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The Plot Thickens

Photo: Genessa Gutzait · The Sentry

Sweeney Todd

An organ plays quietly as the eager audience members chat among themselves. A pair of actors walk the stage, rip a giant tapestry hanging from the ceiling with disturbing drawings of 1800s London on it, and a train whistle pierces the air of the auditorium as the lights go out.

That’s how all my nightmares begin.

By nightmares, I mean that’s how the 1982 recording of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins. I’ve watched it pretty much every year since eighth grade (it’s on YouTube) and was given a DVD copy for Christmas a year or two ago that I will make any friend watch in a heartbeat.

Sweeney Todd is a musical about a man, Benjamin Barker, who returns to London, under the alias Todd, to kill the man who wrongly convicted him. He meets Mrs. Lovett, a baker, and resumes his profession as a barber, but now kills his customers, the bodies of which Lovett bakes into her pies.

And that’s just the first act.

It’s a wild ride, and I love every second of the 140 minutes of musical mayhem. Oh, yeah, did I mention it’s a musical?

I think the history of Sweeney Todd, as a character, is fascinating. He started off as a penny dreadful character, basically a magazine of short horror stories.

Eventually he got his own story, “The String of Pearls” but was still an ambiguous murderer. Then, over the course of many years and through both theater and film adaptations, he began to develop a backstory and other characters associated with him appeared, including Mrs. Lovett.

At long last, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Hugh Wheeler crafted their musical based on a play by Christopher Bond. That’s how we’ve arrived at the current and undoubtedly definitive version of the Sweeney Todd story.

I love the complex journey and mythology of the character of Todd. I’d love to eventually write something that has such a long-standing presence in pop culture, even if that means my creation gets continually changed and retold. It’s just something I think about while I attend the tale.

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