What follows is by no means intended as a conventional plot summary. Since the Sondheim-Wheeler-Prince Sweeney Todd is a "musical thriller," it would be inappropriate to give away all aspects of the plot. There are also important musical clues that will remain undisclosed.
During the Prologue two gravediggers are seen digging a burial place at the front of the stage. A man in a white smock, a foreman perhaps or a supervisor of the gravediggers, enters and starts the machinery whirring and humming. The machines make their own special music. An organist begins to play a prelude. A piercing whistle sounds, and workmen tear down the British Beehive as if to suggest the disintegration of an ordered society.
A crowd gathers around the grave and begins The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. It is a grim yet rollicking piece and contains a doom-laden musical adaptation of the opening notes of the Dies Irae, which, of course, is part of the Mass for the Dead in the Roman Catholic Church. This motif is first heard with the words, "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney." At that point a corpse is brought in and placed in the ground. Then out of the grave slowly rises the demon barber protagonist. He admonishes the audience that it is watching a play.
The carefully wrought choral writing, the close relationship between music and dramatic action and the subtle use of the Dies Irae (which, to this listener, evokes the grotesque, parodistic world of the finale of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique), so vivid here, continue throughout the score.
As the work progresses, the thematic and harmonic relationships, the splendid use of leitmotifs, the bold and adventurous writing, whether it be for solo voice or in three, four or six parts, indicate a sensitive and knowing musician at work. All the reverberations and associations that reveal themselves on rehearing and deeper involvement with the score will, I think, convince the listener that here is one of the finest of all scores for the theater.
The Prologue ends; morning light fills the stage, and the tin wall at the rear of the set rises, uncovering a panoramic backdrop of a London dockside complete with chimneys, factories and small craft. Anthony Hope, a young sailor, and Sweeney Todd alight from a boat. Anthony sings robustly of his adventures but proclaims that there is No Place Like London, a positive statement of the glories of the great city. A beggar woman interrupts their conversation with an anguished appeal for alms, which is followed by a salacious offer of sexual favors. She approaches Todd; uneasy, he chases her away. He answers Anthony's paean to London with a more callous assessment in which he warns the young man that the cruelty of man is as wondrous as Peru, then drifts into an almost trancelike state, recalling his past in The Barber and His Wife.
We next meet Mrs. Nellie Lovett, an amoral, pragmatic seller of meat pies. When Todd arrives, seeking out his former home above her shop, she describes her wares as The Worst Pies in London. She bustles around worrying about the flies and her competitor, Mrs. Mooney, who has been thriving of late by "popping pussies into pies." She declares that times are hard, even harder than her pies. Todd inquires about the room upstairs and hears Mrs. Lovett's account of The Barber and His Wife, which dwells not on the beauty of the wife but the beauty of the barber, Benjamin Barker. Todd asks her to tell him more, and in Poor Thing she relates the terrifying story of how the barber's wife, Lucy, was coveted and seduced by lecherous Judge Turpin aided by the villainous Beadle Bamford. The Judge sent Barker to prison in exile for life, on a trumped-up charge, and then Lucy was lured by the Beadle to the Judge's house, where a grotesque masked ball was in progress. This episode, acted out on stage in pantomime, culminates with the Judge disrobing and raping the girl to the music of a minuet. Todd's outcry at the end of her saga convinces Mrs. Lovett that he is Benjamin Barker. He asks about Lucy and his daughter, Johanna, and learns that the former took poison and the latter was made a ward of Judge Turpin.
It turns out that the ever far-seeing Mrs. Lovett has kept Barker's razors all the years of his absence, and now she happily restores them to him. He addresses them in the poignantly rhapsodie My Friends, singing to them as if he were pouring out his heart to a lover, oblivious to Mrs. Lovett's expressions of affection. Barber and razor are reunited. He is whole again and has become a machine no less pernicious than the complex machinery around him. The London denizens underscore his fate with their searing cry, "Lift your razor high, Sweeney!"
We then see Johanna at her window. She sings Green Finch and Linnet Bird, which reflects her own captive, caged status. Anthony comes down the street - and falls instantly in love with her (Ah, Miss). He is overheard by the Judge and the Beadle, who threaten him, but he determines to win the girl's hand (Johanna).
In St. Dunstan's marketplace a crowd, including Todd and Mrs. Lovett, gathers around the caravan of Adolfo Pirelli, a mountebank who claims to be "the king of the barbers, the barber of kings." His drum-beating assistant, Tobias, tries to interest the men in Pirelli's Miracle Elixir. Todd smells a bottle and declares it to be nothing but a concoction of "piss with ink." Pirelli enters in mock Italian-opera style, and Todd promptly challenges him to a contest to see who can give a closer, quicker shave and pull a tooth with more dexterity and swiftness. The contest, judged by the Beadle, is won by Todd, who then invites the Beadle for a shave at his barbershop over Mrs. Lovett's.
Back at the pie shop, Todd, waiting anxiously for the Beadle, is exhorted by Mrs. Lovett to be patient. What was the first word of her entrance number becomes the theme of the song Wait. It's not long before Pirelli visits Todd. Having recognized Todd's razors and realized his true identity, he threatens him with exposure. Rather than submit to Pirelli's blackmailing demands for half his earnings, Todd kills him, while downstairs Mrs. Lovett charms young Tobias.
The Judge, realizing that Johanna has reached womanhood and he can no longer keep her captive, unleashes his guilt-ridden lust for her (Johanna). Desperately trying to hold her, he decides to marry her. The next day Johanna and Anthony plan her escape. The lovers' duet (Kiss Me) becomes a quartet when the Beadle suggests that the Judge visit Todd's barbershop to make himself more appealing to Johanna (Ladies in Their Sensitivities).
Judge Turpin's arrival gives Todd the chance to take his revenge. But the barber waits a bit too long (Pretty Women), and Anthony bursts in with the news that he and Johanna will marry Sunday. Enraged, the Judge storms out of the shop. Todd's ire at his missed opportunity is expressed in Epiphany, in which his frustrated loathing for Judge Turpin becomes a cry of vengeance on all mankind. The change in Todd, which began when he was reunited with his "friends," is completed. He is "alive at last" as he resolves to slaughter indiscriminately until he has another chance to kill the Judge.
Mrs. Lovett, practical as always, sees the need to dispose of Pirelli - and the promise of more bloody deeds by Todd - as just the right stimulus to give her business a lift and make her the envy of all the Mrs. Mooneys (A Little Priest). "What's the sound of the world out there?" Todd asks. He and Mrs. Lovett know it is "man devouring man" or, as Todd puts it, the question of "who gets eaten and who gets to teat." Together they sing with riotous black humor, imagining all the characteristics that various persons and professions would give if made into meat pies. Industrial England might have its inequities, but the rampaging duo, concluding that "everybody goes down well with beer," will take any customer they can get.
The worlds of barber and pie-maker are tellingly intertwined as the second act opens. Mrs. Lovett's shop has added an eating garden, while Todd's primitive upstairs room is transformed into a tonsorial palace. And there is young Tobias drum-beating for the pies to the same music to which he had hawked Pirelli's bogus elixir.
Mrs. Lovett and her customers take up Tobias' song, she bustling about tending to pies, patrons, Todd and his newly arriving barber's chair and the ever-present, intrusive Beggar Woman. A capitalist with a vengeance, Mrs. Lovett has found the formula to drive Mrs. Mooney out of business (God, That's Good!).
Anthony's fervent search through London for the now-missing Johanna and Todd's plaintive thoughts about his daughter become the engrossing Johanna. It is made even more intense by the arrival and disposal of customers in Todd's shop via the new chair, which has a trap door leading to the bakehouse, and by the ensuing nocturnal smoke from the chimney. The more evil the deed, the more lyrical the music.
Mrs. Lovett's prosperity takes tangible shape in her redecorated parlor, where she adds up the week's receipts. New wallpaper, a harmonium acquired from a gutted church and other fruits of her business are manifest. Now she is determined to persuade Todd to share a better life with her away from the city. But the monomaniacal Todd is out of reach. He is virtually impervious to her ruminations on the childhood joys of the August Bank Holiday, to her remembrances of toes "wiggling around in the briny" and to the possibility that some day they might have a home of their own By the Sea. Even her suggestions that he could bring his "chopper" and do in a guest once in a while fall on deaf ears.
Anthony finds Johanna at Fogg's Asylum, where the Judge committed her as wrongly as he had committed Todd to prison many years before. The sailor enlists Todd's aid in freeing the girl, and the barber turns Anthony into a wigmaker, someone who would be allowed into the asylum to look over the hair of the inmates. But Todd helps only to use Johanna as bait to trap Judge Turpin. He writes the Judge a letter informing him that Johanna will be at the Fleet Street shop that evening.
Tobias shows not only his affection for Mrs. Lovett but also his suspicion of Todd in the warm, flowing Not While I'm Around. Mrs. Lovett distracts the boy's simple mind by offering him a chance, quickly implemented, to work in the bakehouse itself.
While Todd is out delivering his letter, the Beadle pays an unexpected call at the pie shop to investigate complaints from neighbors about strange odors. The Beadle sits at the harmonium and plays and sings while Mrs. Lovett tries to explain Todd's absence (Parlor Songs).
This leads to the Final Sequence, with more Grand Guignol effects, killings and dramatic escapes. Sweeney Todd reaches its climax, with Sondheim's masterful musical resolutions enhancing the torrid pace of the drama.
The melodrama is over. The cast returns to the stage in an Epilogue to sing once again The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, this time reminding the audience that in a world full of Sweeneys revenge begets revenge.
- Robert Kimball