By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)
It was a frigid February afternoon in New York City. My BFF was dragging me to a seedy cinema uptown to catch a British horror movie from 1936. If I remember correctly (and he can always correct me on here if I’m wrong), a friend of his had suggested seeing it.
In hindsight, it was a strange movie. Very 1930s British horror/melodrama. Greed was the motivation behind the monster doing all the killings. He’s caught in his murderous ways. A string of pearls and other valuable jewels stolen while men come in for a shave are recovered. All is right with the world once again. Or is it?
As we near the holiday of All Hallows Eve (a/k/a Hallowe’en), it’s time to drag out the scariest of scary stories, and certainly this movie—in its cheesy way and hammy performances—is a scary story. It’s based on an urban legend told often in penny dreadfuls, with British children in the 19th century warned if they didn’t behave, this villain was going to swoop down and eat them up—with eat being the operative word here, perhaps.
A successful barber with premises at 152 Fleet Street, this villain would seat his unsuspecting victims into his specially constructed barber's chair while lathering their faces. The trick chair would then flip around, throwing the victims through a trap door into the cellar below. If the fall didn’t kill them, the barber would polish them off with his razor. Then he robbed them and dragged their bodies to the basement of his mistress. In turn, she turned these victims into tasty meat pies, which she sold at her pie shop. The demons would relieve the victims of any valuables, including a string of pearls—which ultimately led to their undoing. A determined judge and a pair of lovers help bring the dastardly duo to justice, and they are put on trial at the Old Bailey.
Was this urban legend based a real person? Probably not (despite claims to the contrary). But it’s a great story. And perhaps indicative of the times; even Dickens refers to popping pussies into pies in Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit.
The movie version starred a British actor named (seriously) Tod Slaughter in the lead role of the lustful, villainous, greedy, demon barber on Fleet Street who slit the throats of his customers. Indeed, Slaughter had changed his first name after playing this role on stage because he became so enamored of the character; once a serious British actor, Slaughter had taken a career turn into British horror. In this film, the murderous barber and his next-door neighbor steal valuables off the dead gentlemen (who never thereafter were heard from again?). The trick barber’s chair is essential to the story, of course.
I’m hoping some of this is beginning to sound familiar.
Having seen well over 1000 musicals over six decades (including the revised and bloody Carrie), I believe Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (based on the play by Christopher Bond) is probably the scariest and bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen onstage (and I’ve seen plays with onstage simulated leg amputations—don’t ask). So, with Hallowe’en fast approaching, what better time is there to take a fresh look at slimy, vengeful Benjamin Barker, er, Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.
In the 19th century penny dreadfuls and urban legends, Sweeney is just a greedy barber with an evil and equally greedy neighbor. The brilliance of the Christopher Bond play (well worth reading if you can track it down) is giving Sweeney a more human and humane motivation—revenge for the loss of his wife Lucy and daughter Joanna by the truly evil Judge Turpin and his beadle.
Still, as my mother asked when I first described this story to her, “That’s a musical?”
Yes, that’s a musical:
· A musical featuring an evil dentist/barber (long before Little Shop of Horrors had its own singing and horrifying dentist)
· A musical with a song of self-flagellation—the Judge’s “Joanna” (Mea Culpa), cut from the original Broadway production but subsequently restored in the opera house version)
· A musical requiring a gallon or so of stage blood spurting out of a specially-rigged prop razor
· A musical ending Act I with “A Little Priest” and starting Act II with “God That’s Good” (what, you never made that connection before? It was intentional)
· A musical ready to rhyme butler (subtler), potter (hotter), but not locksmith; with a “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top”
· A musical with more onstage deaths than Hamlet
Well, it’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein (thank goodness).
At heart, it’s kind of a twisted love story. Nellie loves Sweeney, who loves his lost Lucy, while Joanna and Anthony love each other, while the Judge lusts after Joanna, and poor Tobias loves Nellie (until she tries to kill him, that is). And does anyone know whatever happened to Mr. Lovett? Just curious.
I first saw Sweeney Todd in the cavernous Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre two weeks after it opened with Len Cariou as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as Nellie Lovett. Hal Prince decided it was a story about the grinding down of the working class in Industrial Age London (though there is only one oblique single reference to this in the script: “How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below”), perhaps with the Dickens allusions in mind. Designer Eugene Lee moved a Rhode Island factory to the stage, and every set piece had originated in that factory. It was friggin’ huge.
I returned to the Uris three more times: once with my mother; once to see the last performance with Carious and Lansbury (poor Len had completely lost his singing voice by then, and he had to croak his way through “Epiphany” that night); and once to see George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon as the leads. My BFF and I subsequently traveled to Philadelphia to take in the national tour and to NYC Opera to see the opera house version staged by Prince. Since then, I’ve seen big productions and teeny productions—and they all work no matter what. Sweeney Todd is indestructible.
It is a Grand Guignol-like masterpiece by virtuoso composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In subsequent productions of Sweeney Todd, Prince’s original indictment of the British class system (and decidedly Dickensian turn) has been swept aside—for the most part—with greater emphasis placed on the twisted humanity of the characters. And I could easily argue it is one of the greatest musicals (not operas, to be sure) ever written, as revolutionary in its own way as Show Boat and Oklahoma (both written by Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II).
Which brings us back (don’t ask how) to Hallowe’en. There are plenty of Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett costumes available online. Sweeney Todd themed parties are a favorite on Pinterest. Haunted houses decorated like a tonsorial establishment in 19th century London are easy to create (with a little imagination and a trick barber’s chair to lure unsuspecting trick-or-treaters to their “doom”—or maybe worse if those damn whippersnappers don’t stay off my lawn). Even cosplay events for Sweeney Todd readings have been staged by regional theatre companies (okay, I suspect they’re just using their costumes from their annual Christmas Carol productions—but these are a lot more fun).
Your good friend Sweeney is waiting for you this Hallowe’en. Are you ready to take up his challenge, bleeders? His chair awaits.
Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a great musical. He also assiduously avoids horror movies though he’s been called a monster by those damn young whippersnappers when he tells them to get off his lawn.