Operatic and bizarre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is already a bonafide classic on the stage and on film. With its legendary status firmly established, Broadway’s 2023 revival still managed a whopping eight Tony nominations. How would any show measure up to these lofty expectations, or manage to pull off the epic scale of Burton’s movie? My familiarity admittedly starts and ends with Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation. A gothic masterpiece, a tragic love story, a horror-adjacent tale of fiery revenge, a searing dark comedy —all of these describe Sweeney Todd, yet this revival takes things a step further by filling the core roles with knockout A-list performers. Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, Jordan Fisher, and Gaten Matarazzo lead an exceptionally talented ensemble, supported by impressive costume design, eye-popping staging, and a rousing 26-piece orchestra.
For the uninitiated, Sweeney Todd may prove a difficult nut to crack. Almost fully sung with minimal dialogue, this is classic Broadway of the highest caliber. A sparse, dreary set often cut in two by a bridge-style overhang eerily beckons us into the world. The play is bookended by the entire ensemble (minus Groban and Ashford) commanding the stage, and inviting the audience to “attend the tale” in the aptly-named “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” In the beginning, the sweeping largeness of this opening number makes for a rousing introduction to its world; by the end, the full company emerges, feeling like the only voices of reason in the show at all. They go from stoic and knowledgeable to covered in blood and foreboding over the course of the three-hour show. Like Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon in Little Shop of Horrors, the ensemble warns about the dangers of its sordid tale before viciously diving into its hidden mean streak.
Returning home to the nastiness of London after years away, the mysterious Sweeney Todd (Groban) docks in the city of his past with adorable starry-eyed sailor Anthony (Fisher). Both have different goals here—Todd hopes to return to a carefree life with his wife and daughter, whereas Anthony seeks romance before eventually heading off for Plymouth. A wildly horny beggar woman (Ruthie Ann Mills) propositions the duo almost immediately in the first of many such appearances throughout, sorrowfully croning “Alms.” Anthony’s naïveté clashes against Todd’s cynical worldview. Their separate journeys will dissect in different ways, eventually coming to a head in a rapturous crescendo of violence and tragedy. Anthony becomes obsessed with an imprisoned blonde maiden named Johanna (Delaney Westfall) and her sing-song voice. Todd ends up at the doorstep of Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop, where the eccentric owner, Mrs. Lovett (Ashford), will set his life on an entirely new trajectory.
Tragically, Lovett tells Todd that his love, Lucy, was raped and his daughter, Johanna, taken by the powerful Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) and his awful right-hand man, Beadle Bamford (John Rapson). “Poor Thing,” Lovett sings as we see her sad recounting acted out above purely in shadow and moonlight. Director Thomas Kail truly has an eye for visual flare, always serving a delectable feast of the senses in each musical number. Lovett offers up the haunted apartment above her shop, where Benjamin Barker—Sweeney Todd’s real name—once resided. She has conveniently stowed away his razor. Presented in a flourish, Todd’s obsession with his “friend” the razor reflects in the mesmerizing spotlight that shines and shimmers over it. With the promise that their enemies will soon “drip rubies,” Sweeney Todd teams with Mrs. Lovett on a determined quest for vengeance.
Virtually unrecognizable in the lead role, Josh Groban embodies the pale-faced, deeply traumatized “demon barber of Fleet Street” with the ease of a seasoned professional. Funny enough, Groban was the one cast member who I had qualms about, and yet he absolutely delivers a stunning performance and vocal range to match. During “Epiphany,” Groban’s high notes are an absolute knockout for just before the game-changing finale of Act I. Not only did his vocals give me major goosebumps, but Groban earned a lengthy round of applause for that number in which Todd essentially threatens to come slit the throats of the audience. In this vital moment, Sweeney Todd transforms itself into a crowd-pleasing horror musical willing to actually engage with its captivated audience.
Mrs. Lovett, by far the most physical and demanding role of the show, is a masterclass in the hands of Tony-winner Annaleigh Ashford. We should hate this character, so why does Lovett become so lovable? Ashford crawls across the floor, slides down stairs, and dramatically stomps imaginary bugs. “The Worst Pies in London” remains one of my favorite numbers, and Ashford’s delivery is just as bonkers in “A Little Priest.” This number in particular had my audience howling with laughter, as both Ashford and Groban double over themselves. Lovett’s zany attitude commingle sweetly in her many attempts to seduce a revenge-obsessed Todd. The chemistry between Ashford and Groban evolve far past their harmonious duets—a broken man and a desperate woman wouldn’t seem to make the best pairing in theory, but something about their doomed romance feels particularly special.
Young, protective child Tobias (Matarazzo) develops a sweet bond with Mrs. Lovett. Matarazzo wows in touching number “Not While I’m Around.” Matarazzo gets to play up more than a couple sight gags—Tobias napping on his own wig was one of the funniest things I spotted happening onstage without being expressly highlighted. Together with Ashford and Groban, Matarazzo’s Tobias helps form a rather amusing family in Act II, albeit one with a nasty secret that threatens to destroy everything. This Tobias is significantly older than the one in Burton’s film, but Gaten Matarazzo is perfect nonetheless.
On the other hand, the young love between Anthony and Johanna represents the show’s core sentiment. The only sense of genuine hope and wonderment lies in their storyline. Anthony is strictly warned not to see Johanna of course, but forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest. Jordan Fisher tearfully belting out “Johanna” in a passionate plea to win her hand, glowing in spotlight, presents the show at its purest. Delaney Westfall’s operatic tones pair wonderfully in their duets. Sondheim seems to not have as cynical of a take on their relationship as other elements in the book. From the beginning, Anthony acknowledges that “there are problems” in his potential courting of Johanna, but he ends up committed to doing anything it takes to pry her free from Judge Turpin. Disgustingly enough, Turpin, who has raised Johanna for years, now wants her own hand in marriage. Isn’t that alone enough to earn him a place in Sweeney’s barber chair?
As for the true horror, those familiar with the tale will know it is quite literally baked into the premise. The only way to make pies made from stray cats taste better is to make them from human flesh. Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop suddenly turns from a business barely hanging by a thread to a hotspot for the city’s starving masses. Todd’s simple shop chair eventually evolves into an impressive barber seat that drops unsuspecting victims down below into the basement after their throats are slit. This gag is staged so gracefully—blood flows from sliced necks, and Todd’s mounting determination to bring down Turpin and rescue his Johanna build to disturbing moments of release. A devastating late-in-the-game twist doubles down on the dangers of Todd’s obsession.
Putting on a Broadway revival may seem an easy task in concept, and certainly Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street makes it look as simple as baking a meat pie. The pacing is as razor-sharp as Todd’s close shaves. The music will burrow its way into your head, and raw vocal energy from the entire cast is virtually unparalleled. Stephen Sondheim’s musical stylings soar to new heights in a bloody finale that begs for repeat viewings. What is the cost of vengeance? Sweeney Todd seems to suggest that by the time we accomplish it, the irreparable damage we do along the way may actually be worse.
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, now showing at New York City’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. For ticketing and further information, please check out the official website.
2 thoughts on “Theater Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Wonderful review. Can’t wait to see this musical.
Saw it last Wednesday. Don’t miss it. Wonderful cast