An Outsider’s Guide to Loving Sweeney Todd
By A Noise Within
January 17, 2024
Growing up, my friends and I were what I’d call “casual musical theatre enthusiasts,” diving into our favorite songs from The Heathers and Hamilton musicals for months on end, but then moving on to another interest just as quickly. Stephen Sondheim was not on my radar then. Until very recently, everything I knew about Sweeney Todd came from movie trailers featuring Johnny Depp circa 2007, and an unhinged episode of The Office called “Andy’s Play.” But during the course of my internship at A Noise Within (ANW) (via the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Internship program), I’ve come to understand how revered this Sondheim musical is to people. Even though I am an “outsider” to this material, I have become a fan of the productions at A Noise Within, so the prospect of witnessing Sweeney Todd for the first time at this theatre has been exhilarating! I have been eager to expand my limited dated references in preparation for our first show, and I unearthed a few facts I found particularly fascinating that added a new layer of interest to this classic tale.
Sweeney Todd: Real?!
There is intriguing evidence suggesting that Sweeney Todd may have been a real person or at the very least inspired by actual criminals. For 25 years, journalist Peter Haining has been researching the subject. In his books, Haining proposes that “real” Todd was born in 1756, and he spent his youth admiring medieval torture devices in the Tower of London Museum. After learning his trade in prison, Todd opened the now infamous Fleet Street barber shop (yes, it was actually on Fleet Street!) where he murdered his patrons. His lover, Mrs. Lovett, may have some roots in reality as well, since the details of the trial were recorded in the Newgate Calendar of Prisoners.
A play first, and music later.
Even though I was unfamiliar with the famous soundtrack of Sweeney Todd, I always knew it was a musical. But I was shocked to discover there were multiple performances of Sweeney Todd that predated Stephen Sondheim’s masterful contributions. In 1846, George Didbin Pitt adapted a “penny dreadful” story called “A String of Pearls” and used that material for the first production of Sweeney Todd, which was mounted the next year. Pitt’s lurid play inspired many others to write their own versions and these plays continued to be adapted and staged in British theatres for the remainder of the 19th century. In 1973, Christopher Bond wrote and staged his version of the play. Sondheim approached Bond about turning the script into a musical, bringing in Henry Wheeler to write the book, with Sondheim writing the music and lyrics. With so many adaptations of the story, Sweeney Todd is a rich tapestry of artistic evolution.
It’s a comedy! Of sorts…
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation to me was that Sweeney Todd is, in fact, a comedy. Sondheim aimed to create a musical that could “scare the hell out of everyone” and inspire raucous laughter as well. In my estimation, murder and cannibalism in Victorian London is not necessarily a subject that easily lends itself to comedy. When I think of the horrific themes in this text, a lot of questions come up for me. How does the musical manage to make cannibalism funny, and how do you artfully illustrate these violent acts onstage? In what ways has whimsy worked its way into the play, and why has this music become so beloved?
Suffice it to say, my Sweeney studies have only gotten me more excited for this upcoming production. The combination of history, real-life inspirations, and dark comedic turns promises a rich theatrical experience. And my time at A Noise Within has taught me many things, but among those lessons is that when a play is done well, everyone in the audience feels included in some way. A good production engages, enriches, and educates. It gives audience members many points of entry, to feel like some part of the story resonates in their own lives. I don’t know exactly what to expect of this production, but a Sweeney Todd outsider like me is eager to learn how, and why, this story has been affecting audiences for centuries. And I can’t think of a better place to experience this introduction than A Noise Within.