Sweeney Todd & the Call for Horror Musicals

“There was a barber and his wife / And she was beautiful / A foolish barber and his wife / She was his reason and his life / And she was beautiful / And she was virtuous / And he was / Naive” – “No Place Like London,” Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

For as long as I can remember, winter has been my time to enjoy musicals. This is typically the time of year I would attend musical practice in high school or attend musical productions as an audience member. Snow days in school were typically occupied by marathons of any musical productions I could find in my DVD collection or streaming online. Until the world reopens following this pandemic, this method has reinstated itself as my mode to musical theatre. I knew I wanted to write about horror musicals when I started this blog. A couple social media polls later, and readers made it clear that Sweeney Todd was craved most of all.

Inspired by the penny dreadful “Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls ,” Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a stage production by Stephen Sondheim that tells the story of Benjamin Barker, who later renames himself Sweeney Todd. Fifteen years prior to the timeline of the story, jealous Judge Turpin has Benjamin Barker arrested and sent to prison, leaving no one between Turpin and Barker’s beautiful wife. Arriving in London, England at the beginning of the story, Barker learns the fates of his wife and daughter…his wife poisoned herself shortly after he was sent away, and Judge Turpin took in their daughter as his ward. This information is given to him by Mrs. Lovett, who runs an unsuccessful pie shop below Barker’s former barber shop. Upon hearing this news and reuniting with his collection of silver-laden straight razors, Barker announces his plot for revenge against those who orchestrated his imprisonment.

What ensues is a bloody rampage set to one riveting and unique musical number after another. After killing a former assistant who attempt to blackmail him out of his earnings, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett have a decision to make about the remains. They decide with little hesitation that they would surreptitiously combine their businesses: Sweeney would kill customers who come to him for a shave, and Mrs. Lovett would use the flesh from their bodies to fill her pies (“A Little Priest”). They eventually develop a system that leads to unprecedented success for the pie shop, and the story just gets more uncomfortable and enrapturing for the viewer from there.

From stage adaptations over several decades, to Tim Burton’s Oscar-winning, 2007 film, to a particularly quirky episode of The Office (“Andy’s Play,” season 7, episode 3), Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett have become household names to fans of musicals and horror alike. I have yet to see the stage adaptation, but it is at the top of my theatre bucket list.

My relationship with Sweeney Todd has always been one of catharsis. I first watched the Burton adaptation as a freshman in high school. It bewitched me from the very first frame with its beautifully dreary art direction and even more beautiful performances of wrath, grief, and love. I remember the exact moment I heard that rising note in “Johanna” for the first time, which changed what I thought musicals could be from then on.

My sophomore year…was not great. To keep it short: I was bullied by someone I considered a friend, I eventually retaliated to defend myself, and the school took the other person’s side. I won’t go into details because it was stupid and boring, but I will share that I watched Sweeney Todd nearly every day after school those few weeks. After doing my best to control myself and distance myself from, well, everyone, all day at school, a couple hours of rage-fueled characters, passionate ballads, and jet-black humor were quite therapeutic. Sweeney’s epiphany scene, in particular, became my respite for the last quarter of that school year. Concerning? Sure, but that’s one great thing about horror, right? Horror stories and media give us a space to face feelings and thoughts we are afraid to address in real life and experience them in a safe way.

Based on my love of musicals and horror, here is my pitch for the creation of more horror musicals:

Musical theater draws in a diverse audiences with its illusions and romanticized worlds. Horror genres hold the same affinity for taking the discomforts of life and projecting them in a way with which we can empathize and analyze without bringing more drama into the real world. If the success and continued popularity of Sweeney Todd shows anything, it is that audiences enjoy musical horror stories. Both genres on their own are over-the-top and passionate on many levels, so it makes sense to bring them together.

It has been a while since I have posed a post-related question, so here we go:

If you could choose a horror story to be made into a musical, what would it be?

Also, if you have any lesser-known horror musical recommendations, I would love to know about them. Definitely give Sweeney Todd a(nother) watch or a listen. I know I will.

Until next time,

Jordan

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