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Sweeney Todd

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Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd
Tod Slaughter as Sweeney Todd, 1936 film
Created by James Malcolm Rymer
Thomas Peckett Prest
Portrayed by Tod Slaughter (1936 film)
Len Cariou (1979 Broadway cast)
Denis Quilley (1980 London cast, 1993 London revival)
George Hearn (1982 tour, 2000 NYC concert, 2001 SF concert)
Timothy Nolen (1984 Houston Opera, 1984 NYC Opera, 1996 Goodspeed, CT Opera)
Bob Gunton (1989 Broadway revival)
Alun Armstrong (1993 London revival)
Dave Willetts (1996 Leicester revival)
Ben Kingsley (1998 TV film)
Kelsey Grammer (1999 concert)
Brian Stokes Mitchell (2002 Washington DC)
Bryn Terfel (2002 Chicago, 2014 NYC concert)
Thomas Allen (2003 Royal Opera)
Paul Hegarty (2004 West End)
Michael Cerveris (2005 Broadway)
David Hess (2007–08 Canada and U.S. national tour)
Ray Winstone (2006 TV film)
Johnny Depp (2007 film)
Michael Ball (2011 Chichester, 2012 UK revival)
Aliases The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Benjamin Barker
Gender Male
Occupation Barber
Serial killer
Spouse(s) None in original version
Lucy Barker (musical version)

Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the murderer of the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls (1846–47). He appeared in the British film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936). In 1973, he was introduced as an antihero when English playwright Christopher Bond retold the Victorian tale, which formed the basis of the 1979 musical and its 2007 film adaptation of the same name. Claims that Sweeney Todd was a historical person[1][2] are strongly disputed by scholars,[3][4][5] although possible legendary prototypes exist.[6]

In the original version of the tale, Todd is a barber who dispatches his victims by pulling a lever as they sit in his barber chair. His victims fall backward down a revolving trapdoor into the basement of his shop, generally causing them to break their necks or skulls. In case they are alive, Todd goes to the basement and "polishes them off" (slitting their throats with his straight razor). In some adaptations, the murdering process is reversed, with Todd slitting his customers' throats before dispatching them into the basement through the revolving trapdoor. After Todd has robbed his dead victims of their goods, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime (in some later versions, his friend and/or lover), assists him in disposing of the bodies by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop. Todd's barber shop is situated at 186 Fleet Street, London, next to St. Dunstan's church, and is connected to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop in nearby Bell Yard by means of an underground passage. In most versions of the story, he and Mrs. Lovett hire an unwitting orphan boy, Tobias Ragg, to serve the pies to customers.

The tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama. It was the subject of a 1959 ballet by English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold and, in 1979, a Tony award-winning Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. The musical was adapted for the screen in 2007 as a musical film, directed by Tim Burton, written by John Logan, Hugh Wheeler, Christopher Bond and starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Alan Rickman.

Literary history

Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance. This Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: "I'll polish him off".[6]

Lloyd published another, lengthier, penny part serial from 1847–48, with 92 episodes. It was then published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls, subtitled "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages long.[6] A plagiarised version of this book appeared in America c. 1852–53 as Sweeney Todd: or the Ruffian Barber. A Tale of Terror of the Seas and the Mysteries of the City by "Captain Merry" (a pseudonym for American author Harry Hazel, 1814–89).[6]

In 1875, Frederick Hazleton's c. 1865 dramatic adaptation Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (see below) was published as Vol 102 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays.[6]

A scholarly, annotated edition of the original 1846–47 serial was published in volume form in 2007 by the Oxford University Press under the title of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, edited by Robert Mack.

Alleged historical basis

The original story of Sweeney Todd was quite possibly based on an older urban legend, originally based on dubious pie-fillings.[6] In Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836–37), the servant Sam Weller says that a pieman used cats "for beefsteak, veal and kidney, 'cording to the demand", and recommends that people should buy pies only "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten."[8] Dickens then developed this in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846–47), with a character called Tom Pinch who is grateful that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis".[9]

A similar story, which first appeared in an 1824 publication called The Tell Tale, reported how a barber and wig-maker of the Rue de la Harpe in Paris cut his customers' throats, relieved them of their valuables, and then had their bodies made into meat pies, utilising the services of a pastry cook whose establishment was on the same street.[6][7] This is supposedly based on an account by Joseph Fouché, the Parisian chief of police, but the supposed book by Fouché is impossible to trace. The earliest version of the story claims, "This case was of so terrific a nature, it was made part of the sentence of the law, that besides the execution of the monsters upon the rack, the houses in which they perpetrated those infernal deeds, should be pulled down, and that the spot on which they stood should be marked out to posterity with horror and execration." About six years before this story appeared, two houses on the street had been torn down to allow access to the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny. It is suspected this may have fed or sparked the rumour.[10]

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person were first made in the introduction to the 1850 (expanded) edition of The String of Pearls and have persisted to the present day.[6] In two books,[1][2] [11]

In literature

A late (1890s) reference to the urban legend of the murdering barber can be found in the poem by the Australian bush poet Banjo PatersonThe Man from Ironbark.

In his 2012 novel Dodger, Terry Pratchett portrays Sweeney Todd as a tragic figure, having lost his mind after being exposed to the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars as a barber surgeon.

In performing arts

In stage productions

  • The String of Pearls (1847), a melodrama by George Dibden Pitt that opened at Hoxton's Britannia Theatre and billed as "founded on fact". It was something of a success, and the story spread by word of mouth and took on the quality of an urban legend. Various versions of the tale were staples of the British theatre for the rest of the century.
  • Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (c. 1865), a dramatic adaption written by Frederick Hazleton which premiered at the Old Bower Saloon, Stangate Street, Lambeth.[6]
  • Sweeney Todd (1962), a four act melodrama adapted from The String of Pearls by Brian J Burton who also composed new songs and lyrics. It was first performed at the Crescent Theatre,[12] Birmingham.
  • Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973), a play by the British playwright Christopher Bond. This version of the story was the first to give Todd a more sympathetic motive: he is a wrongfully imprisoned barber who returns to London after 15 years in an Australian penal colony under the new name Sweeney Todd, only to find that Judge Turpin, who is responsible for his imprisonment, has raped his young wife and adopted his daughter. He at first plans to kill Turpin, but when his prey escapes, he swears revenge on the whole world and begins to slash his customers' throats. He goes into business with Mrs. Lovett, his former landlady, who bakes his victims' flesh into pies. At the end of the play, he gets his revenge by killing Turpin, but then unknowingly kills his own wife, whom Mrs. Lovett had misled him into believing had died. He kills Mrs. Lovett, and allows his assistant Tobias Ragg to slit his throat.
  • Dorothy Loudon later succeeded Cariou and Lansbury in the lead roles. In 1982, the musical was televised on The Entertainment Channel, starring Hearn and Lansbury, and directed by Terry Hughes and Harold Prince. It was produced by RKO Pictures and RKO/Nederlander Productions.
  • Sweeney Todd Musical, a 2009 musical rendition by the Repertory Philippines group, starring Audie Gemora in the title role and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Mrs. Lovett. Gerard Salonga of Filharmonika conducted the orchestra. It was directed by Baby Barredo and Michael Williams.
  • The Sweeney Todd Shock'n'Roll Show, a musical by Peter Miller and Randall Lewton written to be performed by young people. The show is available from Samuel French, Ltd.
  • A Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical, directed by John Doyle, was mounted at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 2005. The 10-person cast, who played their own instruments in new orchestrations, consisted of John Arbo (Jonas Fogg; bass player), Donna Lynne Champlin (Pirelli; piano, accordion, flute), Alexander Gemignani (The Beadle; piano, trumpet), Mark Jacoby (Judge Turpin; trumpet, percussion), Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman/Lucy Barker; clarinet), Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony Hope; cello, piano), Lauren Molina (Johanna Barker; cello), Manoel Felciano (Tobias; violin, clarinet, piano), Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett; tuba, percussion), and Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd; guitar). Cerveris, LuPone, and Felciano were all nominated for Tony Awards; the show itself was nominated for Best Revival and won Tonys for Best Direction and Best Orchestration.[13]

In January 2014, a world premiere adaptation for the stage exploring the Sweeney Todd tale based on the original Penny Dreadful story “The String Of Pearls” will be performed at the Lyceum Theatre, Crewe, England.

In dance

In film

In music

  • "Sweeney Todd, The Barber", a song which assumes its audience knows the stage version and claims that such a character existed in real life. Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1956, attributed it to R. P. Weston, a songwriter active from 1906 to 1934.
  • "Fleet Street", a hard rock/heavy metal song by the Canadian band Fist (AKA "Myofist" in parts of Europe), released on their 1982 A&M Records album Fleet Street, also known as Thunder in Rock in the USA and Europe.

In radio and audio plays

  • "The Strange Case of the Demon Barber" (January 8, 1946), an adaptation of the Sweeney Todd story featured in an episode of the radio drama The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In this interpretation, an actor playing the character on stage begins to believe he is committing similar murders while sleepwalking, while Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson uncover evidence that may prove his sanity.
  • In 1947, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Stage Series broadcast a radio adaptation of the Pitt play starring Mavor Moore as Todd, Jane Mallett as Mrs. Lovett, John Drainie as Tobias, Lloyd Bochner as Mark Ingesterie and Arden Kaye as Johanna Oakley. The production was adapted by Ronald Hamilton and directed by Andrew Allan, with original music composed by Lucio Agostini.
  • The second episode of the BBC Radio comedy series 1835, entitled "Haircut, Sir?" (broadcast in 2004) and written by Jim Poyser, portrayed aimless aristocrat Viscount Belport (Paul Rider) and his servant Ned (Jason Done) joining the police force under Sir Robert Peel and encountering demon barber Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Keeble) on their first case.
  • Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls: An Audio Melodrama in Three Despicable Acts (2007), an audio play by Yuri Rasovsky, won three 2008 Audie Awards for best audio drama, best original work, and achievement in production.

On television

In comics

  • The character of Sweeney Todd is presented as a villain in Marc Andreyko's Manhunter series, wherein he appears as a ghost which possesses men (causing them to resemble him) and murders women. A supporting character, Obsidian, is shown to be a fan of Sondheim's musical.
  • Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli were to have created a Sweeney Todd adaptation for Taboo, published by Steve Bissette and Tundra, but only completed a prologue.
  • Classical Comics, a UK publisher creating graphic novel adaptations of classical literature, has produced a full colour, 176-page paperback, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2010),[14] with script adaptation by Sean M. Wilson, linework by Declan Shalvey; colouring by Jason Cardy & Kat Nicholson, and lettering by Jim Campbell.

In rhyming slang

In rhyming slang, Sweeney Todd is the Flying Squad (a branch of the UK's Metropolitan Police), which inspired the television series The Sweeney.


It was added to the stories parodied on the animated family The Simpsons in the episode titled "Treehouse of Horror XX" as a vignette to the play. It was first broadcast on Fox TV on October 18, 2009.


  1. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1979). The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. F. Muller.  
  2. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1993). Sweeney Todd: The real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Boxtree.  
  3. ^ a b "Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd" (Press release). BBC Press Office. 2005-08-12. Retrieved 2006-11-15. 
  4. ^ a b Duff, Oliver (2006-01-03). "Sweeney Todd: fact". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2006-11-15.  (Full text)
  5. ^ a b "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. Retrieved 2006-11-15. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Robert Mack (2007) "Introduction" to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  7. ^ a b "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" Retrieved 11 February 2006.
  8. ^ Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Oxford: Oxford Classics. pp. 278, 335. 
  9. ^ Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Margaret Cardwell (1982). Oxford, Clarendon Press: 495
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b "Search - Home - Central Criminal Court". Retrieved 2009-05-30. 
  12. ^ https://articles/Crescent_Theatre
  13. ^
  14. ^ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Text ed.). November 2010.  

Further reading

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street edited by Robert Mack (2007). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-922933-3
  • Robert Mack (2008) The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-9791-8
  • Rothman, Irving N. "Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979). In The Barber in Modern Jewish Culture (2008). 365–76. ISBN 978-0-7734-5072-1

External links

  • The String of Pearls etext of the 1846/47 penny dreadful that first featured Sweeney Todd
  • BBC Radio 4 Extra - 1835: 2. "Haircut, Sir?"
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