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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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Plot Summary

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Hugh Wheeler

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1979

Plot Summary

Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) is a musical and thriller set in Victorian England about a murderous barber who extracts revenge on unsuspecting people in London for the cruel abuse of his wife. It is based on the 1973 book by English author Christopher Bond. The musical won eight Tony awards, including one for Wheeler. The play was made into a major film starring Johnny Depp in 2007.

The musical was praised for its laconic lyrics, operatic singing, and a rousing musical score by Stephen Sondheim (who also wrote for Into the Woods and West Side Story). Its themes include corrupt legal and moral institutions, the chaotic influence of love, and the corrosiveness of revenge.

In act one, a young sailor Anthony Hope rescues a ragged looking man from sea; this ends up being Sweeney Todd. The pair dock in London and part ways, but not before a Beggar Woman causes a scene and acts as if she knows Todd.

In the song “The Barber and His Wife,” Todd sings about the last time he was in London fifteen years ago. He was a trusting barber who was preyed on by a certain Judge Turpin. Desiring his wife, Lucy, Judge Turpin fabricated several charges that sent Todd to Australia. Judge Turpin’s servant, Beadle (a Church official) Bamford, colluded with the Judge; Todd vows vengeance on both.

Todd walks into a meat pie shop owned by Mrs. Lovett. Though in a busy location on Fleet Street, business is slow because her pies lack much meat. Todd asks about her upstairs apartment, and Mrs. Lovett talks about the former tenant, Benjamin Barker; the story she tells makes it clear that the former tenant was none other than Todd. It is news to Todd, though that his wife, according to Mrs. Lovett, was raped by Judge Turpin then killed herself by poison. It is also news that his daughter, Johanna, has since been placed under the guardianship of Judge Turpin.

Once he recovers, Todd says he will reclaim his former flat and murder Beadle Bamford and Judge Turpin. In a famous scene, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd -- Reprise,” Mrs. Lovett hands Todd his old barber equipment-- a set of incredibly sharp, silver razors.

At the same time, wandering around London, Anthony Hope comes across an exceedingly attractive blonde girl. Her name is Johanna. He has no idea that she is Todd’s daughter.

One day, Todd and Mrs. Lovett pass a showman standing on a platform in a busy London square. He, Adolfo Pirelli, claims to have found a cure for hair loss. Todd proves that Pirelli is a liar, and challenges him to a shaving competition. Beadle Bamford happens to be in the audience, and Todd invites him for a free shave at his place; impressed with Todd’s skillful display, the Beadle agrees to swing by one day.

Meanwhile, Judge Turpin tries not to have sexual feelings for Johanna. He decides to dodge the problem by marrying her. The Beadle tells him Todd would give him a handsome shave to lure in Johanna.

Anthony Hope tells Todd about his plan to run away with Johanna. Todd is pleased: maybe he can reconnect with his daughter this way.

After Hope leaves, Pirelli, along with his dim-witted assistant Tobias Ragg, enters. Pirelli reveals that he was Todd’s assistant fifteen years ago, an Irishman by the name of Daniel O’Higgins. He threatens to blackmail Todd by revealing Todd’s true identity. Enraged, Todd kills O’Higgins.

Mrs. Lovett and Todd hide the body, just in time for the Judge’s appearance. The Judge and Todd talk casually and he is about to kill him when Anthony Hope barges back into the barbershop, announcing he is going to elope with Johanna. This news infuriates Judge Turpin, and he storms out, claiming never to return. His plan in shambles, Todd screams at Anthony. He decides that all of his future customers should die. Mrs. Lovett, figuring she can use the bodies to improve her pies, agrees.

Act two begins several weeks later. Mrs. Lovett’s shop is now a huge success, and her assistant, a young boy named Toby, works there as a waiter. She and Todd have since installed a special chair that, after Todd slits his client’s throat, throws them back and down a chute in the basement, where they will be cooked.

Anthony Hope hears that Johnna is missing and that Judge Turpin has locked her away in an insane asylum. He begs Todd for his help in freeing Johanna. Todd decides that Anthony will pretend to be a wigmaker who wants to buy hair from patients for his own wigs. At the same time, Todd sends Judge Turpin a secret letter informing him of Hope’s plot; this is to lure him back to the shop.

Beadle Bamford visits the pie shop because neighbors have noticed strange smoke coming from the store’s chimney. Mrs. Lovett stalls the Beadle until Todd can offer that “free shave.” Todd kills Beadle Bamford, and Mrs. Lovett plays an organ loudly to mask his screams.

Meanwhile, Toby discovers the pie shop’s big secret. Mrs. Lovett and Todd agree to kill the boy.

Anthony Hope arrives at the asylum. All of the prisoners are freed. Simultaneously, Mrs. Lovett and Todd roam around London, looking for Toby.

Hope, along with Johanna, come to Todd’s shop to find it empty. Hope leaves to find a taxi. Alone, Johanna hears the Beggar Woman enter the barbershop; she hides, and observes as the woman appears to recognize the flat. Todd enters and seems to greet her kindly before slicing her throat and sending her body down the chute; this is just moments before Judge Turpin enters.

Todd and Judge Turpin make friendly conversation until Todd begins to mock him, the Judge realizes who he is, and Todd slices his throat and sends him down the chute.

Horrified, Johanna reveals herself; Todd, unaware of her identity, decides to kill her. From downstairs Mrs. Lovett shrieks, giving Johanna the moment she needs to escape.

When Todd goes to the basement, he sees Mrs. Lovett dragging the Beggar Woman’s body to the oven. Todd finally recognizes who she is: his wife, Lucy.

Mrs. Lovett explains that she did not tell him the whole story because she loved him. Todd acts like he forgives her, even dancing with Mrs. Lovett, before suddenly pushing her into the flaming oven.

Todd embraces his wife’s body. Toby silently approaches him from behind and cuts his throat. Anthony Hope, Johanna, and some police break into the shop to find Todd dead and Toby, now crazy, turning a meat grinder.

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