Leah Anthony Libresco Professor Dan Egan MUSI 337

If Only Angels Would Prevail: The Moral Tragedy of Sweeney Todd

At first glance, Sweeney Todd is a gothic horror story, drawing both from the Victorian penny dreadful novel it was inspired by and the suspense movies Sondheim loved. Grand Guignol stagings of the play have heightened the bloody murders (the most recent New York revival had characters pour blood back and forth between buckets). As a result, the horror can overwhelm the content of the show, particularly among audiences who are used to straightforward, bloodthirsty thrillers. To read Sweeney as a simple thriller diminishes the moral content of the show and the consternation suffered by Sweeney. For John Lahr, a critic of Sondheim’s work, the show is subsumed in its savagery. A society that feels itself irredeemably lost requires a legend of defeat. And Sondheim's shows are in the vanguard of this atmosphere of collapse. He shares both the culture's sense of impotence and its new habit of wrenching vitality from madness (Sweeney Todd revels in murder). Sondheim's musicals do not abandon the notion of abundance, only adapt it. They show Americans a world still big, but in death-dealing, not well-being. (Lahr) Lahr has missed the message of the show. Far from “making alienation beautiful” as Lahr claims, Sondheim and Wheeler have revealed a world far more monstrous than their demon barber protagonist. If Lahr cannot recognize the work as a tale of good and evil, it is because he

is accustomed to the world of early musical theatre, without irony and existentialism. Using the same language to talk about a society that feels “irredeemably lost” makes no sense. In Sweeney Todd, Sondheim and Wheeler have succeeded in writing a morality fable for a world that doubts the very existence of good and evil. The Sweeney created by Sondheim and Wheeler is far more sensitive to moral concerns than the Sweeney of either the original penny dreadful or the theatrical adaptation by Christopher Bond. Sweeney suffers some qualms in the Bond script, but they seem to be about fear of physical insufficiency, rather than moral concern. When he discusses his plans for revenge with Mrs. Lovett, she reminds him “You were always so sensitive, weren’t you?” and reminds him that, in his former life, he had a tendency to faint when confronted with the sight of blood (Bond. I, v, pg 12). Sweeney confesses that he has doubts, but he believes that his experiences in exile have hardened him against violence. As the play unfolds, he turns out to be not so much hardened as deadened. Unlike Sondheim’s Sweeney, Bond’s barber seems emotionally

uninvested in the incidental murders he commits. When Bond’s Sweeney confronts Johanna in disguise at the end of the show, he is simply frustrated at the inconvenience of another witness, asking himself, “Must murder rise again?” (Bond, II, x, pg 43). Bond’s Sweeney, when confronted by bloodshed, has a tendency to sound like an office worker, supremely distanced from his work. Instead of acknowledging his own moral

culpability, he uses the language of necessity to describe his murders. When contemplating Johanna-in-disguise’s imminent death, he uses only the passive voice, saying “Here’s another must complete the score… He forces me to hurry… he must die” (Bond, II, x, pg 43). Sweeney avoids statements that would acknowledge his own agency like “I will” or “I choose.” Instead of the Demon Barber promised in the title, Sweeney more closely resembles the little Eichmanns

described by Hannah Arendt. There is a banality to his evil that lets him see it as separate from himself and his identity. Ultimately, Bond’s Sweeney believes that he can shuck off his Sweeney persona as easily as he put it on. After the murder of the Judge, Todd sheathes his razors and declares, “Now that my vengeance is assuaged I long to see Johanna” (Bond, II, x, pg 43). This line could never be delivered by Sondheim’s Sweeney. Unlike Bond’s murderer, Sondheim’s Sweeney understands that the evil he embraces will warp him and preclude the possibility of ever seeing his daughter again. In ‘Epiphany,’ the song in which Sweeney decides he will kill at will, rather than only destroying the Beadle and the Judge, he declares, “We all deserve to die./And I'll never see Johanna/No I'll never hug my girl to me - finished!” Although most of the song is performed in a desperate rasp, in these sections, the music drops into a resonant register and is sung more sweetly, symbolizing the humanity Sweeney is putting aside. His decision to kill sunders him from his morally-pure daughter. Sweeney’s distance from his daughter is chosen, not forced upon him. Although during ‘Epiphany’ Johanna is in a madhouse and inaccessible, later in the show, when Sweeney plans her escape with Antony, he does not attempt to see her. In Act Two’s reprise of ‘Johanna’ he repeats his assertion that he will never see her again, and he goes further, singing that he can see her only in his imaginings, so that she can remain as she is, untouched by his darkness. And in that darkness when I'm blind With what I can't forget — It's always morning in my mind, My little lamb, my pet, Johanna…


You stay, Johanna The way I've dreamed you are

Sweeney believes himself to be as dead to his daughter as his wife Lucy is to him. His recognition of this loss makes him profoundly more tragic than Bond’s Todd. Sondheim’s Sweeney understands that his vengeance comes with a terrible cost, the perversion of his own soul, which renders him unfit to see his innocent daughter. The harm he inflicts upon himself cannot be erased or set aside, as Bond’s Sweeney believes. Sondheim’s Sweeney is aware that there is a moral law, even as he transgresses it. His knowledge forces him to forbear from harming the truly innocent, unlike his partner in crime, the truly nihilistic and villainous Mrs. Lovett. While Sweeney removes himself from his paternal role, lest he taint his daughter, Mrs. Lovett delights in her relationship with Tobias. Her maternal relationship with Tobias is given more attention and depth in the adaptation by Sondheim and Wheeler. Although Bond’s Lovett is amused by Tobias, she is never protective of him in the way that she is when she sings “Not While I’m Around” in Sondheim’s version. In Bond’s version, she quickly agrees to have Tobias killed the moment he becomes inconvenient. (In the original penny dreadful, she and Tobias never meet). The relationship, invented by Sondheim and Wheeler, does not redeem Mrs. Lovett; rather it reveals the depths of her depravity. In “Not While I’m Around” Tobias is genuinely innocent; he is fearful of Sweeney and is terrified that Sweeney might harm Mrs. Lovett directly or that he might entice her into immoral action. “Demons'll charm you with a smile, for a while/But in time...” he warns her. In fact, Lovett is the demon that will endanger his soul. Although she appears solicitous, Lovett sends

Tobias down into the cellars to work on the pies, even though this decision puts him at risk of discovering their human origins. In Bond’s play, when Lovett and Todd lock Tobias in the cellar, this is a calculated decision to unhinge and destroy him. In the musical, Todd would have killed Tobias but left his innocence intact, while Lovett deliberately drives him mad. For Lovett, perhaps, this is not as fearful a prospect as it would be for a normal human being. In Sondheim’s musical, Lovett has gone so far mad as to appear sane again. Unlike Sweeney, she no longer sees her madness and immorality as tragic. While Sweeney despairs and keens for the loss of his goodness and his daughter, Mrs. Lovett remains cheerful and quick tempoed in her songs. She may not even recognize the terror she visits on Tobias as harm. In the original production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the moral differences between Sweeney and Lovett in the script and score were heightened by the staging and costuming. Sweeney appears in the costume and makeup that has become standard in later stagings; his face is ashen, cheeks hollow, and he appears in black and dingy white. In contrast, Mrs. Lovett is a portrait of vitality. She appears in yellow, one of the brightest colors in the costuming of the company, and her make-up is bright and music hall-tawdry. Closer up, the effect is a grotesque, heightened version of Johanna’s more natural make-up. This effect has been diminished in later productions. In the most recent Broadway revival and the 2007 film, Sweeney and Lovett were costumed and made up in a similar corpselike palette. The 2005 Broadway revival, directed by John Doyle also kept Lovett in a black and white palette but preserved her bawdy humor by having the actress play a tuba. (In this production, the actors comprised the orchestra).


More than any other character, Mrs. Lovett is deliberately artificial. Her performativity reaches its height when she sings “By the Sea,” an imaginative song in which she tries to draw Sweeney into her fantasy world. She sees no inconsistency between the grisly murders she and Sweeney have committed and the happy, carefree life she envisions. She is at a disjoint with the world created by Sondheim and Wheeler. To understand the true horror of Sondheim and Wheeler’s London, and thus the extent of Mrs. Lovett’s self-deception, one only has to consider the degradation of the chorus over the course of the show. The first human sound of the show is a piercing, agonized scream. But, as the audience quickly discovers, this sound is a counterfeit; it is a factory whistle, not a person. The sound recurs throughout the show during Sweeney’s murders, substituting for the screams of the dying. The score blurs the line between automaton and human, and the humans do not come off well in the comparison. The company first appears as a Brechtian chorus in the opening number “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” They address the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall but without any sense of intimacy. The self-conscious commentary on the action instrumentalizes the chorus. They are cogs in the service of the larger play, just as their characters are part of the mechanized, industrializing world. As the show progresses, and the company plays characters as well as the Greek chorus, they remain strangely dehumanized, almost worthy of Lovett’s contempt. The chorus first takes on character in the lead-up to Sweeney’s contest with Pirelli. In this scene, the crowd is used and manipulated by Tobias, Lovett, Sweeney, and Pirelli. They are extremely suggestible,

responding first to Tobias’s sales pitch, and then rousing themselves into a fury at the instigation of Sweeney and Lovett. By the end of the song, the chorus is ready to threaten violence for a vengeance of their own. However, the passion of the crowd is not accorded the same respect as

Sweeney’s revenge plotting. Their anger is being used as a means by Sweeney and Lovett, carefully engineered to draw out Pirelli and put him on the defensive. The crowd is transformed from the Brechtian, self-aware actors of the Ballad to oblivious extras in a drama staged by Sweeney and Lovett. Instead of sharing a laugh with the audience, they are the butt of the joke. They are dehumanized before Lovett and Sweeney ever consider murdering them. The next time the crowd appears in character, they are even more ignoble. The last thing the audience witnesses before intermission is Sweeney and Lovett humorously planning the deaths of passerby, and, in the next scene that follows, the throngs of people do nothing that would cause us to mourn their deaths. Act Two opens with the chorus number “God that’s Good” in which the crowd joyfully wolfs down meat pies made from their slaughtered neighbors and cry out for more. The mass of people at the pie shop richly deserve the Greek epithet of ‘mere bellies.’1,2 Their hunger overrides their reason, turning them to bestial, craven creatures, possibly unworthy of life. The inhumanity and unpleasantness of the crowd is emphasized by the lyrical structure of “God that’s Good.” Except for a brief introduction in which members of the crowd sing different lyrics as they call for Tobias, the chorus sings lines in unison. This is unusual for

“At the beginning of Hesiod’s Theogony, the Muses come down from Mount Helicon and speak to the poet… and address [him] with scorn—‘Shepherds living in the fields, base objects of reproach, mere bellies!’—and go on to point out how different are those who live on the high mountain: ‘We know how to say many falsehoods that look like genuine things, but we can also… proclaim true things.’

“The Muses believe human beings are unlikely to tell the truth because they are ‘mere bellies,’ ridden by their appetite.” (excerpted from Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde, p. 66). “Trickster lies because he has a belly, the stories say; expect truth only from those whose belly is full or those who have escaped the belly altogether.” (Ibid, p. 77). 7

Sondheim. In Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his lyrics compendium, he writes that he disapproves of the usual dramatic trick of having a chorus sing full-throated as one. One of the more unconvincing things about it is that as a crowd, whether of peasants, soldiers, reporters, cocktail party attendees or any other general congregations, they all sing the same lyric; that is to say, they all apparently have the exact same thought at the exact same time… [A]lthough I happily accept a great many theatre conventions, this one irritates me. (Sondheim, p. 345). Sondheim inserts this commentary immediately following “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” which carefully divides up the overlapping sung lines to allow each character to be treated as an individual. This makes the unanimity of “God that’s Good” much more striking. It begins in the same style of overlapping, individual lines as “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” but the unified chorus takes over quickly. While Lovett and Todd discuss his chair and keep the plot moving, the chorus becomes a throbbing, insistent background beat. The lines that they sing are not the individual, argumentative lines from “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” or the introduction to “God that’s Good” but a stripped down expression of need and desperation, “More hot pies!/More hot!/More pies.” Every note falls on an accent, removing the expression and human quality of speech. The chorus, which begins as Brechtian commentary, loses its privileged perspective to become the easily manipulated crowd in front of Pirelli’s display, and finally stands reduced to barbaric, ritualistic, mere bellies at Lovett’s pie shop. They reappear only as the lunatic chorus in “City on Fire” before having their characters erased again for the final repetition of the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” In the original penny dreadful, the author lingered on a description of the almost entirely mechanized process by which Lovett made her pies. In “God that’s Good,” Sondheim completes the process, rendering the chorus as an extension of the machines that they toil at during the day and that cook their food in the evening.

The twisted leads, Sweeney and Lovett, and the chorus they manipulate are shaped by the world that Wheeler and Sondheim have constructed. In their world, no authority is legitimate or righteous—a substantial departure from their source material. In the penny dreadful version of Sweeney, the demonic barber is a startling aberration in a basically decent world. There is no cruel and rapacious Judge Turpin; instead, the lawyers come to the rescue after hearing a claim sworn out against Todd and arranging a sting. In the more peaceful world of the penny dreadful, even thieves have a code of conduct and a sense of honor and generosity. In the serial, Sweeney is taken for a thief when he tries to sell a string of pearls he removed from the body of one of his victims. As he flees, a stranger directs him into a criminal hideyhole, where he finds a

confederacy of criminals, all peaceably sharing stories and willing to aid a fellow blackguard in distress. Bond’s adaptation drops the thieves’ commune but preserves a semblance of order, even in the face of Turpin’s evil. In Bond’s adaptation, the Beadle is an accomplice to the Judge’s crimes but is not entirely malevolent himself. When he warns Anthony not to see Johanna again, he is kind and paternal, telling him, “Look, son, take a bit of friendly advice, forget about this here Johanna. She’s not for you. Anyway, there’s plenty of other fish in the sea, you should know that” (Bond, II, iii, p. 27). Trying to throw Anthony a crumb, the Beadle warns him that Londoners have been complaining about the terrible smell at Todd’s tonsorial parlor and encourages Anthony to warn his friend before the Beadle has to investigate. Anthony refuses any comfort offered by the Beadle and mutterers “Authority’s overturned. The age is sick, and desperate remedies alone will serve” (Bond, II, iii, p. 28). Anthony’s complaint is far better suited to the world of Sondheim and Wheeler than to Bond’s creation. In the musical, the Beadle does not offer an iota of mercy to Anthony or

anyone else. When he warns off Anthony in the parallel scene in Sondheim’s adaptation, the Beadle is contemptuous and, in the film adaptation, beats Anthony savagely and with relish. He offers relief only in exchange for bribes, as when he allows Lovett to stall his inspection in exchange for her pies and access to her feminine charms. The only character to offer untainted kindness is Anthony, who is profoundly naïve and foolish. Sondheim and Wheeler build up a world that is practically impervious to goodness. The monstrosity they engineer births the bestial chorus, forced to retreat into madness. The chorus and Tobias—who has joined them in their insanity by the end of the show—have made a complete break with the sordid reality they find themselves in. The residents of the madhouse are authentic—they admit how they have been destroyed by their world. terrifying because she refused to acknowledge her own brokenness. Mrs. Lovett embodies the cheerful nihilism that Lahr tried to ascribe to the whole production. Every ounce of her artifice is spent in denial of the bleakness of her world. She doesn’t escape the harshness of the world by trying to ignore its immorality; she denies the fact that immorality is abhorrent. She never sees a distinction between Sweeney’s revenge on the Judge and the deaths of anyone else unlucky enough to enter the tonsorial parlor. The Mrs. Lovett is

malevolence of the Judge does not register with her as willed evil. The cruelty of men is not tragic for Lovett, but as natural as a thunderstorm. Both are threatening, but neither carries moral content. Sweeney, even in the depths of his despair, is never won over to Lovett’s amoral view; he clings to the idea of penalty for moral transgressions. Before Sweeney yields to death and madness, he is determined to take at least one part of his terrible world down with him. His

pursuit of Judge Turpin and the Beadle further undoes him and leads him into depravity, but he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has set himself in opposition to them, that his evil was in the service of opposing evil. At the end of the show, it is not clear if Sweeney has won any lasting victory—Johanna and Anthony are free and relatively safe, though they may one day succumb to the relentless cruelty of their world. Even so, Sweeney has won them a measure of peace, and, by dying without ever revealing his relationship to Johanna, he has protected them from complicity in the evil he did to destroy the Judge. Lahr argues that Sweeney’s triumphs are too small and too depressing to make him a moral figure. Other writers as various as Joe Orton and Tom Lehrer have exploited the macabre to satirize the rapacity of mankind, but with a difference. Behind their fury is a moral impulse. Their worlds admit a sense of sin; and their unrelenting laughter is essentially forgiving. But Sondheim simply fulminates. (Lahr) Lahr does not understand that fulmination and simple resistance can be heroism in a world that is no longer confident in forgiveness. Sondheim’s audience may not be certain they merit

forgiveness, but Sweeney offers a measure of morality, even in the most cynical circumstances. Sweeney Todd isn’t a revolutionary; he doesn’t set out to upend the entire malevolent society that he lives in. He commits himself simply to resolving the worst abuse within his scope. If, in his quest, he descends into despair, depravity, and madness, it’s worth remembering that “everyone does it and seldom as well.” Sweeney is in a losing fight, but he never loses sight of the stakes or the costs of his battle. Sweeney remains committed to his opposition, refusing the retreat into madness that is tantamount to surrender. In this choice, he is as moral a hero as one could ask for in a dystopian world.



Bond, C.G. 1974. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Melodrama. Samuel French, London, UK. Hyde, Lewis. 1999. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. North Point Press, New York, NY. Lahr, John. 1984. “Stephen Sondheim” in Automatic Vaudeville: Essays on Star Turns. Hal Leonard Corporation, Milwaukee, WI. Retrieved from: http://sunday-in-thepark.com/sondheim/articles/sondheim-johnlahr.html Sondheim, Stephen. 2010. Finishing The Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. Sondheim, Stephen, Hugh Wheeler and C.G. Bond. 1991. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Hal Leonard Corporation, Milwaukee, WI. Unknown. 2005. The String of Pearls: The original tale of Sweeney Todd. Wordsworth Editions, Wordsworth, UK.