusive and manipulative the Harley Quinn-Joker relationship is. Todd-Lovett doesn’t seem to have that same level of manipulation (unless I’m completely missing something), but it still gives me the creeps. I realize this isn’t anything specifically against the show, but it still kind of takes me out of the show.

Taking notes

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My favorite part of taking notes is that I also provide my own commentary.

In case you can’t read my sloppy handwriting:

*SPECIFIC FOR “1916” — find out who the “mastermind” of the revolution/rebellion was — that’s the [main character]

[Secondary characters] would include the other 6 or so in the rebellion plot

“Hamilton” had specific musical styles for each character. Maybe try this?

Don’t break yourself. [Lin-Manuel Miranda] is a literal genius.

Welcome

A short post to welcome people to the blog.

This blog is meant to chronicle the experience of writing a musical when one does not have the knowledge or experience to do so. Early on, you will probably see a lot of posts about the research I’m doing, thoughts on books I’m reading, and analyses of musicals I’m watching in order to get a basic idea of what a musical is, how it’s structured, and what makes it successful.

At the same time, I’m a firm believer in bucking norms and breaking rules. The only reason I’m doing this research and putting so much work into understanding what makes musicals tick is so that I know exactly what rules I’m breaking and how I’m breaking them.

It’s almost guaranteed that my show will not be a “typical musical,” if only because I’m really flying by the seat of my pants. I will assure all of you that what I’m doing is “wrong” in some way. Maybe my dialogue scenes are too long; maybe my songs are too trite and/or too complicated; maybe Act I is incredibly long; maybe I include an Act III, which is virtually unheard of!

All I want is for this musical, whatever it ends up being, to be the best one I can write. My goal is for completion by the end of 2017. It doesn’t need to be performed, though I would like at least a few parts to be workshopped and polished. I just want a completed project.

I hope this journey is as exciting and enlightening for you as it is for me. Hopefully I’ll see you all at a future performance.

Cheers,

Kyle