The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Though the character Sweeney Todd dates back to the 19th Century, Sondheim and Wheeler’s musical is adapted from Christopher Bond’s play SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET from the early 1970s. In the musical, Sweeney is an “unjustly exiled barber who returns to 19th century London seeking revenge against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife.” Sweeney’s frustration and rage at the judge and his beadle for their abuses of power lead to a darkly comic and macabre tale of revenge. When Sweeney and his newfound cohort Mrs. Lovett, a struggling pie shop proprietor who secretly loves Mr. Todd, sing “A Little Priest” it is one the most hilarious and disturbing moments in any musical theater piece to date.
Such a dark and sophisticated piece may seem too complex for a high school production, but MTI’s SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION breaks the piece down so that it is equally challenging and rewarding for younger performers and audiences. The actors guide provided with SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION gives students a way into the otherwise difficult material and helps explain not only the complicated themes, but also the traditional dramatic components employed by Sondheim, Wheeler, and original director, Harold Prince. One of the primary reasons the musical version of the Sweeney Todd story is such a masterpiece is Sondheim’s brilliant and complex score. This piece, like all MTI School Editions, comes with a CD of the music and voice parts written specifically with high school singing voices in mind. These elements and all the other information and resources provided in the SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION package make this extremely relevant and educational show completely accessible for schools.
One of the reasons SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION is an excellent choice for schools to do right now is its connection to Victorian England. In addition to supplementing traditional curricular teachings on that time period, the focus on the role of the industrial revolution in this show makes it a particularly important piece to be doing now. The impact of changing technology on both an economic and environmental level are of the utmost important in today’s world, and will continue to become moreso as current high school students get older and transition into the workforce. One of the major themes of SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION, which is highlighted in the accompanying study guide materials, is the impact of the industrial revolution on Victorian England and the world, and the consequences of treating human beings as cogs in a machine. The haunting factory whistle, which opens the show, and recurs at key moments, is just one indicator of this topic’s presence in the musical. The economic challenges Mrs. Lovett faces as a small business owner which result in the absurd and extreme conclusion of making meat pies out of people is a wonderful plot element, but also can be directly tied to the current economic difficulties many American small business owners face. The atmosphere of pollution and dirt called for in the design elements and created by words and music of SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION can also be connected to the current need for a better balance between achieving economic goals and protecting the environment. Though set in a far away, and therefore rather exciting, time and place, the issues faced by the characters in SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION are directly related to the issues we deal with on an every day basis in the modern era.
Sweeney’s disgust and disillusionment with the betrayal of the justice system and the abuse of power by that system’s officials is also an important theme that students can learn from. The tragedy that unfolds over the course of the musical Sweeney Todd is a direct result of the injustice committed against Sweeney by those who were supposed to be guardians of justice. It is an important lesson that the absence of justice and the corruption of power lead to tragedy. The United States justice system currently struggles with issues of wrongful imprisonment based on faulty judgment (just this past May, Raymond Towler was freed after spending 29 years in prison for a crime DNA evidence now proves he did not commit). It may be hard for students to contextualize these kinds of current events about people they do not know or have never heard of, but through the music and storytelling of Sweeney Todd the audience comes to really feel Sweeney’s pain and understand his desire for revenge. By helping students identify with those who suffer from injustice, SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION can inspire them to be vigilant in fighting for what’s right in their own lives – whether that’s standing up to bullying amongst their peers or pursuing a career in justice-related fields in the future.
SWEENEY TODD is a complex and powerful musical that has entertained, moved and taught audiences for 30 years, but it does not always seem the obvious choice for a high school production. The complicated themes and the difficult music may have caused educational programs to steer away from it in the past, but with MTI’s SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION students can enjoy the humor and brilliant storytelling of the piece in a way that is catered directly to their needs. If you’re theatre program is looking for a musical that has the capability to not only entertain, but also challenge students and help them grow, SWEENEY TODD: SCHOOL EDITION is the perfect choice.
“The Worst Pies in London – An Intimate Look at SWEENEY TODD’S Mrs. Lovett”:
About Ella Rose Chary:
EllaRC is a bookwriter/lyricist and musical theatre lover. She’s a new contributor to MTI Marquee – add her as a friend on MTI Showspace or check out her musical theatre and social justice blog, Stageleft.