Sweeney Todd: How Victorian Society Influenced the Plot and Characters' Actions in the Musical

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The musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a play centered around one man’s obsessive motivation to seek revenge. In one of the acts, Mrs. Lovett says that “everyone seeks revenge, like Sweeney, but other people seldom do it as well.” (Sondheim, Wheeler, Hugh, etc., Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street: a musical thriller). This line suggests that it is only human nature at play, and if put in the same predicament as Sweeney, many would brush aside morality to settle a personal vendetta; an “eye for an eye” code of conduct. Whether Sweeney is to be admired and relatable as Mrs. Lovett suggests remains up to the audience’s judgment. One thing the musical showcases is that although Sweeney’s murders are immoral, the feelings behind them can be morally justified.

This paper will discuss the musical background and the relevance that Victorian life has influenced the plot and characters portrayed in Sweeney Todd. The article will further give the historical context of the social, economic, and technical aspects of the musical. Lastly, an analysis of Sweeney Todd’s desire for revenge will conclude how he becomes a serial killer out of corruptive circumstances and how the characters around him play a part.

During the 19th century, London grew to become a global city of great importance and the capital of the British Empire. Considered one of the largest cities worldwide in 1825, London was the heart of international finance and trade due to having one of the world’s largest ports. While the city grew wealthy as a result of Britain’s holdings expanding, London became the desired destination for poor immigrants, many of the newcomers being refugees from the Great Famine of 1845-1849 (AboutBritain.com, np). 19th century London, also known as the Victorian Era, was also a city of poverty. Many residents lived in overcrowded slums with unsanitary conditions.

Victorian society was divided into three main categories; the Upper, Middle, and Working Class. The Upper Class were considered the elites, consisting of noblemen and other wealthy families working in the Victorian courts. This Class was in a dominant position of authority, which granted them better-living conditions. Many Aristocrats did not need to work like the common folk, having enough money to live a life of luxury and privilege. Many even managed large industries like mining or shipping.

The Middle Class was next in social ranking. The Victorian Era proved prosperous for this Class. Middle-class people, like the aristocrats, also owned and managed vast business empires. The Industrial Revolution of mid-century brought radical changes in the standard of living of Victorian Middle-Class people. Due to the revolution, industrial workers secured jobs that improved their living conditions slightly. However, unskilled workers who were placed below the social scale remained unemployed and vulnerable to exploitation from the upper and middle classes.

The worst affected Class in Victorian history was the Working Class. Lack of money resulted in the negligible food supply. The living conditions were so wretched; some working families required their children to work to bring home extra income to survive. Poverty stricken families lived in crowded, unclean slum houses, or were homeless, endured poor sanitary conditions and often subjected their children to work in harsh conditions away from their parents. This depiction of Victorian London, dirty and littered with poor beggars, is shown in Sweeney Todd; London, an inglorious Empire full of vermin and contempt.

In act one of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Anthony Hope, a young sailor, and Sweeney Todd enter the desolate London docks. Both men express their feelings about returning to London; Anthony is genuinely thrilled to be back in the city, but Todd’s response is full of grim irony when he sings “No Place Like London.” He describes London as a hell hole;

“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit, and it goes by the name of London.” (Sondheim, Wheeler, Hugh, etc., Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street: a musical thriller).

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Sweeney further goes on to say that the privilege sits at the top and make fun of the poor as if they were at the zoo, and politics and greed have turned the London he knew before as beautiful into a filthy replica. Sweeney’s description of London does share common similarities to how the slums of London were in the Victorian Era. Homeless people littered the crowded streets, alleyways on West End were dark, and most crimes were pick-pocket and shady exchanges. These are the people whom Sweeney calls “vermin” since they were many to be found scurrying and begging merely to survive. Anthony doesn’t share Todd’s attitude and instead has a sense of innocence about him that makes London seem like it’s his first real step towards achieving “manhood.” With Anthony, there is a bright side to Todd’s cynical perspective; he is kind and generous and sees the best in others regardless of the situation, and it is how he befriended Todd and is blind to see him as the deranged, murderous man that he is. Anthony’s naivety changes out of love for Joanna where Anthony realizes that corruption, power, and jealousy can drive a man like Judge Turpin to send her to an asylum where you can purchase the locks of hair from Fogg, sheared from the women of your choosing. Saving Joanna at the cost of lying, threatening, and leaving another man to die was the corruption of Anthony’s innocence in London.

Steven Sondheim has called Sweeney Todd a pleasingly tense and macabre classic, and since premiering on Broadway in 1979, Sweeney Todd has won eight Tony Awards for being dark and humorous. Sweeney Todd is considered a musical by its orchestration with highly structured scores, and critics place it up to par with grand opera.

Victorian life influences the musical based on the setting that Sweeney Todd was written in by Hugh Wheeler, and although Sweeney Todd is entirely a fictional character Todd’s story carries with it remnants of the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, who was famous in London for his style of murder around this Era. The musical captures real-life depictions of the social classes, and how such a vibrant place like London with all its ports, railroads, and bridges can still be demographically split as was Wheeler’s intention.

According to the Victorian English Opera Home Page, Sondheim based his Sweeney Todd musical on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. Borrowing ideas from The Count of Monte Christo, Shakespeare, and The Revenger’s, he creates his version of a Sweeney Todd that is a tragedy of circumstances. Sondheim amplifies the appropriate mood and atmosphere of musicals using different musical devices that include discordance, motifs, and ostinato. Leitmotifs are a conventional operatic device that Sondheim has used in previous theatrical compositions. These motifs are heard both in the orchestration and vocal parts of the musical. This technique is often used by other composers to identify a character or emotion; in Sweeney Todd, Sondheim assigns a motif to specific roles.

Sondheim rapidly changes the pace and rhythm throughout the score that emphasizes the changeability of Sweeney Todd’s nature. Repetition is demonstrated in the ostinato that he uses in the opening ballad and the end. Sondheim explores many themes in Sweeney Todd, the main two being love and revenge. The music associated with Todd’s memory of his wife is all lovey-dovey, and like waking up to reality, he quickly snaps into brisk and angry mutterings about the world being full of vermin. In contrast, Anthony sings in an all-embracing melody of love whenever he sees Johanna.

Critics called Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd a murderous musical classic that serves both chills and thrills. Many found the throat-cutting barber fast-paced and bloody entertainment, and it has received high praise in all its adaptions. The musical has won both the Olivier Award for Best New Musical and Tony Award for Best Musical further cementing its success with the audiences.

Revenge is an old topic in Western literature but differs significantly in most works when compared to Greek and Elizabethan tragedy. Although many would agree that revenge is never a solution, it is a common theme that depicts human nature, further allowing audiences to be drawn by the allure and accept it at face value. While revenge wasn’t typically a common idea in nineteenth-century works, it is a critical theme in Sweeney Todd. Sondheim uses his story to showcase the horrors and misshapen that arise when revenge is the goal, and to represent the idea that even positive beginnings can quickly turn negative. It’s ultimately pushing the “hero” to perform unjustifiable actions to achieve vengeance, eventually becoming the villain he initially wanted to destroy.

Sweeney Todd is considered one of the darkest musicals worldwide and is a tale full of obsession and revenge. Furthermore, it showcases different kinds of selfish love and the cruelness of love. Sweeney Todd represents those who, without currency or prestige, try unsuccessfully to achieve justice from a corrupt power structure. Conflicts surrounding family and social inequality characterizes the moral obscurity represented by Sweeney Todd. In the play, Sweeney Todd began as Benjamin Barker, a successful barber, who had everything he could ever hope for as a family man with a beautiful wife and child. However, Barker is sent to Australia to work as a laborer for a crime he did not commit by Judge Turpin, who sentences him simply to seduce and later rape Todd’s wife and become Johanna’s warden. Barker emerges from prison a cynical and evil man and changes his name to Sweeney Todd in order to hide his past life and his true intentions for returning to London. After Todd finds out his wife was raped and then committed suicide, he immediately begins plotting how to exact his revenge. Some would argue that his original desire to invoke revenge on Judge Turpin was justifiable, but he quickly starts losing his objective and starts murdering anyone he can get into his chair.

Sweeney Todd has revenge in his heart after being jailed unjustly then learning the fate of his family. He sets a course of action with the help of Mrs. Lovett, his accomplice. During the process of revenge, Todd perfected the art of killing people, and Mrs. Lovett used their bodies to make meat pies, meat being an expensive thing to come by in London at the time. The relationships between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett reflects a co-dependency of the lovers’ mutual need and overlying desire for different things. Sweeney did a qualitative practice out of his desire to kill the Judge and supplies Mrs. Lovett with the corpses that allow her business to flourish and make a fortune for herself out of it. Most of their behaviors are self-serving.

Keeping the circumstances in mind, an audience member could look at Todd’s situation and understand the reasoning for every murder he committed. Todd’s family were taken away from him after being falsely prosecuted by a member of the Upper Class and humorous enough, the figure of justice. Initially, it seems that this revenge was reserved solely for the Judge. Todd’s first victim, Pirelli, was killed out of what could be considered a necessity when the conman both recognized and threatened to oust Todd. It was from that first kill that Benjamin Barker officially became the infamous Sweeney Todd; playing God and the hand of justice to where he saw none. Todd’s killings may seem justifiable, and while his motive alone could have been enough to massacre part of London, there is also the chance psychology, he was becoming unhinged.

While there are motives and seemingly apparent reasons for Todd’s actions, not everyone in Todd’s situation would turn into a serial killer. Even after exacting his revenge against the Judge at the end of the play, Todd’s lust for blood hasn’t been fulfilled, and the wife he thought dead he ends up killing in his obsessed madness. If Todd hadn’t obsessed with getting revenge, his life, and several other people’s lives would have been different. He could have lived a happy life with Mrs. Lovett but instead chose to kill her, his wife (unbeknownst to him), and almost murders Johanna before eventually losing his life. Every person comes with their assortment of baggage and thought processes that results in various motivations for murders. Murder is a tragedy, but if an individual considers it is morally right, then there is a just cause in the action. Revenge is regarded as a means to correct unfairness, and those unjustly treated, and Sweeney Todd shows this way of thinking.

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Sweeney Todd: How Victorian Society Influenced the Plot and Characters’ Actions in the Musical. (2020, December 01). WritingBros. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/sweeney-todd-how-victorian-society-influenced-the-plot-and-characters-actions-in-the-musical/
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Sweeney Todd: How Victorian Society Influenced the Plot and Characters’ Actions in the Musical [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Dec 01 [cited 2024 Jul 14]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/sweeney-todd-how-victorian-society-influenced-the-plot-and-characters-actions-in-the-musical/
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