Sweeney Todd: Preview

November 10 2021, by Teddies Music

Murder, lust, revenge, poverty – Sweeney Todd does not merely stoop to the depths of human depravity: it inhabits them. Amid these grim layers of human nature, underneath the horrid power of this tale, lies a musical just as dark and enchanting. From the very first phrase no listener can safely escape being drawn in by Sweeney’s tale, by the bewitching charm of Mr. Todd, the vengeance of Benjamin Barker, the simultaneous pity and revulsion at our fallen hero. Sweeney’s victims make sure that if they cannot share the same lucky fate of their audience, they can at least be sure to leave the theatre with a little piece of their life taken away in horror.

Stephen Sondheim has never been able to explain quite why he wrote this musical. Some say it’s an anti-capitalist tract of greed and exploitation, for others it’s the deepest he has reached into his own soul, for most it’s simply a series of great tunes in a great setting. A taste for Victorian, Dickensian London is not Sondheim’s own; Kurt Weill had taken the figure of Macheath of London lore for his Threepenny Opera in 1928 and turned his murderous exploits and dark heroism into a critique of the rickety society of Weimar Germany. Where Weill put the famous melody of ‘Mack the Knife’, Sondheim digs deeper. Sweeney’s Ballad is taken from the plainsong Dies Irae chant: Day of Wrath, the most violent words of the Requiem mass. In Sweeney’s world, there is an unbridgeable divide between good and evil, the damned and the saved, the devout and the destitute. Little space is left for the ideas of guilt and hope, revenge and remorse that our main character feels. The setting of this musical is one where Judge Turpin flourishes simply because of his status, where the Beggar Woman is condemned to the bins and alleyways, where the frauds like Pirelli and boasters like the Beadle take the spoils. When the Chorus screams their ghost-like figure, the glee of how ‘freely flows the blood of those who moralise’ is ours as well: the horror at Sweeney’s crimes is only matched by those of all the others around him. The guilty desire, to see the Judge meet his end and Sweeney’s bloody yearnings finally realised, is the only catharsis we get.

What is Sondheim trying to tell us? Very little. We are left only to ponder what makes Sweeney do what he has to do, what makes Mrs. Lovett so ready to throw victim after victim into her oven, and why the hopes of Tobias or Johanna and Anthony’s love are never realised. Down here, among the ‘rats in the streets’ and the escaped Lunatics out of the Asylum, there is no peace, no redemption, no religious silence or eternal love. Only the grim, pulsating, never-ending command: ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.’

We, the living, have no choice but to listen to it.

Sweeney Todd opens later this month at the North Wall Theatre, Oxford. Ticket details will be released soon via email and social media channels.