Sweeney Todd

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Sweeney Todd
Todd murdering a victim.png
Sweeney Todd murdering a victim, from the penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls
First appearancePenny dreadful serial titled The String of Pearls (1846–47)
Created byJames Malcolm Rymer
Thomas Peckett Prest
Portrayed byRobert Vivian (1924 Broadway)
Moore Marriott (1928 film)
Tod Slaughter (1936 film)
Maver Moore (1947 CBC Radio drama)
Freddie Jones (1970 television)
Len Cariou (1979 Broadway, 2000 London concert)
George Hearn (1980 Broadway, 2000 New York concert, 2001 San Francisco concert)
Denis Quilley (1980 London cast, 1993 London revival, 1994 BBC Radio)
Ben Kingsley (1998 drama)
Kelsey Grammer (1999 Los Angeles concert)
Brian Stokes Mitchell (2002 Kennedy Center)
Michael Cerveris (2005 Broadway revival)
Ray Winstone (2006 drama)
Johnny Depp (2007 film)
Robert Mammana (2010 epsiode of The Office)
Mikhail Gorshenev (album 2011, album 2012, zong-opera 2012-2013)
Michael Ball (2012 London revival)
Bryn Terfel (2014 New York concert, 2015 London concert)
Jeremy Secomb (2015 London revival, 2017 Off-Broadway revival)
Norm Lewis (2017 Off-Broadway revival)
Hugh Panaro (2017 Off-Broadway revival)
Anthony Warlow (2019 Australia)
Jett Pangan (2019 Manila, 2019 Singapore)
Martin Jarvis (2021 BBC Radio drama)
In-universe information
Full nameBenjamin Barker (Bond play and musical version)
TitleThe Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Serial killer
SpouseNone in original version
Lucy Barker (Bond play and musical version)
ChildrenNone in original version
Johanna Barker (Bond play and musical version)

Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain of the Victorian penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls (1846–47). The original tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama and London urban legend. A barber from Fleet Street, Todd murders his customers with a straight razor and turns their bodies over to Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, who bakes their flesh into meat pies. The tale has been retold many times since in various media, most notably in the Tony award–winning Broadway musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler.[1] The 1979 musical and its 2007 film adaptation, both based on Christopher Bond's 1973 play of the same name, significantly deepened Todd’s character. They depict him as former prisoner Benjamin Barker, who becomes obsessed with murdering Turpin, the judge who unjustly convicted him and destroyed his family.[2]

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a historical person[3][4] are strongly disputed by scholars,[5][6][7] although possible legendary prototypes exist.[8]

Plot synopsis[edit]

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 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[edit]

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, published 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.[8][9] 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, east London. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: "I'll polish him off".[8]

Lloyd published another, lengthier, penny part serial from 1847–1848, 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.[8] A plagiarised version of this book appeared in the United States c. 1852–1853 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 used by American author Harry Hazel, 1814–1889).[8]

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.[10]

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 volume 102 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays.[8]

A scholarly, annotated edition of the original 1846–1847 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[edit]

The original story of Sweeney Todd quite possibly stems from an older urban legend, originally based on dubious pie-fillings.[8] In Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), 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."[11] Dickens then developed this in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844), published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846–1847), 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".[12]

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.[8] In two books,[3][4] 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.[5][6][7]

In literature[edit]

A late (1890s) reference to the urban legend of the murderous barber can be found in the poem by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson, "The 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[edit]

In stage productions[edit]

  • 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. The play was produced on Broadway in 1924 at the Frazee Theatre, starring Robert Vivian as Sweeney Todd and Rafaela Ottiano as Mrs. Lovett.[13]
  • 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.[8]
  • 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,[14] Birmingham.
Justin Gaudoin and Phyllis Davis in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Wharf Theater, June 2018
  • 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 Benjamin Barker, a wrongfully convicted barber who after 15 years in an Australian penal colony escapes and returns to London under the new name Sweeney Todd, only to find that Judge Turpin, who is responsible for his conviction, has raped his young wife and adopted his daughter. He at first plans to kill Turpin, but when his prey escapes, he swears vengeance 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 finally gets his revenge by killing Turpin, but then unknowingly kills his own wife, who Mrs. Lovett had misled him into believing had died. After learning the truth, he kills Mrs. Lovett, but is in turn killed by Mrs. Lovett's assistant and surrogate son Tobias Ragg, who slits Todd's throat with his own razor.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A Musical Thriller (1979), is a musical adaptation of Bond's play by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. The show opened on Broadway in 1979 and in London's West End in 1980. The show won multiple awards including the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical. There have since been several revivals in the West End, on Broadway and elsewhere.
  • TODD (2012), a rock musical by the Russian horror punk band Korol i Shut.

In dance[edit]

In film[edit]

In music[edit]

  • "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.
  • "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.
  • Sweeney Todd were a Canadian rock band of the late 1970s featuring Nick Gilder, and later Bryan Adams on lead vocals.

In radio and audio plays[edit]

On television[edit]

  • "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.
  • Teeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Quarter Street was a musical comedy skit performed on The Two Ronnies with Ronnie Corbett as the pint-sized half-brother of Sweeney Todd and Ronnie Barker as Mrs. Lovett. They revive the arrangement that Lovett had with Todd, and nearly get away with it until a bit of clumsiness on Teeny's part reveals to a room full of police the chute down to the kitchen.
  • The Tale of Sweeney Todd (1998), directed by John Schlesinger, a made-for-television version first broadcast on the Showtime network, 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. In this version, Todd's murderous ways are the result of physical (possibly sexual) cruelty and assault while imprisoned as a child in Newgate Gaol for a crime committed by his father who had escaped; at the film's conclusion, while in the condemned man's cell in Newgate and shaving himself on the morning of his execution, he deliberately slashes his own throat rather than be hanged.
  • "Oh My, Meat Pie" (2008), an episode of the Cooking Channel series Good Eats, which inserts the inventor of shepherd's pie into the world of Sweeney Todd in a historical recounting of the original recipe of the dish.[18]
  • "Andy's Play" (2010), the 129th episode of The Office series where Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) sings and acts in the production of Sweeney Todd. It originally aired on NBC on October 7, 2010.

In comics[edit]

  • 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.[19]
  • 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.[20]
  • 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),[21] 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[edit]

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. ^ "Sweeney Todd character history". October 30, 2019.
  2. ^ "Sweeney Todd synopsis".
  3. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1979). The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. London, England: The Book Service Ltd. ISBN 0-584-10425-1.
  4. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1993). Sweeney Todd: The real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. London, England: Boxtree. ISBN 1-85283-442-0.
  5. ^ a b "Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd" (Press release). BBC Press Office. August 12, 2005. Retrieved November 15, 2006.
  6. ^ a b Duff, Oliver (January 3, 2006). "Sweeney Todd: fact". The Independent. London, England: Independent Print Ltd. Archived from the original on July 1, 2006. Retrieved November 15, 2006. (Full text)
  7. ^ a b "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. Retrieved November 15, 2006.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mack, Robert (2007). "Introduction". Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
  9. ^ "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street". PBS.org. Retrieved 11 February 2006.
  10. ^ Féval, Paul. "La Vampire". gutenberg.org.
  11. ^ Dickens, Charles (1837). The Pickwick Papers. Oxfordshire, England: Oxford Classics. pp. 278, 335. ISBN 978-0140436112.
  12. ^ Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit. Oxfordshire, England: Clarendon Press. p. 495. ISBN 978-0199554003.
  13. ^ "Sweeney Todd credits". IBDB. Retrieved 24 February 2020
  14. ^ Crescent Theatre
  15. ^ Workman, Christopher; Howarth, Troy (2016). "Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era". Midnight Marquee Press. p. 307. ISBN 978-1936168-68-2.
  16. ^ "Tod Slaughter – the Master of Melodrama in Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn". Amazon.com.
  17. ^ “Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls”. BBC. Retrieved 24 July 2021
  18. ^ "Oh My, Meat Pie". Food Network. Retrieved 24 July 2021
  19. ^ Manhunter (2004) #23 (August 2006)
  20. ^ Schiff, Len (Fall 2005). "Into the Stratosphere: "TSR" Talks with Neil Gaiman". The Sondheim Review. 12.1: 39, 41 – via Proquest.
  21. ^ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Text ed.). November 2010. ISBN 978-1-906332-79-2.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]