American musical, music by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Unique among Broadway shows for pushing the boundaries of musical theatre, both for its lurid content (it's got the highest body count of any Broadway show, and the savagery and glee of the main character echo those of the Théâtre du Grand Guignol) and its psychologically complex music (a homage to film composer Bernard Hermann). The show would be called a modern American opera, were it not for its Broadway roots and Sondheim's distaste for such categorization.
Sondheim's and Wheeler's adaptation of the Sweeney Todd story opened on Broadway March 1, 1979, and ran for 558 performances. Sondheim had seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney Todd onstage in the early 1970's in London, and found it fascinating. He read every version of the play he could find going back to 1840, but it was Bond's version that gave the characters enough depth to make the story interesting. Sondheim had in mind a simple production, but with Harold Prince directing, a full blown Broadway production was underway. Len Cariou played the barber Todd, Angela Lansbury was Mrs. Lovett, and Victor Garber was Anthony Hope. Prince, Cariou, and Lansbury won Tony Awards that year, as did the the scenic and costume designers (Eugene and Franne Lee, respectively). In addition to the period costumes, the set featured Todd's diabolic barber chair: after slitting his victim's throat, with the pull of a lever the chair would drop the body through a trap door in the floor down a chute to end up in Mrs. Lovett's kitchen ready for the oven.
The show also won the Tony for Best Musical, for a total of 8. (John Doyle's chamber staging of the musical for the Watermill Theatre, moved to Broadway in 2005 (see Jack's writeup, below), where it won Doyle a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, and Sarah Travis a Tony for Best Orchestrations. Doyle and Travis also won Drama Desk Awards, and the play won in the Outstanding Revival of a Musical.)
Sondheim's score features leitmotifs for each of the characters and a playful inverse relationship between theme and music: as the action of the play gets more evil, the music gets prettier. Only a few songs work out of the context of the melodrama: "Pretty Women" and "Not While I'm Around" have become cabaret standards; "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which adapts the opening notes of the Dies Irae (and Debussy's La Mer and Nuages) allows for stunning choral work, and Sondheim's lyrics are at the top of their form in the patter song "A Little Priest."
Richard Eder. "Stage: Introducing 'Sweeney Todd' " New York Times. March 2, 1979. (Accessed April 8, 2003)
Terry Teachout, "Sondheim's Operas." Commentary. May 2003. <http://www.commentarymagazine.com/teachout.html> (Accessed May 15, 2003)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (VHS). RKO/Nederlander and The Entertainment Channel, 1982.
"Sweeney Todd," The Internet Broadway Database. <http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=400379> (Accessed August 7, 2009)