“Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a well known play and musical capturing the audience’s attention as to what can happen behind closed doors. I will be reporting the background context of the musical and how Victorian life could influence the storyline and characters. I will cover historical, social, political, economical, cultural and technical aspects of the musical. “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (which I will now refer to as “Sweeney Todd”) originated from a play by Christopher Bond, then a musical with a book.
The music and lyrics for the musical was written by Stephen Sondheim and was first performed in 1979. The book was written by Hugh Wheeler. “Sweeney Todd” is set in Victorian London, primarily Fleet Street. The main characters are; Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, Judge Turpin, Beadle Bamford, Johanna, Anthony and Tobias (Toby). The themes of “Sweeney Todd” are mainly love and revenge but other themes are underlying throughout the story.
To start reporting my research I will discuss the historical findings and its origins in greater depth. Historical
The first stimulus for the story of “Sweeney Todd” was thought to be based around the 14th century French ballad. It was based on a tale that crossed the English Channel and back again of a barber would kill his customers and feed them to the local pastry merchant. The story of the Sawney Bean family is one of the most gruesome Scottish legends and dates back to the 1600’s. Alexander Sawney Bean was the head of a family of cannibals, who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 15th century.
There are numerous written sources detailing the account of Sawney and his family, and it has been suggested that the legend has its roots in real events. This could be a contributing factor to the story of “Sweeney Todd”. Joseph Fouche served as Minister of Police in Paris from 1799 to 1815. He documented a series of murders committed in 1800 by a Parisian barber. Fouche wrote that the barber was in league with a neighbouring pastry cook, who made pies out of the victims and sold them for human consumption.
While there were rumours about the accuracy of this account, the story was republished in 1824 under the headline “A Terrific Story of the Rue de Le Harpe, Paris” in The Tell Tale, a London magazine. Perhaps this was an issue resulting in the play being written. For three months in 1888 fear and panic spread the streets of London’s East End. During these months five women were murdered and horribly mutilated by a man who became known as ‘Jack the Ripper’, although some believe the true number to have been eleven. Whitechapel in the East End was the rotten end of London in the late 19th century.
The overcrowded population lived in hovels, the streets stank of filth and refuse and the only way to earn a living was by criminal means, and for many women, prostitution. For a hundred years, various names have been suggested as the killer of these women. Two convicted murderers claimed to be the ‘Ripper’ but both were proved to have been elsewhere at the time. Even a member of the Royal family was named! The Duke of Clarence, the eldest son of Edward, Prince of Wales and Alexandra, was viewed with a certain amount of suspicion but he was cleared when it was found that he had been on other engagements at the crucial times.
He disappeared after the last murder and his body was found floating in the Thames on December 31st 1888. The Victorian era was a time of change. There were more machines built so people were out of jobs and therefore moved to the city. This made the cities more congested and polluted, therefore concern of peoples health. Among the changes taking place was a great development: the Industrial Revolution, the beginnings of which trace back to the late eighteenth century, around 1780. Exporting had always been important in Europe, and the business classes had taken the privilege from monarchs, the right to be in charge of their own property.
These businessmen required a wider market for their goods along with more materials used to make them. The broader market developed through investigation in foreign countries such as; India, Africa, and America. Population growth in Europe itself also made an increase in the size of the market as well as more labour for the work force. So an increasingly important business class, bigger markets, and expanded population made the Industrial Revolution possible. The transformation occurred in Britain first since the British economy was strong so there was the wealth to invest in the idea.
Also some of the people in Britain already had a high standard of living compared to those in less fortunate countries. The food supply was impressive thanks to large-scale farming and the English didn’t seem to have the same attitude about money-making as the French or Spanish did. By 1780, England, with its huge naval power, its foreign expansions, and its business class, was ready to transform its means of production to meet the greater demand for its goods that was achieved through wider markets. The Industrial Revolution had a positive impact on living standards.
People had more money and could improve their living conditions; therefore, a population increase was sustainable. The industrial revolution also brought change to the idea of child labour. Soon after the revolution children were sent into education rather than work. The first written evidence of the character “Sweeney Todd” was in a Victorian publication formally known as “The Peoples Periodical and Family Library”. It contained short stories, engravings (modern day cartoons), public health information and news articles. The paper contained a story called “The String of Pearls” which was the first story to continue over a series of weeks.
The story was set in London in 1785. The plot is based around the strange disappearance of a sailor named Lieutenant Thornhill, who was last seen entering Sweeney Todd’s barber shop on Fleet Street. Thornhill was bearing a gift of a string of pearls to a girl named Johanna on behalf of her missing lover Mark Ingestrie, who is presumed lost at sea. One of Thornhill’s naval friends is alerted the disappearance of Thornhill by his dog, and begins to look for him. He is joined by Johanna, who wants to know what happened to her lover, Mark Ingestrie.
Johanna’s suspicions of Sweeney Todd’s involvement lead her to the dangerous means of dressing up as a boy and entering Todd’s employment, after his last young assistant, Tobias Ragg, had been imprisoned in a madhouse. The true horror of Todd’s activities is uncovered when hundreds of his victims are discovered in the tomb underneath a church. Meanwhile, Mark Ingestrie, who has been imprisoned in the cellars beneath the pie shop and put to work as the cook, escapes using the lift used to bring the pies up from the cellar into the pie-shop. He announces to the crowd that if they are eating pies from Mrs.
Lovett’s shop made of human flesh. Mrs. Lovett is then poisoned by Sweeney Todd who is, himself is hanged. Johanna marries Mark and lives happily ever after. From then on the paper was known as “The penny dreadfuls” and was printed on cheap paper, aimed at working class adolescents and they cost a penny. In 1847, before the serial was completed, The String of Pearls was adapted as a melodrama by George Dibden Pitt for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, in which Sweeney Todd acquired his catchphrase: “I’ll polish him off”. Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street”: or the String of Pearls (c. 1865), a dramatic adaptation written by Frederick Hazleton which premiered at the Old Bower Saloon, Stangate Street, Lambeth.
This was the first proper dramatisation of the story and therefore it helped to distinguish all of the different characters and their personalities which were then built upon in a silent movie. A 1926 silent movie (now lost) reportedly played the story of “Sweeney Todd” for laughs. This draws upon the original ideas of the melodrama. Sweeney Todd” (1928) a silent film starred Moore Marriott as Sweeney Todd and Iris Darbyshire as Mrs. Lovett. This is the first surviving film adaptation of the story. “The Strange Case of the Demon Barber” (8 January 1946), was another 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 Holmes and Watson uncover something different that may prove his sanity. “Sweeney Todd, The Barber”, was a song recorded in 1956.
It presumes that the audience knows the stage version and claims that the character of “Sweeney Todd” existed in real life. Stanley Holloway was the person who recorded it and credited to R. P. Weston, a songwriter active from 1906 to 1934. In 1959, the Royal Ballet Company produced a ballet version with music by Malcolm Arnold and choreography by John Cranko. It was a one act ballet based on the legend of Sweeney Todd. It was first performed by the Royal Ballet Company on Thursday, December 10th, 1959, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, with the Royal Opera House Orchestra conducted by John Lanchbery.
Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970), was a horror film based on the tale of “Sweeney Todd” with John Miranda as Sweeney Todd and Jane Helay as Maggie Lovett. It was directed by Andy Milligan. “Sweeney Todd” also 1970, was 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.
So this episode drew upon both the tale of “Sweeney Todd” but also the story in the Penny Dreadful publication. Up until Christopher Bond’s 1973 retelling of the story, “Sweeney Todd” was a cartoonish monster, slashing his way through customers. It was Christopher Bond who added another dimension to the character of Sweeney where he became more naturalistic. The barber’s evil plot made more sense when seen as twisted revenge against the shady society that destroyed his family and deprived him of his freedom. The irony he faces as he holds the beggar woman at the end of the play causes Sweeney to give his life.
Christopher Bond shows us that he is a madman, but he is human after all. 1979 came the dawn of “Sweeney Todd” the musical thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The musical is based on the 1973 play “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Christopher Bond. “Sweeney Todd” opened on Broadway at the Uris Theatre on 1st March 1979 and ran for 557 performances. It was directed by Harold Prince with musical staging by Larry Fuller. It starred Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. Social In Victorian England there was a strong structure in society.
At the top of the food chain there were the Upper Class who did not worth and often were rich because of their inherited land and wealth. The upper class often included people from the church and people of nobility. Families were often very disjointed the father was often strict and obeyed without question. He would retire to his study alone, which was not entered by anybody else without special permission. The mother would spend all of her time planning dinner parties and gatherings with other upper class couples. She would also spend a lot of time visiting her dressmaker.
The children of the upper class rarely saw their parents and were cared for by the servants. The male children were normally educated at home by a tutor or governess until they were old enough to attend school. They would then study languages and literature of Greece and Rome. After school they would attend Oxford of Cambridge, here studying; maths, law, modern history or philosophy. The female children’s education would take place entirely at home. A lady would study; French, drawing, dancing, music and use of the globes. She may also learn; plain sewing, embroidery and accounts. The next in line was middle class.
Middle class jobs consisted of bankers, merchants, shopkeepers, engineers and other professions. Only men provided the income for middle class families. There was a strong divide in middle class because some families had inherited wealth and successful businesses. Whereas some men would have to scrape a living to keep their houses as they were paid little more than the working class people. Life in the Victorian era would not have been successful without the middle class because they were the core of society. They provided all of the shops and businesses used by the other classes to help them live a day to day life.
Some of the children in middle class were educated depending on the wealth of the family, but some were uneducated and used for child labour. At the bottom of the pile were the working class citizens. They had very poor living conditions often overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Their homes did not have any king of sewage or drainage systems either. The income was made by every family member including women and children who were often used in textile mills, factories or work houses. Women would have to do all of their own housework and then go and complete chores for higher class women.
They worked long days and were paid very little and their jobs were classes as jobs for the unskilled. These are; crossing sweepers, railway porters, construction workers and farmers. Working class people did not follow the rules of courtship and were not allowed to participate in social entertainment as they were looked upon in disgust by higher classes. They had very little chance of proper education, but sometimes went to free charity schools also known as ‘Dame’ schools (because they were run by women). They would also attend Sunday school where they would learn to read a little.
Jobs and incomes were very different for the range of jobs that there were in Victorian London. For example a years’ salary would be; aristocrats £30,000, bankers/merchants £10,000, middle classes (doctors, lawyers, clerks) £300 – £800, lower middle class (head teachers, journalists, shopkeepers) £150-£300, skilled workers (carpenters, typesetters) £75-£100, sailors and domestic staff £40-£75 and labourers and soldiers £25. 1833 saw the first Education grant. The grant of ? 20,000 for schools was the first time that the government had involved itself in education. 870 saw the Education Act put into the law books.
This Act was intended only to ‘plug the gaps’ in the educational that existed. The two religious organisations that ran schools were given grants and the Act provided for the establishment of so-called ‘Board Schools’. Education was neither free nor compulsory under this legislation. 1876 Education Act. School Attendance Committees were established to encourage as many children as possible to take advantage of educational opportunities and parents were made responsible for ensuring that their children received basic instruction.
The Committees could help to pay the school fees if parents were too poor to do so themselves – but this was not compulsory. 1881 Education Act made attendance at elementary school compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 10. Parents had to pay ‘school pence’ – about 3 pennies per child per week. Often, poor parents could not afford this sum of money. 1891 saw The Fee Grant Act which made elementary education free of charge.