The Info List - Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain 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 trap door 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 trap door. 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 152 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 the United States 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]

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,[12] 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, Benjamin Barker, 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 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. A Broadway revival, 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.[13]
  • 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.[14]

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 songwriter 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 The Avengers 1967 episode "Escape in Time", the barber's name (seen briefly) is "T. Sweeney".
  • "Sweeney Todd" (1970), an episode of the ITV series Mystery and Imagination starring Freddie Jones as Sweeney Todd and Heather Canning as Nellie Lovett. In this adaptation, written by Vincent Tilsey and directed by Reginald Collin, the title character is portrayed as insane rather than evil. Lewis Fiander played Mark Ingesterie with Mel Martin as the heroine Charlotte and Len Jones as Tobias.
  • Sweeney Todd (1973), an hour-long TV production by the CBC Television series The Purple Playhouse with Barry Morse as Todd. This was again Pitt's version of the play.
  • The Tale of Sweeney Todd (1998), directed by John Schlesinger, a made-for-television version first broadcast on the Showtime network in 1998, starring Ben Kingsley as Sweeney Todd, Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Lovett, and Campbell Scott as Ben Carlyle, a police inspector; commissioned by British Sky Broadcasting for which Ben Kingsley received a Screen Actors Guild Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of the title role.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert (2001), a filmed concert version of Sondheim's musical, starring George Hearn as Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker, Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, Timothy Nolen as Judge Turpin, and Neil Patrick Harris as Tobias. A new version of this production was broadcast in September 2014, this time with Bryn Terfel as Todd, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett and Philip Quast as Judge Turpin.
  • Sweeney Todd (2006), a BBC television drama version with a screenplay written by Joshua St Johnston and starring Ray Winstone in the title role and Essie Davis as Mrs. Lovett.
  • Good Eats (2008), episode EA1206H, "Oh My, Meat Pie", is an educational cooking show, loosely based upon the story of "Sweeney Todd", wherein the host, Alton Brown plays his own ancestor, a newly arrived cook in London, who stumbles upon a meat pie shop. After tasting how terrible the pies are, he teaches and assists "Mrs. Lovett", played by Widdi Turner, in preparing Mincemeat Pie and Shepherds Pie. Occasionally, they are interrupted by "Mr. Todd", played by Daniel Pettrow.[15]
  • Andy's Play (2010), the third episode of the seventh season of The Office, heavily featured songs of "Sweeney Todd".

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.[16]
  • 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.[17]
  • 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),[18] 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. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1979). The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. F. Muller. ISBN 0-584-10425-1. 
  2. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1993). Sweeney Todd: The real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Boxtree. ISBN 1-85283-442-0. 
  3. ^ a b "Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd" (Press release). BBC Press Office. 2005-08-12. Retrieved 2006-11-15. 
  4. ^ a b Duff, Oliver (2006-01-03). "Sweeney Todd: fact". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 2006-07-01. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  (Full text[permanent dead link])
  5. ^ a b "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. Retrieved 2006-11-15. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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. ^ "La vampire by Paul Féval". 
  9. ^ "SuicideGirls". SuicideGirls. 
  10. ^ Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Oxford: Oxford Classics. pp. 278, 335. 
  11. ^ Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Margaret Cardwell (1982). Oxford, Clarendon Press: 495
  12. ^ Crescent Theatre
  13. ^ http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=400379
  14. ^ Oliveros, Oliver. "SWEENEY TODD Manila Ends Run 12/13". 
  15. ^ Brown, Alton (2000-01-01), Oh My Meat Pie!, retrieved 2017-01-18 
  16. ^ Manhunter (2004) #23 (August 2006)
  17. ^ Schiff, Len (Fall 2005). "Into the Stratosphere: "TSR" Talks with Neil Gaiman". The Sondheim Review. 12.1: 39, 41 – via Proquest. 
  18. ^ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Text ed.). November 2010. ISBN 978-1-906332-79-2. 

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