Sweeney Todd-The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Grand Guignol Wit

According to Stephen Sondheim, two influences were at work to elicit his interest in Sweeney Todd. The first was Bernard Hermann’s score for 1945’s Hangover Square, a film about a serial killer whose sound and spirit stuck with him. The second was Christopher Bond’s play, Sweeney Todd seen by the author at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1973. Based on a character out of penny dreadfuls, the play gave Sweeney a back story and motivation. Sondheim said its author “elevated” his subject.

The composer/lyricist then created, in his own words, “a new animal” in which 80 percent of the production is set to music. Despite his intending Sweeney to be an intimate production, director Hal Prince “gave it an epic sense, a sense that this was a man of some size instead of just a nut case.” Anyone who saw first iterations will remember their power.

Whereas Prince had always been an optimist and Sondheim qualified, positions were now reversed. Producer/Director Prince couldn’t relate to the material. His way in was political injustice, dehumanization of society; Sweeney’s self-annihilation. “It’s about obsession,” Sondheim said. The Latin chant Dies Irae (requiem for the dead) became a leitmotif in tandem with Hermann’s unresolved dissonance. We hear it throughout the musical.

Sondheim first called Sweeney “a musical thriller,” later “a dark operetta.” He didn’t much like the genre of opera in which he felt music took dominance over story. The artist strove to equalize partnership. Fifteen or twenty minutes into composing the score, however, he found himself having addressed only five pages of Bond’s script. The piece might’ve run countless hours at that rate. Hugh Wheeler, who’d worked with the composer/lyricist on A Little Night Music was asked to write a book. The result may be Sondheim’s finest achievement.


We enter the theater to fog. This time around, in a much, much smaller house, the set by Mimi Lien offers a stone arch, a (well employed) mobile dock tower with dangling, loading hook, a second level catwalk/ balcony and a smear of color on the back scrim. All serve without alas evoking grandeur or oppression. The pie shop’s slide, oven, and meat grinder are creative. Costumes by Emilio Sosa are period accurate, broken-in, more authentic and less theatrical than earlier versions; aesthetically symbiotic onstage.

Jordan Fisher (Anthony), Maria Bilbao (Johanna)

Sweeney (cue loud applause for Josh Groban) and the sailor Anthony (Jordan Fisher whose pop voice and lack of acting chops are disappointing) disembark. They encounter a ubiquitous beggar woman (Ruthie Ann Miles – beautiful vocal, less believable with dialogue). The hero makes his way to a former room on Fleet Street where he meets Mrs. Lovett at her pie shop. (Cue applause for Annaleigh Ashford.) Mrs. Lovett bites off a piece of carrot in her mouth – both chunks falling into a pie – blows dust off the pastry she hands Sweeney, and robustly kills several bugs. Ashford has a way of lowering her voice to emphasize a single line that never fails to land. Her cockney is excellent.

“The Barber and His Wife,” Sweeney’s back story, is “illustrated” on a second level by actors miming in silhouette. It’s unnecessary and distracting. (Barber Benjamin Barker was sent to a penal camp on a trumped up charge so that Judge Turpin could get his hands on Barker’s wife Lucy and daughter Johanna.)  

Gaten Matarazzo (Tobias) Annaleigh Ashford (Mrs. Lovett) Alicia Kaori, DeLaney Westfall and Kristie Dale Sanders

Herein lies the rub of director Thomas Kail’s talent: On the one hand he’s marvelous with small business as well as both comic and gothic timing. On the other, he seems not to trust the material, regularly filling the stage with chorus who draw us away from invested moments. Kail also has a penchant for multiple gestures diminishing emotional impact of song and dialogue. When the company move as if blown by the wind, they often gesture in unison. Sondheim wouldn’t be pleased. He avoided chorus synchronicity as often as possible. Staging of the eventually popular, crowded pie shop (every character salivating, demanding, stuffing his/her self), the ersatz domestic “By the Sea” (Mrs. Lovett’s hopes) and “Not While I’m Around” (Tobias and Mrs. Lovett – including a revelation) are particularly good.

Anthony sees and is smitten with Johanna (Maria Bilbao – lovely soprano, perfect, flighty demeanor; especially wonderful in their later duet “Kiss Me”). The sailor is threatened by Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson – looks right but never achieves an aura of evil) and his Sancho Panza Beadle Banford (John Rapson – nifty portrayal). Crunch of Beadle’s breaking a bird’s neck is an excellent Grand Guignol touch, but, in that vein, we miss the judge’s self-flagellation scene which would make the character richer. Anthony is determined to free his love.

Jamie Jackson (Judge Turpin), John Rapson (Beadle Banford)

Sweeney announces reentry into the profession with a street contest against snake oil salesman/barber Pirelli (Nicholas Christopher – suitably over the top, but wearing way too much make-up). When the so-called Italian tries to blackmail Barker, he becomes the first victim. (Not enough blood.) Mrs. Lovett then inherits Pirelli’s young hireling Tobias who becomes her barker, waiter, and protector (Gaten Matarazzo- pitch perfect – sweet, devoted and finally believably vengeful). “A Little Priest,” the brilliant who’s-in-what-pie song, is exuberantly funny in the hands of Ashford and Groban whose chemistry is a great asset. (The price of meat being what it is, a human body’s as good as a pussy cat. Get it?)

Josh Groban, whose vocal range, and gravitas are far from older, more resonant predecessors Len Cariou and George Hearn, climbs into Sweeney’s shoes singing “Epiphany” and becomes, if not quite up to the others, a pleasant surprise. Ballads are appealing. As anger mounts, those songs acquire, if not the character’s tortured state, certainly weight. Glee during comic turns is palpable as is final despair.

Josh Groban (Sweeney), Annaleigh Ashford (Mrs. Lovett) and the Company

Annaleigh Ashford is the second reason to buy a ticket, the first being Sondheim and Wheeler’s writing. She’s a gem, a comedienne who inhabits the music hall character, sings beautifully and moves like a director’s dream. Ashford is fearless, morphing from fury to admiration in a blink; winding around Sweeney at every opportunity, turning a curtsy into descending stairs on her rump, literally flat on the floor in the happy hysteria of the pie song… We observe each idea when it arrives.

The revival is a mixed bag, but almost any opportunity to see Sweeney Todd should be jumped at and this one has much to offer.

Jonathan Tunick’s gorgeous orchestrations remain. Music supervised by Alex Lacamoire.

References to Sondheim’s opinions and quotes are predominantly from his two volume set Finishing the Hat.

Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Cover: Annaleigh Ashford And Josh Groban

Sweeney Todd-The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Thomas Kail

Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
205 West 46th Street

About Alix Cohen (1583 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.