Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

The Use of the Chorus in Three Versions of Sweeney Todd

Sweet-faced Johnny Depp (shown left at the world premiere of SWEENEY TODD
at Manhattan's Ziegfeld Theatre on 12/3/07) transforms himself into the maniacal
"demon barber of Fleet Street." Left photo credit: Flashpoint/WENN/NewsCom.
All stills here & below courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


By: Nicole M. Lemery

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is a show that bends easily to a director’s vision. Though several images have become iconic (the Act One closer of Sweeney wielding a cleaver and Mrs. Lovett holding a rolling pin), the versatile score fits with ease into any size budget, space and vision. The latest incarnation, as a major motion picture, is just another example of this. Just as Sweeney gracefully made the change from Grand Guignol at Manhattan’s Uris Theatre in 1979 to stripped-down thriller in its 2005 revival at the Eugene O‘Neill, it leaped onto the silver screen with effortless abandon. 

The main difference between these shows—and, between the visions of the three men who helmed each effort—is the use of the chorus. Sweeney has always had an air of self-awareness about it, beginning when the chorus beckons the audience to “attend the tale.” We the audience are summoned to witness not the unfolding horror, but a re-enactment that serves as both a shocking story and a warning. By changing who is doing the warning, and who is doing the retelling, the directors subtly change exactly who is self-aware in the piece; so the focus of the show shifts as well. In each re-telling, there are elements of revenge, class struggle, industrialization, and horror. The balance shifts as the point of focus does. 

SWEENEY TODD was adapted from a play of the same name by Christopher Bond, who in turn modified it from a 19th century melodrama. The true story of Sweeney Todd is mired in legend, but it appears that there was a real barber living and working on Fleet Street in London. Unlike the fictional Sweeney, he was caught and hung for his mass murders. The police at the time estimated there may have been 162 bodies, but the count may have been much higher. 

Bond attempted to take the edge off the melodrama by giving Sweeney a higher motive than greed: in his version Sweeney has been transported to Australia, and when he returns he discovers his wife has died and his daughter is in the hands of the man who condemned him. Although an audience may sympathize more with a man bent on revenge, their empathy abates somewhat when Sweeney decides to get revenge on the whole human race, not merely the man who betrayed him.

The class society of Sweeney’s world is embodied in the chorus, which comes forward at times to comment on the story. This removes the audience members from the action, so that they are aware at all times that they are seeing a re-enactment of a horrible tale. The play concludes with the warning that Sweeneys are all around us—and we ourselves contribute to the problem if we are not vigilant. 

The key players in this show—with the exception of Sweeney—do not see the larger forces at work. Mrs. Lovett, Toby, Anthony, Joanna, the Judge, Pirelli, the Beggar Woman and the Beadle are all, to one extent or another, totally immersed in their own problems. So the chorus points out how these characters are cogs in the industrial society, a fact which these characters do not see.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened in 1979 at the Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre to rave reviews. It is the only show that Stephen Sondheim ever suggested as a story for a musical. He set out to see if he could scare the pants off a jaded, modern audience. His focus was on Todd’s bloody revenge. Director Hal Prince was not interested in the show until he began to explore the larger themes of being lost inside an industrial society and Sweeney’s new awareness that he is merely a cog in the machine. The play’s original set came from elements of an old factory that were shipped in from Rhode Island. Reassembled inside the Uris it towered over the actors, dwarfing them in the same way that early Victorian England did its inhabitants.

Nowhere does Prince underscore his point better than in his use of the chorus. Less a traditional chorus which gathers mob-like to add depth to a scene, it serves as an outside force which comments on the action and moves the show forward. The chorus’s opening song, The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, demonstrates an outside awareness of events, both drawing focus to specific happenings and providing a window for the audience to look through. 

After Sweeney’s first attempt on the Judge’s life is thwarted, he decides to take revenge on the entire society that robbed him of his wife and daughter—because its members did nothing to protect them. Unlike the chorus, Sweeney is not interested in telling his tale. He must focus on his plan, constantly honing it His world is the small space between his razor and the throats of his victims; it is up to the chorus to illustrate that everyone in the show is a byproduct of Victorian England. Their anonymous voices are horrified at Sweeney’s actions, but they occasionally urge him on, as if they too were being grimly revenged through him.

Hal Prince’s version was heavy on set and gore, without having arterial bursts splashing across the stage. Necks were sliced, accompanied by a miniature spurt of blood (which was cleverly hidden in the razors themselves). Mrs. Lovett crossed the stage carrying an artfully dressed basket of “meat.” A revolving set piece included a slide that sent Sweeney’s victims feet-first down to the basement, where they landed softly. Lest the audience become too accustomed to the sight of murder, each one was accompanied and amplified by a piercing steam whistle; first heard 30 seconds into the show, it became the signal that Sweeney had killed again. But the deaths were “clean”; each murder swiftly followed by a dose of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” in which the chorus seemed to ask “Do you see what he did there? Do you see where this is leading?” 

By doing so, the chorus built the horror of the moment through anticipation of the act to come, preparing the audience for Sweeney’s ultimate act of revenge. The “Ballad” almost feels like a palate cleanser, as though the chorus was saying “that was unpleasant, but it’s over for now…but just wait.” 

Prince does use the chorus in some traditional ways as well, as they gather to be conned by Signor Pirelli and feast on Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, but it is their recurring “Ballad” which gives them their dramatic purpose: to watch, to know, to warn, and to re-tell.

John Doyle’s version, which recently saw the light of day on Broadway, came about because the director wanted to do Sweeney at the Water Mill Playhouse, on a stage that was roughly 30 feet by 20 feet. He stripped the show down to its barest elements and replaced a lot of Prince’s flashy images with symbolic set pieces. Gone was the revolving set, replaced by a stark black coffin that served as Sweeney’s lair and his final resting place. Doyle’s chief contribution was stripping away both the orchestra and any superfluous characters Now the cast was down to nine, and they all played their own instruments. Whereas Hal Prince gleefully gave into the images of blood spurting in the tonsorial parlor, John Doyle’s murders were conducted in near-silence, with the only noise being a gallon or two of blood poured between two white milk pails. The sound was creepier than the piercing factory whistle—and no less horrifying. Once dead, the victims in Doyle’s version donned white lab technicians’ coats with streamers of red flowing down from the neck; by the end of the play everybody was wearing one. So the gore is more sanitized, even more contained, but Doyle does not let the audience forget for a minute that we are still talking about throat-slittings and human butchery.

What Doyle also accomplished, either consciously or not, was to take the chorus’s former role as outside viewers and give it to the main characters. Now the actors had the unique job of both drawing attention to the story, providing a framework for the audience to see it through, and playing the roles they were talking about The effect was to create a creepy thriller instead of a grand horror show. Now the audience was viewing the tale twice removed, performed by a company who were completely aware that they were re-enacting a tale and who used theatrical devices to manage their many obligations. 

The instruments each performer carried quickly became part of his or her character. Instead of running across the stage, Johanna and Anthony bowed frantically on their cellos, and Toby cradled his violin like a teddy bear. 

This production’s London was a little smaller and colder, and the eye of its story was much more focused. While the Act Two opener of Hal Prince’s version was a huge, rollicking number where a dozen hungry patrons scream out demands for pies, the Doyle version was more subdued. The patrons here ended the song “God, That’s Good!” at a whisper, as though they were rendered speechless at the delicious pies—but the quietness echoed the Ballad, and the audience was reminded of what exactly was in those pies. 

In his 2007 film version of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, director Tim Burton managed to both push Doyle’s vision further and return to Sondheim’s original intention. Like Doyle, Burton stripped away the chorus—even taking the “God, that’s good!” out of the song. Now the focus is entirely on Sweeney’s revenge. Burton has taken “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” out of the story as well, giving the audience an uncomfortable close-up on Sweeney’s actions as they unfold. There is no one to comment on the larger forces at work, outside of Sweeney’s ruminations in “No Place Like London” and “Epiphany”—and on screen he is only dimly aware of the societal forces at work. The effect is brutal. By removing the chorus and the need for “sanitized” theatrical effects, Burton has plunged his audience straight into the horror that is Sweeney’s unquenchable need for revenge. Ironically, the film’s tagline “Never Forget, Never Forgive” is taken from the Ballad, (“He never forgot and he never forgave”) but here it is blown up to epic proportions.

Contributing to the uncomfortable feeling of being right in the middle of the action is Burton’s decision to show all the gore that accompanies real murders of this kind. Now the audience is treated to jets of blood spraying across the room. Sweeney’s chair now delivers its victims head-first down a 40-foot chute, and each body is accompanied by a shot lovingly detailing the moment of impact, including a sickening crunching sound. 

Mrs. Lovett is not exempt either: although the audience is mercifully spared the sight of her at her work, Toby discovers a pile of bloody bones and severed hands and feet. Even these sights might have been tolerable, but there is nothing separating the audience from the horror. After each murder there is no chorus there to reassure us that “this was bad, but you’re merely attending the tale; sit back and watch, and we’ll buffer it for you.” 

Nowhere is the lack of the chorus felt more keenly than at the end of the film. The stage musical ends with Toby slitting Sweeney’s throat and immediately turning to the audience, the as bars of the “Ballad” dramatically fill the air. In the movie, Toby appears from the shadows, slits Sweeney’s throat without a sound and disappears. Sweeney is left clutching the body of his wife, blood pouring out of his neck. Blackout. There is no comfort, no “Ballad” to ease the horror—only the last shocking image. 

Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett 
and Ed Sanders as Toby

Due to a lucky alignment of cosmic forces, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street came to movie theatres on my birthday, so I invited all my friends to opening night. The theatre was packed, mostly with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp fans, but a few (like myself) were there sporting old-style Sweeney costumes, patiently waiting to see if Sondheim’s music would stand up to Tim Burton’s adaptation and screaming fan girls. I was delighted to hear gasps of horror when Mrs. Lovett mentioned her plan for body disposal; I had completely forgotten that for some people this story would be completely new. I had seen the original play on DVD and the John Doyle version as a touring production. Still, I was thrilled to see that new elements could be brought out of the familiar score—and that many new converts could be won. 

Afterwards, my friends and I carried on a lively discussion about what we enjoyed in the movie and what we disliked. Generally, the consensus was that it was a hell of a movie and a worthy adaptation of the theatre version. But I could not understand why I was feeling so unsettled, even an hour after the show ended, until I realized that I was missing that last chorus, that final door closing on the show, permitting the release of emotion. 

Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin

Critics have viewed this movie very favorably, with Golden Globe and Oscar nominations appearing My major complaint about the movie is a familiar one to any musical-turned-movie fan: that the music has been cut up into parts so that there are periods of new dialogue between the songs, making the movie feel jerky at certain points. Sweeney is 90% sung onstage, but in the movie that percentage was more like 70. The duet between the Beadle and the Judge was cut down, making Alan Rickman’s few sung lines in “Pretty Women” feel oddly out of place. I was also disappointed to see that “Kiss Me” was removed entirely, making Johanna almost colorless and entirely helpless. Her one spirited act is to throw the key down to Anthony, an act which is nearly pointless as they don’t meet until months later. “She’s lucky he had such good intentions” a friend suggested. “He could have been as crazy as the Judge.”

My other bone to pick was the increased influence Mrs. Lovett had over Sweeney. In the movie she is constantly ordering him to “come on,” pushing him around and even, at one point, restraining him from taking a swipe at the Beadle. I was surprised to see that she had that much power over Sweeney. His actions are deliberate and calculated, and he’s not so hot-blooded as to commit murder out in the open. Mrs. Lovett believes she’s the main character in the story, little realizing that she is as disposable as Sweeney’s victims, but in Burton’s vision she’s an equal partner right up to the end. (Could there be relevance to the fact that she is played by the director’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter?) 

Another interesting choice was casting Sacha Baron Cohen (BORAT) as Pirelli. His performance was amazing, prompting more than one person to say they’d like to see him in a “real” role. Hamlet, perhaps?

It will be interesting to see what new versions of Sweeney lie over the horizon: with the success of the movie, I can almost guarantee you that regional theatres all over the country are clamoring for rights. After 30 years, the show is as fresh as it ever was, and it is increasingly apparent that there still new avenues to be explored, new themes to bring out, and new audiences to shock. I look forward to attending as many tales as possible.

Sacha Baron Cohen (center) as Pirelli 
and Ed Sanders (right) as Toby

For Additional Information:

“Sweeney Notes” by Larry A. Brown.
An excellent essay on Sweeney’s history and musical styles :

Information on the original Sweeney from the Internet Broadway Database: http://wwwibdb.com/production.asp?ID=3925

Information on the 2005 revival from the Internet Broadway Database:

The “true” story of Sweeney Todd, from Court TV’s Crime Library:

Sweeney Todd: Musical or Opera?

© Nicki Lemery (February 5, 2008)


Nicki Lemery

Nicole M. Lemery (Nicki) recently moved to Chicago after earning her master's degree in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London. Nicole is a freelance playwright and stage manager, when she's not working at an engineering firm as a marketing coordinator. Recent projects have included stage managing a production of "The Castle" based on the Franz Kafka novel; "Love Child," "The Representative" and directing a production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", the last three while in London. Nicole enjoys traveling, reading, being involved in theatre, writing, and considers WEST SIDE STORY the best movie adaptation of a musical ever.

Nicki writes an almost-daily blog for her friends and family:
Nicki Loves Drama”.

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