Sweeney Todd Response

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – this title (and the associated derivations that come about with this mythical figure) makes you expect something completely different than the narrative offered by this musical thriller. With a character like Sweeney Todd – who is nothing less than a “demon barber” because of the sinister ways in which he murders his customers, who are necessarily shown as evil or corrupt – is very easy to sympathise with because of the past injustices he has been subjected to as his earlier self, Benjamin Barker. Sweeney Todd (skillfully portrayed by the ever-so talented, Johnny Depp), is about the man’s thirst for bloody revenge of the way his wife and child were taken away from him by the evil, corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman was the perfect choice to play this character), who sentenced Todd (or Benjamin Barker, as he was known before he became the rogue, vengeful Sweeney Todd) on a false charge and sent him away to prison.

The plot from the very beginning establishes, very clearly, a justification of the resurrection of the dark, vengeful Sweeney Todd from Benjamin Barker, gentle and dutiful father and husband. This is essentially done to make it easier for the audience to accept and sympathise with the protagonist because of the unquestionable sadness and unfairness of his past.

Although, on his path to revenge, Todd and his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, are engaged with the practice of making pies out of the human bodies that Todd needs to dispose off – which becomes quite a ‘system,’ with Todd’s barber’s chair being connected to a tunnel that takes the dead customer’s body into the grinder underground. This is something, which Todd doesn’t really care much about and is Mrs. Lovett’s idea – much like the sequence “By the Sea,” where we see a very unconcerned and unresponsive Todd to Mrs. Lovett’s ideas about what they could do together as a couple. What I found the most intriguing was how the metaphor of the human meat pies – Todd and Lovett looked outside into the world, as they thought of ways to dispose the body of Todd’s first target Signor Spinelli (who was his old apprentice, and threatened to expose him) – was translated from the real world, where “man was eating man” and this made Todd and Lovett realize that they were nobody to “stop it from happening inside” there.

Todd’s daughter, Johanna, who is kept as a prisoner by Judge Turpin, is the embodiment of the helplessness and innocence that the evil in the world can easily advantage off; it is almost allegorical of how Turpin managed to send Benjamin Barker away from his family, mistreated and abused Lucy (Todd’s wife) and Johanna. The relationship she shares with Anthony and what it comes to be in the end is that what Todd and Lucy could not have. They end up running away together, escaping it all.

The most important theme of the play was portrayal of the complete futility of revenge – how it blinds the one seeking it and is nothing but a moment of satisfaction that leads to future, largely build on regret. Before killing the Judge in his chair, Todd enters his room and sees a beggar woman, who is none other than Lucy, but blinded by the desire to revenge that makes him unable to recognize his own wife. He slits her throat as vengeance makes him do unquestionable things without any hesitation or taking a moment to discern things. The moment, when Todd exposes his real identity to the Judge and violently stabs the Judge many times, is the only time where he feels the momentary pleasure of revenge. Next, he sees his daughter hiding in a chest, unable to recognize her as well, he almost kills her when he rushes downstairs as he hears noises. He sees the dead body of the Beggar Woman, and recognizes her as Lucy and repents hysterically, accusing Lovett of not being straight with him about his wife and killing her as well, by pushing her into the fire. The end of the musical is the little boy, Toby, killing Todd with his own prized blade, as he emerges from the pothole, where he was hiding in when he discovered what Todd and Lovett were doing. His end symbolizes the meaninglessness of the mania that is revenge, which held Todd captive and thus, follows the principle of any great tragedy.

Much of the Sweeney Todd’s appeal and credit goes to the sublime music, background scores and interludes, ingeniously devised by none other than Stephen Sondheim – without which, it would be extremely difficult to recreate the musical’s magic (I loved the song, “Johanna!”). A play, where music encompassed most of its dialogues (more of it was sung than spoken), it was an emotionally-charged experience for me hearing the subtle undertones, the words that scripted the melody and an overall, magnificent ensemble of songs. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter truly swept the show with their amazing voices. Sweeney Todd, the movie, was a great watch, even though I knew what to expect from the plot having seen a live, theatrical performance; the movie had the advantage of moving back and forth with the timeline of the story when explaining Todd’s past as Barker, having a superior screenplay in the way in which it portrayed a dark and dreary Victorian London and obviously the goriness of Todd’s barber chair slittings!

21. June 2016 by Pranav Gupta
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