Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues to captivate audiences, and this production is far and away one of the best of them.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the musical by the late, great Stephen Sondheim, has been revived at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway in New York City, and it arrives with a vengeance that may never be slaked! This show has roots in urban legends and vintage melodrama, and while the libretto doesn’t always address everything that entails, the choreography and various other major nuances in this production allow us to “attend the tale” anew. Here is what we thought of the production!
Located in the very heart of Times Square, the Lunt-Fontanne Theater was an exquisite locale for this show to be put on. The concessions and merchandise are top-notch, and the space was neat and, well, spacious. It certainly felt comfortable, even amid the uncomfortable nature of the subject matter to the general populace.
As full disclosure, before we go on, I am quite biased in favor of this musical, having studied a great many subjects pertaining to the original urban legend and how it evolved over time, making this my thesis at the culmination of my undergraduate studies at the State University of New York at the New Paltz, NY campus. To call me a Sweeney Todd nerd would be accurate, but disingenuous; I am a scholar of the story, through and through.
But I digress. When the opening chords of this show began, I had no idea of the rapture in store, so to speak, and enraptured I was. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, performed by the company of the musical minus a few key principles, immediately had me floored.
The choreography of the number was reminiscent of the sensation people likely had when hushedly discussing the Jack the Ripper murders behind the sanctity of closed, locked doors in London in the 1860’s. There was a gripping terror and a great many clutched chests, and when combined with the staggering and stumbling of the seeming gin-fueled company, this made for a fantastic and immersive start to what would be an absolute madhouse of acclaim.
Of course, at this time we would be greatly remiss not to mention the grand entrance of Sweeney Todd himself, played by the incomparable Josh Groban. Arriving at the very end of the opening “Ballad”, Groban’s Sweeney truly was an inspired casting choice and one that has paid off handsomely for the production. Originally I was a bit hesitant to think that Groban would be the quintessential Sweeney Todd.
But now? I am beyond certain of this. His mannerisms and speech patterns belie what people have thought of the singer, well-known for his song “You Raise Me Up”, shown below for your edification via YouTube.
To think that the young man above would go on to play such a twisted and vengeful character on Broadway is baffling to many, but Groban does more than make it work – he makes this character truly his own.
Act I of Sweeney Todd Provides A Fantastic Set-Up For Tragedy
As the opening number folds into “No Place Like London”, a major song for both Sweeney and the sailor Anthony Hope (played by Jordan Fisher), I admit I may have still been reeling from the opening to be able to reliably give you much about it, but at this stage the show still felt like a production of this show, and maybe a bit more than that thanks to some A-list names on the billing.
However, when we went into “The Worst Pies In London”, the first time we see Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner-in-crime (played by Annaleigh Ashford), three things became very clear:
- Ashford’s comedic timing is impeccable,
- Ashford’s ability to improvise on the fly is very apparent (there was one false meat pie glued to a plate, and one that wasn’t. The former flew off her table, which was likely not intended, but Ashford incorporated this well into her number), and
- Ashford’s chemistry with Groban is positively undeniable.
With this, we move into the ballet of “Poor Thing”, where Mrs. Lovett describes what has happened to Sweeney’s wife, Lucy (content warning: her fate is beyond vile). Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) and Beadle Bamford (John Rapson) coerced her into a very unfortunate situation after sending Todd away for 15 years to a labor prison in Australia on false charges.
At once, Sweeney breaks the persona he has cultivated for the span of his escape plans, and is revealed to be Benjamin Barker, a man who according to Sweeney is very much dead. After this, it is made clear that Turpin has also taken custody of Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna (Maria Bilbao). Todd and Lovett hatch a plan to murder the Judge and Beadle alike.
The plot points, if you’re already aware of the musical, may mean little to you, but there are points where it matters here. For one, during “Poor Thing”, Lucy’s fate is very much implied versus, for example, the 2007 film’s portrayal of events. This, to me, was vital and, frankly, a classy way to progress the plot without being too explicit for the climate of this day and age.
When we next see Sweeney and Lovett, they are prowling the Market at St. Dunstan’s, hoping to challenge Adolfo Pirelli (portrayed by Nicholas Christopher, who embodies the role wonderfully), and it is here where we first meet Tobias Ragg, played by Gaten Matarazzo, who is known best for his work as Dustin on Stranger Things. Matarazzo truly showcased his acting chops here, as he drew all eyes upon him whenever he was onstage.
Later on, when Pirelli is killed by Sweeney (spoiler alert!), his death is also not explicitly shown. This felt like it may have been something to watch for later, but in hindsight, it was odd to see a principle character killed in a death that nobody actually saw happen. It didn’t detract, however, as the lighting design showed us Sweeney’s shadow projected long and tall upon the backdrop.
This was an absolutely stunning visual, and was echoed in an even bigger way at the climax of Sweeney’s “Epiphany”. At such a point, Groban’s transformation into Sweeney Todd was complete and full. He was no longer the singer with the utterly golden voice that we all grew up with; he was now a monster and a terror, the anti-hero we all know and both love and fear in equal measure.
And, as soon as we have seen this, we then have Annaleigh Ashford snap us back into the plot with “A Little Priest”, reminding us that this musical is not just all horror but has a good deal of comedy to it. This number has always been a great way to let off the steaming tension of the previous one, but Ashford and Groban’s chemistry is what shines most here, allowing them to make each other double over in fits of comedic hysterics, in what we can’t be sure is direction or just their own comedic chops.
Sweeney Todd Act II Is Positively Chilling
At the end of the intermission, the chemistry between Matarazzo and Ashford shines quite nicely. “God, That’s Good!” was an absolute delight to witness, and the production’s decision to use the onstage crane to whisk forth Sweeney’s iconic barber chair (a modified contraption used to spirit his victims to the bakehouse through a trapdoor in the floor) was an inspired one. One thing I do wish was that they could have utilized it further, but this is neither here nor there.
At this stage, another deconstruction for the production must be mentioned: This was merely my own observation but, due to all of Sweeney Todd’s victims in the company of the show being male, I noticed that the number of men active in the ensemble during the second act dwindled until the very end. This was a seriously nuanced touch if it was intentional.
My favorite part of this entire production was the “City On Fire” sequence of the show’s finale. There were a lot of strobe lights, to photosensitive audiences be warned, but the darkness quickly transitioning into harsh light to showcase something pivotal and disturbing occurring, even if only for a split-second, was nothing short of fantastic on the part of the creative design team on the whole.
Finally, when Tobias kills Sweeney, he does it in a way that allows Sweeney a moment of shock, even slight resistance to his inevitable demise. This runs slightly counter to most of the productions I’ve seen, wherein Sweeney is far more resigned to his fate. However, it is a strong choice and one I really appreciated. When the work is done, Tobias is not, though, as more bodies must go through the meat grinder, to ensure a smooth batch of meat for the pies.
Sweeney Todd Is A Must-See
We implore you: if you ever find yourself in New York City with the intention of seeing a Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the one to see. The source material is surprisingly dense and it says a lot about the production that they’ve tackled not only the libretto perfectly, but the feel of what Hugh Wheeler, Christopher Bond, and of course Stephen Sondheim were going for when tackling the story.
Further, Josh Groban is a treat to watch, as are Annaleigh Ashford and Gaten Matarazzo; so too with the entire company. The crew has taken great pains to ensure this show will be the quintessential modern production of this show for decades to come.
So please, do not simply walk to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Run to it, as if you were a bit too hasty in your morning ablutions and need an impromptu shave. Just be careful as to who is doing the shave; it could be your last.
You can listen to the opening number of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Spotify now!