Sweeney Todd

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Sweeney Todd
Tod Slaughter as Sweeney Todd, 1936 film
Created by James Malcolm Rymer
Thomas Peckett Prest
Portrayed by Tod Slaughter (1936 film)
Len Cariou (1979 Broadway cast)
Denis Quilley (1980 London cast, 1993 London revival)
Johnny Depp (2007 film)
Aliases The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Benjamin Barker
Gender Male
Occupation Barber
Serial killer
Spouse(s) None in original version
Lucy Barker (musical version)

Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the protagonist of the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls (1846–47).

The tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama and London urban legend, and has been retold many times since, most notably in the Tony award-winning Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler.

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a historical person[1][2] are strongly disputed by scholars,[3][4][5] although possible legendary prototypes exist.[6]

Plot synopsis

In the original version of the tale, Todd is a barber who dispatches his victims by pulling a lever as they sit in his barber chair. His victims fall backward down a revolving trapdoor into the basement of his shop, generally causing them to break their necks or skulls. In case they are alive, Todd goes to the basement and "polishes them off" (slitting their throats with his straight razor). In some adaptations, the murdering process is reversed, with Todd slitting his customers' throats before dispatching them into the basement through the revolving trapdoor. After Todd has robbed his dead victims of their goods, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime (in some later versions, his friend and/or lover), assists him in disposing of the bodies by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop. Todd's barber shop is situated at 186 Fleet Street, London, next to St. Dunstan's church, and is connected to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop in nearby Bell Yard by means of an underground passage. In most versions of the story, he and Mrs. Lovett hire an unwitting orphan boy, Tobias Ragg, to serve the pies to customers.

Literary history

Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance. This penny dreadful was published in 18 weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7–24, 21 November 1846 to 20 March 1847. It was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer, though Thomas Peckett Prest has also been credited with it; possibly each worked on the serial from part to part. Other attributions include Edward P. Hingston, George Macfarren, and Albert Richard Smith.[6][7] In February/March 1847, before the serial was even completed, George Dibdin Pitt adapted The String of Pearls as a melodrama for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: "I'll polish him off".[6]

Lloyd published another, lengthier, penny part serial from 1847–48, with 92 episodes. It was then published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls, subtitled "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages long.[6] A plagiarised version of this book appeared in America c. 1852–53 as Sweeney Todd: or the Ruffian Barber. A Tale of Terror of the Seas and the Mysteries of the City by "Captain Merry" (a pseudonym for American author Harry Hazel, 1814–89).[6]

In 1865 the French novelist Paul H.C. Féval (1816–1887), famous as a writer of horror and crime novels and short stories, referred to what he called "L'Affaire de la Rue des Marmousets", in the introductory chapter to his book "La Vampire".[8] A version of this story is related by the author Jacques Yonnet in his book Rue des maléfices (1954). This version is set in late medieval (1387) Paris, at the corner of the Rue des Marmousets and the Rue des Deux-Hermites. The familiar plot of the barber and the pastrycook who sell pies made with human flesh is followed, the dénouement following one of the victims' dogs alerting neighbors and the gendarmes. The two confess, and are summarily burned alive; the houses where the crimes took place are then razed. Whether this version of the story is based on The String of Pearls or its dramatisation, or a much older tale alluded to by Féval, is unclear, in any case, it may well be the source for some recent versions that move the tale from London to Paris.[9]

In 1875, Frederick Hazleton's c. 1865 dramatic adaptation Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (see below) was published as Vol 102 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays.[6]

A scholarly, annotated edition of the original 1846–47 serial was published in volume form in 2007 by the Oxford University Press under the title of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, edited by Robert Mack.

Alleged historical basis

The original story of Sweeney Todd was quite possibly based on an older urban legend, originally based on dubious pie-fillings.[6] In Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836–37), the servant Sam Weller says that a pieman used cats "for beefsteak, veal and kidney, 'cording to the demand", and recommends that people should buy pies only "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten."[10] Dickens then developed this in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846–47), with a character called Tom Pinch who is grateful that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis".[11]

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person were first made in the introduction to the 1850 (expanded) edition of The String of Pearls and have persisted to the present day.[6] In two books,[1][2] Peter Haining argued that Sweeney Todd was a historical figure who committed his crimes around 1800. Nevertheless, other researchers who have tried to verify his citations find nothing in these sources to back Haining's claims.[3][4][5] A check of the website Old Bailey[12] for "Associated Records 1674–1834", for an alleged trial in December 1801 and hanging of Sweeney Todd for January 1802, shows no reference; the only murder trial for this period is that of a Governor/Lt Col. Joseph Wall, who was hanged 28 January 1802 for killing a Benjamin Armstrong on 10 July 1782 on the isle of Gorée, West Africa, and the discharge of a Humphrey White in January 1802.[12]

In literature

A late (1890s) reference to the urban legend of the murdering barber can be found in the poem by the Australian bush poet Banjo PatersonThe Man from Ironbark.

In his 2012 novel Dodger, Terry Pratchett portrays Sweeney Todd as a tragic figure, having lost his mind after being exposed to the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars as a barber surgeon.

In performing arts

In stage productions

  • The String of Pearls (1847), a melodrama by George Dibdin Pitt that opened at Hoxton's Britannia Theatre and billed as "founded on fact". It was something of a success, and the story spread by word of mouth and took on the quality of an urban legend. Various versions of the tale were staples of the British theatre for the rest of the century.
  • Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (c. 1865), a dramatic adaption written by Frederick Hazleton which premiered at the Old Bower Saloon, Stangate Street, Lambeth.[6]
  • Sweeney Todd (1962), a four-act melodrama adapted from The String of Pearls by Brian J Burton who also composed new songs and lyrics. It was first performed at the Crescent Theatre,[13] Birmingham.
  • Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973), a play by the British playwright Christopher Bond. This version of the story was the first to give Todd a more sympathetic motive: he is a wrongfully imprisoned barber who returns to London after 15 years in an Australian penal colony under the new name Sweeney Todd, only to find that Judge Turpin, who is responsible for his imprisonment, has raped his young wife and adopted his daughter. He at first plans to kill Turpin, but when his prey escapes, he swears revenge on the whole world and begins to slash his customers' throats. He goes into business with Mrs. Lovett, his former landlady, who bakes his victims' flesh into pies. At the end of the play, he gets his revenge by killing Turpin, but then unknowingly kills his own wife, whom Mrs. Lovett had misled him into believing had died. He kills Mrs. Lovett, and allows his assistant Tobias Ragg to slit his throat.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A Musical Thriller (1979), the acclaimed musical adaptation of Bond's play by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler starring Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd (here christened Benjamin Barker) and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon later succeeded Cariou and Lansbury in the lead roles. In 1982, the musical was televised on The Entertainment Channel, starring Hearn and Lansbury, and directed by Terry Hughes and Harold Prince. It was produced by RKO Pictures and RKO/Nederlander Productions.
  • Sweeney Todd Musical, a 2009 musical rendition by the Repertory Philippines group, starring Audie Gemora in the title role and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Mrs. Lovett. Gerard Salonga of Filharmonika conducted the orchestra. It was directed by Baby Barredo and Michael Williams.[citation needed]
  • The Sweeney Todd Shock'n'Roll Show, a musical by Peter Miller and Randall Lewton written to be performed by young people. The show is available from Samuel French, Ltd.[citation needed]
  • A Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical, directed by John Doyle, was mounted at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 2005. The 10-person cast, who played their own instruments in new orchestrations, consisted of John Arbo (Jonas Fogg; bass player), Donna Lynne Champlin (Pirelli; piano, accordion, flute), Alexander Gemignani (The Beadle; piano, trumpet), Mark Jacoby (Judge Turpin; trumpet, percussion), Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman/Lucy Barker; clarinet), Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony Hope; cello, piano), Lauren Molina (Johanna Barker; cello), Manoel Felciano (Tobias; violin, clarinet, piano), Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett; tuba, percussion), and Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd; guitar). Cerveris, LuPone, and Felciano were all nominated for Tony Awards; the show itself was nominated for Best Revival and won Tonys for Best Direction and Best Orchestration.[14]

In January 2014, a world premiere adaptation for the stage exploring the Sweeney Todd tale based on the original Penny Dreadful story “The String Of Pearls” will be performed at the Lyceum Theatre, Crewe, England.

In dance

In film

In music

  • "Sweeney Todd, The Barber", a song which assumes its audience knows the stage version and claims that such a character existed in real life. Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1956, attributed it to R. P. Weston, a songwriter active from 1906 to 1934.
  • "Fleet Street", a hard rock/heavy metal song by the Canadian band Fist (AKA "Myofist" in parts of Europe), released on their 1982 A&M Records album Fleet Street, also known as Thunder in Rock in the USA and Europe.
  • "Sweeney Todd" by Brotha Lynch Hung, a song about a modern-day murderer who takes the character's name and modus operandi.
  • TODD. Act 1. Feast of Blood (TODD. Акт 1. Праздник крови 2011) and TODD. Act 2. At the Edge (TODD. Акт 2. На краю 2012), two albums by Korol' i Shut, a horror punk band from Saint Petersburg.
  • "Demon Sweeney Todd," a song by British heavy metal band Saxon on their 2009 studio album Into the Labyrinth.
  • "Floyd the Barber," a song by grunge band Nirvana on their 1989 album Bleach, features a scenario in which Floyd Lawson, the barber from The Andy Griffith Show, becomes a murderer stylized after Sweeney Todd.
  • "Sweaney G.O.D." is a tribute to Sweeney Todd by the Canadian band Ytheband (now disbanded) which was released as a promo EP in 1999 and was also the first video from the band.
  • "Drawing Board" a song by British singer song writer George Ezra from his debut studio album Wanted on Voyage released in 2014 in which Mr. Todd has been referred for a haircut to the woman cheated on him.

In radio and audio plays

  • "The Strange Case of the Demon Barber" (January 8, 1946), an adaptation of the Sweeney Todd story featured in an episode of the radio drama The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In this interpretation, an actor playing the character on stage begins to believe he is committing similar murders while sleepwalking, while Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson uncover evidence that may prove his sanity.
  • In 1947, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Stage Series broadcast a radio adaptation of the Pitt play starring Mavor Moore as Todd, Jane Mallett as Mrs. Lovett, John Drainie as Tobias, Lloyd Bochner as Mark Ingesterie and Arden Kaye as Johanna Oakley. The production was adapted by Ronald Hamilton and directed by Andrew Allan, with original music composed by Lucio Agostini.
  • The second episode of the BBC Radio comedy series 1835, entitled "Haircut, Sir?" (broadcast in 2004) and written by Jim Poyser, portrayed aimless aristocrat Viscount Belport (Paul Rider) and his servant Ned (Jason Done) joining the police force under Sir Robert Peel and encountering demon barber Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Keeble) on their first case.
  • Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls: An Audio Melodrama in Three Despicable Acts (2007), an audio play by Yuri Rasovsky, won three 2008 Audie Awards for best audio drama, best original work, and achievement in production.

On television

In comics

  • The character of Sweeney Todd is presented as a villain in Marc Andreyko's Manhunter series, wherein he appears as a ghost which possesses men (causing them to resemble him) and murders women. A supporting character, Obsidian, is shown to be a fan of Sondheim's musical.[citation needed]
  • Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli were to have created a Sweeney Todd adaptation for Taboo, published by Steve Bissette and Tundra, but only completed a prologue.[citation needed]
  • Classical Comics, a UK publisher creating graphic novel adaptations of classical literature, has produced a full colour, 176-page paperback, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2010),[15] with script adaptation by Sean M. Wilson, linework by Declan Shalvey; colouring by Jason Cardy & Kat Nicholson, and lettering by Jim Campbell.

In rhyming slang

In rhyming slang, Sweeney Todd is the Flying Squad (a branch of the UK's Metropolitan Police), which inspired the television series The Sweeney.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Haining, Peter (1979). The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. F. Muller. ISBN 0-584-10425-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Haining, Peter (1993). Sweeney Todd: The real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Boxtree. ISBN 1-85283-442-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd" (Press release). BBC Press Office. 2005-08-12. Retrieved 2006-11-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Duff, Oliver (2006-01-03). "Sweeney Todd: fact". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2006-11-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Full text)
  5. 5.0 5.1 "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. Retrieved 2006-11-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 Robert Mack (2007) "Introduction" to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  7. "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" PBS.org. Retrieved 11 February 2006.
  8. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10053
  9. http://suicidegirls.com/members/Aristophanes/1808494/
  10. Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Oxford: Oxford Classics. pp. 278, 335.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Margaret Cardwell (1982). Oxford, Clarendon Press: 495
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Search - Home - Central Criminal Court". Oldbaileyonline.org. Retrieved 2009-05-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Crescent Theatre
  14. http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=400379
  15. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Text ed.). November 2010. ISBN 978-1-906332-79-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street edited by Robert Mack (2007). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-922933-3
  • Robert Mack (2008) The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-9791-8
  • Rothman, Irving N. "Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979). In The Barber in Modern Jewish Culture (2008). 365–76. ISBN 978-0-7734-5072-1

External links