Sweeney Todd

Starting Your Own Business with Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber and Industry Professional Extraordinaire

David Culliton

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is my favorite musical of all time. I’ve been in love with this show since I was about 10 or 11 years old, which makes my obsession with it a little more than a decade old now. When you’re attached to ANYTHING for that long you’re likely to come out the other end knowing it on an intimate, minute level. That’s my relationship with Sweeney Todd to a tee. I have the show practically memorized (minor version variations included), I know heaps of trivia about the show, I’ve picked up on little, subtler moments after countless listen-and-watch-throughs of this gorgeous theatrical piece, and, most relevant to this article, I’ve been able to see Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street through new lenses. In fact, if one spends so much of their life holding one piece of art closer to their heart than any other, that ability to contextualize that piece in varied ways is almost necessary to keep one’s love for that piece alive and fresh after all those years. That’s exactly what I’ve come to do for Sweeney, and I’d like to share one of those new contexts with you today.


For those unfamiliar, here’s a general breakdown of this slightly complex plot: In 1800’s London, a barber named Benjamin Barker is falsely accused and convicted of some crime and sent to Australia to be imprisoned for life. Back home the judge that sentenced Barker pervs on Barker’s wife until she’s driven to poison herself. Barker returns to London under the assumed name “Sweeney Todd” after an escape attempt nabs him passage with a young sailor named Anthony. Todd goes back to his old parlor to find his former landlady and current meat pie saleswoman Nellie Lovett who identifies him and tells him the awful news. Heartbroken, Todd vows to revive his barber shop to exact his revenge on the judge and the judge’s beadle (a deputy/officer/general right-hand man). There are several other plot threads we haven’t covered but that’s the general gist. Now, why am I choosing to take a story about passion, revenge, & murder, and analyze it for base-level business strategies? Perhaps it’s because I’m a 21-year-old business student just trying to find his way in the adult world and this kind of thing has been on my mind recently. Maybe I think my readers will find it as helpful as I might be able to myself. There’s a possibility that deep down I’m inspired by the knowledge that the original Broadway production was set over the backdrop of the industrial revolution to provide commentary on a savage system that chews up and spits out any unwitting soul who happens to get caught in the gears of the system, a commentary which seems bitingly relevant in today’s climate of extreme socioeconomic disparity and the aggressive capitalism of our modern western business system that pushes us forward without stopping to consider who’s getting trampled underfoot.

Or maybe I’m just a dork with too much time on my hands. (That option’s for those of you with absolutely no interest in socioeconomic disparity). LET’S GET TO THE MAIN EVENT!

SWEENEY TODD’S 10 STEP PROGRAM FOR EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL NETWORKING AND SMART BUSINESS PRACTICE

1- Put yourself out there!

In order to get ANYWHERE in the business world, or in life in general, you have to take leaps of faith to put yourself out into the part of the world where you want to be in the first place, whether that be a professional industry or just someone’s inner circle for purely social reasons. Benjamin Barker did just that when he carried out his attempt to escape from Botany Bay, winding up on a makeshift raft in the open, likely waving for the attention of anyone who might cross his path. Which, someone eventually did. Which led our man to...

2- Establish a “primary connection.”

Full disclosure: I pretty much made up this term. In researching steps for professional networking for this article I couldn’t find anyone who fully addressed the very real phenomenon that the newly named Sweeney's relationship with Anthony exemplifies. Anthony literally brings Todd to the network Todd is looking to enter, namely all of London. In my (admittedly limited) experience there's almost always one person who is a general part of the industry into which you’re trying to enter who’s able to give you the push you need to get into it yourself and start building your web of connections. Anthony brought Todd to the city where Todd wants to re-establish himself, acting as the roots at the base of Todd’s professional tree. As an added bonus, if all else fails for Todd and he finds himself up a creek without a paddle in London, Anthony could very likely get him into the sailing business in order to still provide Todd with a stable career. It’s all about the people you know.

3- Get in on the ground floor with a useful business contact.

So you’ve got your introductory push into your industry of choice. Now it’s time to get more specific. What kind of job are you looking to have SPECIFICALLY? Where do you want to set yourself up for said job? And who can you talk to in order to get in on the ground floor on both of those fronts? As soon as Sweeney Todd lands in London and says goodbye to “the good ship bountiful [and] the young man who saved [his] life,” he sets his sights on Fleet Street, the location of his old barber shop, whereupon he finds Mrs. Nellie Lovett baking her pies. Todd asks about the vacancy of the “room up there over the pie shop,” a key question if the job your seeking requires establishing your own small business (location, location, location!), and after some small talk back and forth about Todd’s wife being manipulated by an evil judge (the art of small talk is important for ANY good professional to master), Lovett offers him the vacant room & gives him his old razors that she held onto, encouraging him to become a barber again. Just as I mentioned in step two, it’s all about the people you know, and Lovett is exactly the kind of person you want to network with in the professional world. She’s someone who’s familiar with your abilities and thinks highly of them, is familiar with the kind of field you’re looking into (entrepreneurship as centred on a self-owned small business), and, most importantly, has the resources to give you what you need to start yourself up (land and supplies in this case). Thanks to the Lovett in your professional lives you’ll be able to start your work immediately. Which means it’s time to:

4- Establish your goals.

Your goal up to this point has been to join the industry of your choice and establish some contacts in said industry. Just like in the last step, now it’s time to specify. You have your business, now what do you want to accomplish with it? Todd immediately sets his goal in the form of his iconic ballad “My Friends.” He will use his razors and his talents to re-open his barber shop and make a living (simple economic self-sustenance is not a goal to be ashamed of), establish himself as the best barber in the city, and thus draw Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford to one day seek the service of London’s finest barber whereupon he shall exact his revenge and get the greatest payment of all: the judge and beadle’s “rubies” that will drip from his razor when the deed is done. The latter can be considered his “ultimate goal.” It’s lofty, yes, but attainable IF he continues to make connections with the right people and puts in the work to properly establish his business. It’s time to attend an industry event.

5- Introduce yourself to prospective professional connections.

Several days later, Todd, accompanied by Lovett, finds himself at the street cart of Aldolfo Pirelli, elixir maker. Pirelli has his servant, Toby, announcing the elixir to passersby and declaring the hair-related prowess of his employer. This is as close to an “industry event” as independent barbers in the late 1800s will get. Todd arrives, planning to introduce himself to Pirelli’s clientele, perhaps show off a little, and gain their patronage. This brings up an issue we’ll tackle in the next step: meeting and dealing with your competition. When you attend industry events, it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll meet industry members who are in direct competition with you for a myriad of reasons (possessing a similar skill set and vying for your position, providing a similar product or service to the same clientele, etc.).  Getting to know them is useful because it allows you to identify the strengths and weaknesses or their business model and determine whether or not their model is something you yourself want to try to adopt. In certain cases it can also be useful to determine whether to compete with this fellow industry member, or attempt to merge with them if you believe it would be more to your benefit. Todd immediately sees what Pirelli is trying to pull and decides that defrauding his customers with a clearly fake hair growth elixir and being bad at barbering is NOT a business model he wants to follow, nor is its practitioner the kind of person with whom he wants to partner. This leads him to publicly denouncing Pirelli’s miracle elixir as “an errant fraud concocted of piss and ink,” and engaging in a public competition with Pirelli for the unofficial title of best barber as judged by Beadle Bamford who just so happened to be on the scene (a little bit of luck can take you a long way in the business world). Todd summarily defeats Pirelli in the competition, winning over the onlookers and impressing Bamford who enquires Todd as to where one can find him to receive a shave of their own. Todd, wanting to ensure the beadle’s patronage, offers to give him, “without a penny’s charge, the closest shave [he] will ever know.” Todd showed off his impeccable skills and gained the patronage of not only the general public present (who will no doubt spread positive word of mouth about the man), but of a man of position who can directly help him achieve his ultimate goal. Now we’re in business which means it’s time to get serious about that pesky Italian.

6- Deal with your competition (optional but helpful this early in the process)

This is a shorter step simply because it’s so self explanatory, but it’s still important to remember that even if it seems you’ve come out on top as the industry leader, your competition will always find a way to get a leg up. Pirelli, despite being the inferior barber, still poses a threat to Todd’s business because in a twist of fate, it turns out that Pirelli is actually the mere persona of Irishman Daniel O’Higgins, who used to work for Benjamin Barker and now wants to blackmail Todd so that he doesn’t lose too much money from the business that Todd stole away from him. Todd, proving that there’s more than one way to be dominant in an industry, kills Pirelli. Now, I’m not saying YOU should kill YOUR competition, far from it, just that it’s a way to go about dealing with it and that for Todd it does, in fact, work. Just maybe don’t try it at home… or anywhere...

7- Prove yourself/take your first shot at your goal.

With word of mouth spreading fast, the judge’s right hand man impressed with Todd, and Turpin himself looking to get a proper shave in order to impress his ward/Todd’s daughter Johanna whom he plans to marry (another thread in this deeply plotted musical, don’t worry too much about it yet), Todd gets his first shot at achieving his ultimate goal thanks to the connections he’s made and the way he’s broken into the industry so explosively. He’s done everything right up to this point and within only about a week of establishing his business is already the industry leader in London’s barbershop market (notably exceeding the success of the woman who got him in on the ground floor as Lovett’s meat pie business is still struggling to thrive in the current economy), and as such he’s about to be rewarded for it. Shortly after killing Pirelli, Todd hears the bell on his door ringing and sees Judge Turpin standing just outside, slightly skeptical, looking about the premises. Todd, realizing how lucky he is to have the chance at his goal fall into his lap like this immediately invites the judge in and offers him whatever barber service he desires. Now, it’s important to note that not everyone gets lucky like this. If you don’t find the means for your ultimate goal lining up perfectly so quickly, do NOT get frustrated. Sweeney Todd is a man who had luck thrust upon him by a playwright aiming for dramatic convenience. Real life, unfortunately does not work like that. You may have to wait a while for step 7 to happen, and that’s okay as long as you keep working to get there. Todd, having gotten as lucky as he has, makes the fatal error of letting the success get to his head. He gets cocky and, instead of slitting Turpin’s throat then and there, actually take the time to give him a proper shave before the fact (I know, what a hack). The art of conducting business is a very delicate one, and often temporary success can lead to getting sloppy if you’re not careful- the kind of sloppiness that could cost you a magnificent opportunity. This is the pitfall that Todd falls into, and it does cost him. His delaying of his plans for judge murder allows Anthony to burst in on the near-execution right before Todd can slide his razor across Turpin’s throat, declaring to Todd that he and Johanna are going to run off together (Anthony and Johanna had a chance, love-at-first-sight meeting that snowballed into secret trysts that in turn snowballed into marriage proposals. NOW is when you need to worry about that plot thread). The judge gets up and leaves in a huff, vowing never to return if Anthony’s company is the kind Todd tends to keep. Todd got too confident in his luck right as it ran out, a fatal mistake that ironically caused no fatalities that day. (Note: I would just like to reiterate to my dear readers that you should NOT be setting your plans on murder in any form, despite Todd’s cynical worldview to the contrary). Perhaps most tragically, Todd burned his only business connections (including the beadle, to whom the judge likely recounted the story of his trip to Todd’s parlor) that could lead him directly to his ultimate goal. In professional networking, building bridges is much easier to do from scratch than it is with scorched materials.

8- If at first you don’t succeed- step back, re-evaluate, allow for flexibility & improvement, THEN try, try again!

There’s almost always a reason things haven’t gone your way. In the inevitable occasion that a business plan doesn’t totally go well for you, you need to be able to accept any amount of blame that falls on your shoulders. Not only that, you need to be able to DO something with the knowledge of any flaws on your part so that you keep yourself from making such mistakes in the future. Todd does this in some key ways. He recognizes immediately that he got cocky and that such arrogance cost him his best chance at killing Turpin. He then vows he needs to be ready if the judge ever comes back. Not only won’t he wait next time, but his throat-slitting skills will be second to none as he vows to practice “on less honorable throats.” With Mrs. Lovett’s assistance, he steps up the game even further to both their benefit and answers a key question that’s been lingering since Pirelli’s death and which neither of them really thought through until now: body disposal. Todd and Lovett’s solution to this is simple: use the bodies of any and all of Todd’s victims as meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies! Even though that last question didn’t have much to do with Todd’s failure, he was still willing to adapt to deal with that issue as well and THAT’S what’s important about this step: total, continuous adaptivity. If nobody is perfect, nor are their business practices. Even if none of your flaws have caused a catastrophic mishap such as Todd’s relationship with Turpin being skewered, they still have the potential to cause trouble. You should ALWAYS be on the lookout for problem spots and should IMMEDIATELY jump on finding solutions for them. I promise you that kind of effort pays off, just as it did for both Todd and Lovett. As the curtain rises on act two, we see Mrs. Lovett’s shop thriving and DON’T see a buildup of dead bodies anywhere near Todd’s parlor. As for Todd’s plans to improve:

8.5- ACTUALLY improve.

You can’t just be successful by SAYING you’re going to do something and never doing it (insert a joke from Erica about my blog writing punctuality here). Sweeney Todd finds himself back on the road to success and goal-accomplishment because he ACTUALLY works to improve his business practices. He slits those less honorable throats, he does up his parlor a little, gets himself a proper barber’s wardrobe, and even gets a fancy new barber’s chair that he fixes up to send his victims down to Lovett’s cellar when he’s done with them. Not only that, he’s clearly learned he needs to be careful how he conducts himself, as he and Lovett make it clear that the only men they do away with are those with no family or connections (professional or otherwise) to speak of, meaning no one will notice the missing Londoners and never suspect a thing of the barber and the pie lady. (All of this to say, not following these professional networking tips could make you a perfect candidate for Todd’s next round of razor practice. I DON’T MAKE THE RULES!!) He does get caught in the trap of brooding on his vows of improvement and not taking a whole lot of action to directly find a way back to the judge, an easy one to fall into and one all of you business newbies needs be VERY careful not to find yourself in. But when fate decides to give him one last chance, Todd’s able to use the confidence from his booming business and improved methods to take one more shot at achieving his ultimate goal. He followed through with his plans for bettering himself as a small business owner, and now he’s able to use them to try for what he wants again and do it right this time.

9- Feeling a bit more prepared? Take another crack at that goal!

The perfect opportunity has fallen into Todd’s lap to get his daughter back, which in turn gives him the chance to lure Turpin to his parlor once more. It’s risky, but like any good businessman he knows that sometimes a bit of risk taking is crucial to attaining one’s more lofty ambitions. With Anthony dispatched in a wig maker disguise to save Johanna from a mental asylum (again with this plot thread…), Todd has a letter delivered to Turpin telling him that he knows about Anthony’s rescue mission and that he can return Johanna to her adoptive father/future husband if Turpin returns to Todd’s parlor that night to retrieve her. Meanwhile Beadle Bamford has happened to show up to inquire Mrs. Lovett about the stench from her cellar, and Todd naturally uses the chance to slay him being a savvy opportunist, thus achieving the lesser part of his ultimate goal while his plans for the main part are simultaneously in motion. You have to remember, once your business really gets going you’ll be a busy person, and you must have the ability to multitask- Todd here is a perfect model of that capability. You also have to be able to quickly and effectively deal with sudden roadblocks that might pop up during crucial moments in your operations. Todd suddenly finds himself tasked with finding Mrs. Lovett’s lost pseudo-adopted-son (Pirelli’s servant from step 5). While Lovett is an important connection in his professional circle, he knows that it takes a smart businessman to be able to say no to certain things. Finding Toby is important, yes, but Todd has work to do and it’s clear that after a brief period of fruitless searching he needs to get back to his work and abandons the search offstage so he can get back to his parlor in time to intercept the judge. Upon re-entering his parlor, there’s one last unpleasant surprise waiting for him: an old beggar woman who’s popped up a few times around the building has found her way inside the parlor. When attempts to shoo her out fail and the judge arriving outside, Todd commits his fastest murder yet and shoves her body down the chute, certain that there was nothing important he needed to know about her at all. This deals a little more in the ugly side of business but sometimes as a professional you need to solve problems a quick and dirty way. You shouldn’t do this often, but doing so once in a blue moon in service of accomplishing something much more important is a necessary evil in any industry, and Todd knows this. All that’s left to do is quickly rebuild his professional connection with Turpin in the moment it matters most.

10- Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor-- SEIZE IT!!

With Todd’s plan executed perfectly and the judge sitting in Todd’s chair once more, this time Todd knows not to wait. In business, it’s often important to act fast at all times, and ESPECIALLY in critical moments like this, lest that sweet sweet opportunity slip through your fingers. Todd has learned this, he’s never going to make the mistake of waiting too long out of arrogance again. At this point, all there’s left to do is to just do it. Take that final step! Your goal is right there, all you need to do now is reach for it! BENJAMIN!! BAAAAAARRRRKKEEEEEERRRRR!!!

Congratulations! You just learned how to be a good businessman/woman from a serial killer!!

I joked at the beginning of this article about my reasons for writing this piece, but I think what honestly inspired me was a Tumblr post I saw that used Luke Skywalker’s address to Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars: Episode XI as a template for writing a cover letter. That really stuck with me. I even used it myself when I was applying for jobs this summer. Sometimes the professional world can be a terrifying place with concepts that feel inaccessible, especially if you’re trying to break into it for the first time. I think that connecting those ideas to something more familiar and comfortable, such as a popular film franchise or your favorite musical, makes them more accessible and the larger structure that they’re part of more approachable. As with all my articles, I hope you came out of reading this at least somewhat entertained. Bur more, I hope that this post about Sweeney Todd’s business tips can be for someone what that Jabba address cover letter post was for me: a helpful guide, something that made nebulous concepts of the business world a lot more digestible, and perhaps inspiration to read a piece of media you like in a certain way, and maybe share that reading with others to continue the cycle.

Perhaps today you gave a nod to Sweeney Todd: The Savviest Small Business Owner on Fleet Street.



Attend a Tale for Halloween

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.


Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd

Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd


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.