The Worst Pies in London: An Intimate Look at SWEENEY TODD’S Mrs. Lovett

by KaitlinD on September 29, 2010

in MTI School Editions,Show Spotlight,Sweeney Todd,Sweeney Todd School Edition

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The following is an article by our guest contributor Eric Kang – a talented Composer and Musical Director.

The Worst Pies in London, and the Ultimate Fate of Mrs. Lovett

There are few roles as complicated and difficult to perform as the diabolical pastry chef of Fleet Street in Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD / SWEENEY TODD SCHOOL EDITION.  In addition to singing a good bit of the score-much of it in patter song and all of it just around most women’s breaks-she plays throughout the show the roles of narrator and catalyst, lover and mother. Mrs. Lovett knows a good deal more than Mr. Todd for the entire duration of the play, and thus is practically in control of his destiny (though she may not know it).

While the title character is without a doubt important, the shaping and characterization of his dotty accomplice is absolutely crucial to the central drama and to the life of the musical.  Before you keep reading, here’s a quick low-down of the plot, covering only the important stuff to Mr. Todd’s and Mrs. Lovett’s storylines. MAJOR SPOILER ALERT.

Todd was imprisoned unjustly, leaving his wife and daughter at the mercy of an evil judge. Twenty-some-odd years later he returns to London to exact his revenge, and finds his old neighbor Mrs. Lovett, who informs him that his wife had poisoned herself.  Todd, convinced his wife is dead, and Mrs. Lovett eventually concoct a plot to lure the judge to his barber shop, which doubles as a supplier of fresh meat to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop (guess how).  Though Todd eventually manages to kill the judge in his barbershop, through several complications he also mistakenly kills a beggar woman, who turns out to be his wife-it turns out she did take the poison but it made her insane.  Todd accuses Mrs. Lovett of lying to him, Mrs. Lovett protests that she only did it because she loves him, and Todd kills her by throwing her in the oven.

Whew.

So our first glimpse of Mrs. Lovett is in her pie shop; before she sings a note of her signature song, “The Worst Pies in London,” the stage directions give us an immediate characterization:

MRS. LOVETT, a vigorous, slatternly woman in her forties, is flicking flies off the trays of pies with a dirty rag as she sings or hums. …

Seeing the pie-shop he [Todd] pauses a moment at some distance, gazing at it and at MRS. LOVETT, who has now picked up a wicked-looking knife and starts chopping suet. …

MRS. LOVETT does not notice him until his shadow passes across her. She looks up, knife in air, and screams, freezing him in his tracks.

She’s lively, messy (in terms of her cooking, and therefore in all other matters), and not without some madness to her method-she is in fact so engrossed in her method that she does not even notice Mr. Todd’s presence until he is practically on top of her.

Why does she scream? Is she really that surprised to see a customer in her shop? Quite possibly, actually.  But she might have also immediately recognized the ghost of Benjamin Barker-the man (we later find out) who used to live above her shop and who was the object of Mrs. Lovett’s desire-and all this she covers up with her next line: “A customer!”

This decision might seem inconsequential at the moment, but is actually closely tied to important and fundamental questions about the play. Is she deliberately manipulating Todd? Is her downfall caused by calculating and conniving, or haphazardly last-minute thinking? In the end, does she get what she deserves, or is her death the biggest tragedy of the play?

SWEENEY TODD SCHOOL EDITION Sizzle Reel (International Thespian Festival 2008):

But we digress-more on this later.  Back to the song!

Post-scream, Mrs. Lovett launches into a nervous, bubbling patter:

Wait! What’s yer rush? What’s yer hurry?
You gave me such a -
Fright. I thought you was a ghost.
Half a minute, can’tcher?
Sit! Sit ye down!
Sit!
All I meant is that I
Haven’t seen a customer for weeks.

Within four bars of music, Mrs. Lovett has taken four steps in her thought process:

§  Wait, don’t go!

§  I thought you were a ghost! (You look so much like Benjamin Barker…)

§  Don’t go, sit down and stay!

§  It’s been such a long time since anyone’s called! (I mean, no I don’t recognize you! You can’t know that I know who you are!)

This song moves so ridiculously fast, it is essential that the actor have a razor-sharp trajectory in order to communicate her thoughts as clearly as possible.  This song (and Mrs. Lovett at large) is incredibly funny when her charming ADD comes through! It is thus imperative that the performer really understands each and every line, and their context in the overall arc.

“Customer” immediately triggers “give him a pie” (“Do forgive me if me head’s a little vague”… she does know herself!), which is followed by distraction from a bug she decides to kill as she attempts to figure out why no one visits her shop- This is all to say that she is an incredibly quick (if easily distracted) thinker, and it is the performer’s job to make sense of her jarbled text.  A good approach is to take the lyrics as straight prose (don’t look at the score just yet) and paraphrase each separate thought with subtext. Stringing them back together gives you a roadmap that can look something like this:

Did you come here for a pie, sir?

Do forgive me if me head’s a little vague -

Ugh!

What is that?

But you’d think we had the plague -

From the way that people -

Keep avoiding -

No you don’t!

Heaven knows I try, sir!

Ick!

But there’s no one comes in even to inhale -

Tsk!

Right you are, sir. Would you like a drop of ale?

Customer = he needs a pie!

Yikes I must seem totally scatter-brained-

THERE’S A BUG ON THE PIE

Pick it off (pretend he didn’t notice)

It’s really a fine establishment

I have no idea why people don’t come in here

THE BUG’S ON THE TABLE

KILL THE BUG

(pretend he didn’t notice) I work hard-

BUG ON HAND GROSS

-and still nobody visits me!

But am I doing, blathering on??

You’re a customer, you need a drink!

(If you believe that Mrs. Lovett is a total man-eater, then this whole stanza-indeed the whole song, and much of her interactions with Todd-can be done as a ruse, putting on a show so he doesn’t suspect a thing!)

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One can (and probably should) do this for the entire song. It’s long and there are A LOT of words to chew!

After all the details are in place, they then need to be articulated so that the most important ideas land-in this case:

I need to be a good host to the guest (though I keep messing it up)

next stanza: But what’s the use? These pies are AWFUL

Of course the details are still important, since through them the audience pieces together Mrs. Lovett’s character: chatty, flustered, and trying her hardest to make her way in the world. She is even willing to follow Mrs. Mooney’s example and chase kittens for her meat (though with very little success it seems). And through all of this she continues to belittle her pies, lamenting them in a slower triple meter.  The state of her pies mirrors her life-no matter how hard she tries she can’t seem to get either one right.  It is enough to pity her (again, if you believe her).

Speaking of which, the end of the song is a perfect example of text that is illuminated by examining it as prose first.

Is that just revolting?
All greasy and gritty,
It looks like it’s molting,
And tastes like -
Well, pity
A woman alone
With limited wind
And the worst pies in London!

At first it may seem that Mrs. Lovett is saying that her pies taste like pity-it definitely sounds like it, as the word “pity” finishes a four-bar phrase.    But amusing as this image is, taking away the meter and honoring the punctuation reveal a different meaning:

Is that just revolting? All greasy and gritty, it looks like it’s molting, and tastes like- Well, pity a woman alone with limited wind and the worst pies in London!

She is asking Sweeney Todd to pity her-this plea is the climax of the song and should win over the audience with its honesty.  Or “honesty”?

Which one is it? Is Mrs. Lovett an honest woman with a quirky Machiavellian sense, or is she a scheming backstabber with her own agenda for revenge?

If you consider the latter, then this song is all theatrics, and she is using his trust to execute an incredibly disturbing plan to bring her business back and destroy Todd (for never noticing her undying love in the past? to destroy every bit of his perfect family which she envied?).  This plot then backfires on her when Todd discovers she had lied about the fate of his wife.  Thus the biggest tragedy is Todd, who struggled for revenge and redemption only to be undermined by his only friend.

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But if she’s truly honest, then she sets herself up as the ultimate victim of Todd’s rage.  Her honesty and quick thinking get her into deeper and deeper trouble as she tries everything she can do to make him happy and win his love. At the end of the play she is the last person left who still loves him, and her death is thus the biggest tragedy.

What do you think? Leave a comment, start a discussion!

Wait! What’s yer rush? What’s yer hurry?
You gave me such a -
Fright. I thought you was a ghost.
Half a minute, can’tcher?
Sit! Sit ye down!
Sit!
All I meant is that I
Haven’t seen a customer for weeks.

Did you come here for a pie, sir?
Do forgive me if me head’s a little vague -
Ugh!
What is that?
But you’d think we had the plague -
From the way that people -
Keep avoiding -
No you don’t!
Heaven knows I try, sir!
Ick!
But there’s no one comes in even to inhale -
Tsk!
Right you are, sir. Would you like a drop of ale?

Mind you, I can’t hardly blame them -
These are probably the worst pies in London,
I know why nobody cares to take them -
I should know,
I make them.
But good? No,
The worst pies in London -
Even that’s polite.
The worst pies in London -
If you doubt it, take a bite.

Is that just disgusting?
You have to concede it.
It’s nothing but crusting -
Here, drink this, you’ll need it -
The worst pies in London -

And no wonder with the price of meat
What it is
When you get it.
Never
Thought I’d live to see the day men’d think it was a treat
Finding poor
Animals
Wot are dying in the street.
Mrs. Mooney has a pie shop,
Does a business, but I notice something weird -
Lately all her neighbors’ cats have disappeared.
Have to hand it to her -
Wot I calls
Enterprise,
Popping pussies into pies.
Wouldn’t do in my shop -
Just the thought of it’s enough to make you sick.
And I’m telling you them pussy cats is quick.

No denying times is hard, sir -
Even harder than
The worst pies in London.
Only lard and nothing more -
Is that just revolting?
All greasy and gritty,
It looks like it’s molting,
And tastes like -
Well, pity
A woman alone
With limited wind
And the worst pies in London!

Ah sir,
Times is hard. Times is hard.

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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    Cyt_KId_4_LIfe September 29, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    I love Sondheims music, Mrs. Lovett is the greatest role for any alto and i absolutely love sweeney

    Go Sondheim!

    Joe Sample September 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Lovett’s a good person. I believe it was a kind of childish selfishness that led her to lie to him. She just waned to be loved. :(

    Joe Sample September 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Lovett’s a good person. I believe it was a kind of childish selfishness that led her to lie to him. She just wanted to be loved. :(

    Anthony Prickett October 20, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    Really interesting musical. Sondheim was clearly influenced by his good friend Bernstein, but his own imagination was incredible, and his use of polyphonic structures impeccable. I LOVE the movie. The singing is more characteristic than in the musical, for instance, the beggar woman sounds more insane. Also, Lovett, (a very tragic character, in my opinion,) sounds less like a old hag and more like the complex character she is. Todd sounds much darker, and more tragic in the movie, with a distinct sense of the inner pain he is going through, as evidenced by the “Johanna” quartet he does with Anthony. Anthony sounds somewhat more child-like, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it creates a clear distinction, and then there’s the fact that he is an octave higher than in the cast recording, I think. This is one of my favorite musicals/operas by far.

    Allison Summers February 14, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    I personally love all of Sondheim’s shows, especially Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. My friend and I were debating whether or not Mrs. Lovett is actually baking the cats into pies. She says that she isn’t because she can’t catch them but in “Little Priest” she sings “Business never better using only pussycats and toast. And a pussy’s good for six or seven at the most”. But thanks for clearing that up. Also I never thought that at first Mrs. Lovett thinks Todd is a ghost. Honestly I think Mrs. Lovett had a crush on him back when he was Benjamin Barker and she takes the chance of his return to fulfil her dream. I think she really loved him and thats why she lied to him about Lucy. Also I hear that a prologue about Mrs. Lovett is coming out soon. If anyone has any info on it i would love to hear it.

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