Sondheim hit a home run with this dark musical, which is in contrast to a great deal of his work and most of what usually plays on Broadway. The musical, which won the Tony in 1979, is based on a play of the same name from 1973 written by Christopher Bond. It opened on March 1, 1979 at the Uris Theater. The show ran there for 557 performances. The original cast included Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd, Victor Garber as Anthony, Sarah Rice as Johanna, Merle Louse as the Beggar Woman, Ken Jennings as Tobias, Edmund Lyndeck as Judge Turpin, Joaquin Romaguera as Adolfo Pirelli, and Jack Eric Williams as Beadle. Lansbury was replaced in March 1980 by Dorothy Loudong and Cariou was replaced at that time by George Hearn. That year, the production won eight Tonys, having been nominated for nine. Included in the wins were Best Musical, Best Actress in a Musical (Lansbury) and Best Actor in a Musical (Cariou). The show opened in London's West End on July 2, 1980 at the Theatre Royal and ran for 157 performances. The first national tour began in 1980 and starred Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. This is the version most were familiar with prior to the film, and this is the version that recieved the most critical acclaim. Since the seventies, there have been multiple adaptations, tours, and Broadway revivals. There was a revival in 1989 on Broadway and in 1993 in the West End. There were two more revivals, one on Broadway and one in London, in 2004 and 2005. There was also a Canadian and U.S. tour happening in 2007-2008 starring Judy Kaye and David Hess. Among the most noted adaptation is the film version directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. This brought the musical into the mainstream, and bolstered its popularity among young people.
The story of the musical focuses on a barber named Benjamin Barker who goes by the alias Sweeney Todd. He has returned to London after being exiled on trumped up charges for fifteen years. He is brought back by Anthony, a young sailor. He meets Mrs. Lovett, a pie shop owner, and she gives him a room above her shop. Here he begins his barber business again. Mrs. Lovett learns his identity and he learns that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the judge and that his daughter, Johanna, is now the judge's ward. He swears he will get revenge. He starts using his barber shop as a means to kill people, working all the while toward getting the judge in his chair. Mrs. Lovett thinks his hobby is pretty alright, because she uses the meat from the bodies in her meatpies and becomes the most successful pie maker in London. At one point, Sweeney kills a rival barber who discovers his true identity, and he and Mrs. Lovett take on that rival's apprentice, Tobias. He becomes like a son to Mrs. Lovett. Anthony, the young sailor, sees Johanna from her window and falls in love. He vows to rescue her from the clutches of the judge as well. Sweeney's obsession with revenge eventually turns on him, and leads to the demise of everyone he loves and himself.
The musical score is by far the most difficult of Sondheim's. The harmonies are tight and clashing, and the melodies are sometimes harsh. All of the musical stylization adds to the violent, dark, and frightening feel of the entire show.
Stephen Sondheim says that what this show boils down to is obsession. It is the story of a man consumed and destroyed by his unwavering obsession with revenge. There is a lesson in this for us. We are to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd", which means that we must listen to his story and be aware that we must guard ourselves against the same kind of madness.