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‘Sweeney Todd’ is a Tragic Tale Full of Captivating Woe

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If you grew up with a love of Broadway or as a theater nerd, chances are you have heard of Stephen Sondheim, or have seen one of his shows. I cut my teeth on West Side Story, one of the first shows he wrote the lyrics for. However, across his 69 years in the musical theater industry, he wrote the music and lyrics for shows such as Company, Merrily We Roll Along (currently playing on Broadway), and Into the Woods. The revival of his 1979 show, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, brought me to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on this most recent trip to New York City.

Originally appearing in the Penny Dreadful “The String of Pearls”, the character of Sweeney Todd has been adapted many times on the stage, dating back to the 1800s. However, it was the musical by Sondheim (based on the 1970 play Sweeney Todd by Christopher Bond), with a book from Hugh Wheeler, which so many current Broadway lovers are familiar with. 

With an Off-Broadway revival being the only run of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in NYC in almost two decades, the time is prime for another run. Starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, at least for a few more weeks, Sweeney Todd is the excitingly spooky night at the theater that is a must-see! Continue for more about this third revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

[Warning: Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street spoilers are below!]

A lost man returns to London in Sweeney Todd

The tone of the show is set up the moment the curtain is raised on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. The stage is dark, a darkness that feels endless, as smoke billows out into the audience and cast members appear and disappear from the darkness that envelopes nearly everything. It’s here that the story of Sweeney Todd begins, as the chorus sings of his haunting tale and the looming presence that his actions have over all of London. It’s then that the story switches to tell the tale of Sweeney Todd, but the endless darkness never leaves the stage, but instead extends back far into the rear, stretching on forever.

The main story starts with Anthony Hope (Daniel Yearwood) and Sweeney Todd (Josh Groban), who have just arrived by ship to London. Anthony is full of wonder, whereas Sweeney Todd is less optimistic about the opportunities that London will bring him. You see, Sweeney has a dark past with the city and those who run it, as his entire life was taken away from him. Back when he was a young and naïve barber, named Benjamin Barker at the time, Sweeney was just a boy in love. He had a wife and child, both of whom the corrupt Judge (Jamie Jackson) sought for himself.

Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford) and Sweeney Todd (Josh Groban). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford) and Sweeney Todd (Josh Groban). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

When Sweeney was sent away, his wife killed herself by poison, leaving their daughter in the Judge’s cruel and malicious hands. Now grown, Johanna (Maria Bilbao) lives as a prisoner in the judge’s house, eager for a life outside the estate. Sweeney is also eager for something, revenge on those who ruined his life and took away his family.

With the help of Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), the piemaker who owns the space Sweeney Todd rents, the demon barber sets out to enact his revenge, one throat at a time. However, as the plan becomes more of a reality, and as Mrs. Lovett sells more of her special pies, the secrets and tangled webs become harder to keep in place. Can Sweeney slay the judge and rescue his daughter before someone catches on? You’ll have to travel to Victorian London, and to NYC, to see how Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays out.

The positives and negatives of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

As I’m sure many musical lovers are, I am mainly familiar with Sweeney Todd because of the Tim Burton film adaptation. The film was met with a lot of critical acclaim, stating that it was a faithful adaptation with strong performances and musical numbers. I very much agree with that sentiment, as it is one of my favorite dark musicals. However, the film has nothing on the current Broadway revival.

One of the things that sets the musical apart from the Burton film is the incredible atmosphere provided at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The film is dark, don’t get me wrong, however there’s a separation that exists between the screen and the rest of my home. At the theatre, however, the audience is plunged into the terrifying reality of Sweeney Todd. The degree of separation barely exists, as the darkness that consumes the stage helps to amplify the horror, bringing you even closer to the deaths and destruction left behind by Sweeney Todd’s razor blade.

I had chills many times throughout the show, strictly from the horror that was on stage. I was shocked at the use of fake blood, which looks very real and overtakes the show the longer the actors are on stage. As the body count climbs and Sweeney has to kill more to keep his secret, the vibrant red oozing from their throats greatly contrasts the black stage around them. Never have I felt scared before watching a play or musical on stage, but Sweeney Todd managed to do that in mere minutes. I’m not sure if other productions on and off Broadway captured the same atmosphere, but it’s impossible to imagine seeing any other take after this brilliant use of black and red.

But these aren’t the other colors present on stage. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street uses color in intriguing ways. Different colors are used to signify certain people, such as pink and white for Johanna, signifying innocence and femininity among the dismal neutral colors of the rest of London. She serves as the beacon of hope for not only Sweeney Todd but Anthony, as both need hope for different reasons.

Sweeney Todd (Josh Groban), Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford) and the cast of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd (Josh Groban), Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford) and the cast of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman).

The music and lyrics of Sondheim remain timeless, adding to the creepy atmosphere of the entire show. It’s impossible to have a show like Sweeney Todd without the haunting melodies and chill-inducing lyrics that bring the tale to life. Many of the songs provide not just important narrative points, but also evocative emotions and even humor, which is necessary for heavy shows like this one.

The sets for Sweeney Todd were a marvel, in how simplistic yet integrated they were with the stage. Along the top of the stage was a catwalk, which served as Johanna’s home, as well as Sweeney Todd’s barbershop. The catwalk moved up and down, depending on what was going on below it, creating the streets of London, or Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Seems simple enough, but with a few pieces brought on and off the stage, the design transforms into a prison or the dungeon below the pie shop in which dastardly deeds occur. It was impressive to see, as the stage constantly shifted and changed to meet the needs of the show. It wasn’t overly clunky or unnecessarily extravagant, like over Broadway shows. 

Josh Groban gives an impressive performance as Sweeney Todd

It’s hard to find a weak member among the cast, as you can tell that everyone is putting their heart and soul out on stage. As someone who has never been a big Josh Groban fan, his performance as Sweeney Todd has changed my opinion. Groban just makes sense in the role, with his sweeping baritone perfect for Sweeney. His voice gives the musical an almost operatic vibe, which again adds to the creepy atmosphere. I’m sure whoever follows in his footsteps will be great in the role, but Groban was the perfect casting to begin this new revival, and I’m excited to see what he does next after Sweeney Todd

As Sweeney’s counterpart, Annaleigh Ashford brings a lot of humor as the wacky Mrs. Lovett. Mrs. Lovett is an oddball, who sees an opportunity to improve her shop and life through Sweeney’s revenge plot. There’s a sinister side lurking below the dark humor, which Ashford excellently balances on stage. Her role is integral to the emotional crux of the musical, as she harbors an earth-shattering secret from those around her. Ashford’s singing was also fantastic, as the perfect foil for Groban’s deep growl.

While Ashford was excellent, her accent was confusing. It felt like she slipped in and out of the accent many times, or would have a different accent for Mrs. Lovett in different scenes. The accent itself didn’t feel natural to the role, which made it jarring from other Mrs. Lovett’s I’ve watched on YouTube. I’m not sure where this change originated from, but it’s my biggest gripe of the entire performance. 

Final thoughts on this Sweeney Todd Broadway revival

This is to say, that if all I had to complain about is an accent, Sweeney Todd is a superb night out at the theater. The music and talent on stage are a marvel to behold, and those who brought this classic musical to life captured the atmosphere perfectly. If you’re looking for an unnerving night out at the theater, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is definitely the way to go. 

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is currently playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus if you plan on seeing this musical on Broadway!

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

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