Sweeney Todd and cannibalistic Capitalism

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit

And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit

And the vermin of the world inhabit it.

But not for long.

This past week I had the great luck to attend an advance screening of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, now the third (and a half) major incarnation of Sondheim’s 1979 musical, based on a 19th century pulp slasher.  Sweeney is the greatest of all musicals, combining sophisticated music and well-written characters in an almost impenetrably dark moral fog.  

What’s most interesting from our perspective is the way Sweeney Todd grapples with the problem of capitalism, an issue foregrounded in the classic Broadway staging and to some extent in the new film version.  Let’s take a closer look at a few moments that emphasize this critique.

Note: This essay contains spoilers, and plenty of them.  If you don’t want to know what happens in the musical/film, stop reading now.  

First, it should be noted that Sondheim himself rejects the anti-capitalist subtext of the play, although it should also be noted that he wrote neither the book nor the lyrics [edit: book alone by Hugh Wheeler; Sondheim did write the lyrics].  Hal Prince, the director of the first and most well-known production of the musical, went against the composer in designing the set specifically to emphasize the dehumanizing world of Industrial Revolution London, where factory machinery looms over unhealthy, pale workers.

That being said, the text itself does plenty to place capitalism in the defendant’s chair.  But first, a brief summary of the plot:

There was a barber and his wife…

Sweeney Todd begins as a classic tale of revenge: a barber, wrongly accused of a crime so that a crooked judge can seduce his wife, escapes from a life sentence in prison and returns to London to settle old accounts.  Many years have passed: his wife drank down arsenic in her despair, and his daughter is now the judge’s ward.  With the help of his old friend Mrs. Lovett (who nurses an unhealthy crush on him), the newly christened Sweeney Todd opens a barber shop on Fleet Street, hoping to give the Judge and his toady the closest shave of their lives…

Along the way the musical establishes a London that is sunk deep in economic depression, although the Judge certainly lives a life of luxury.  Meanwhile Mrs. Lovett can barely meet the bills, a rival barber exploits a young child worker, and the heavy fog of factories keeps the entire setting in eternal grey.

On the Movie: though gorgeously rendered, Burton’s film gets off to a choppy start, and it’s unfortunately clear at points that he did not read his own screenplay very carefully (some bizarre inconsistencies crop up here and there).  I was particularly disappointed that he cut Judge Turpin’s stunning “Johanna”, a song about the moral hypocrisy that people of power sometimes cram down the throats of the unempowered.  Though he condemns people to death for their moral ‘shortcomings’, Turpin’s lust for his ward is violent and disturbing (huge surprise in this world of closeted Republicans, eh?) Though Alan Rickman plays the character very well, it never quite reaches the terror of Turpin’s self-flagellation.


The musical’s key moment, and the climax of the first act, occurs when Sweeney fails to kill Judge Turpin because of an infelicitous coincidence of timing.  The already unstable barber explodes in a fit of rage, and vows to kill not only Turpin and the Beadle, but also anyone who crosses his doorstep, if not the entire world.

Why does Sweeney embark on an indiscriminate killing spree?

Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,

There are two kinds of men and only two:

There’s the one staying put in his proper place

And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.

Sweeney begins to see the world divided into two races of people: the haves, who deserve to die for their evilness, and the have-nots, who deserve to be put out of their misery.  What started as a revenge fantasy has now become an angry revolution against the whole system of class.

Like the economic system around him, the barber’s sense of vengeance greedily devours the limited resources around it:

Not one man,

No, not ten men,

Not a hundred can assuage me.

George Hearn’s performance of this number is outright terrifying:

This is important because it marks the point where Sweeney Todd ceases to be a pulpy little revenge play and becomes something much deeper and more disturbing: a play about a serial killer whose obsessions are linked to our way of living.  Sweeney is ready to devour his clients like an eternally hungry cannibal, so the next piece should come as no surprise:

A Little Priest

The most popular song in the whole musical, and justifiably so, is the disturbing comic duet “A Little Priest”.  Faced with a potentially mounting pile of bodies, Mrs. Lovett gets the bright idea to bake them into her pies, soon making her the most popular pie chef in all of London.

What’s easy to miss is that Mrs. Lovett doesn’t get this idea through any sociopathic tendencies on her own part: she very pointedly derives her criminality from the need for a competitive edge on the market.  Earlier in the play, she complains about her inability to sell pies because of a successful rival, Mrs. Mooney: Mrs. Lovett decries Mrs. Mooney’s use of stray cats for meat (though her disdain is laced with envy, since she’s too poor of health to catch cats herself).  With a fresh human body upstairs, the temptation is overwhelming:

Seems an awful waste…

I mean, with the price of meat what it is,

When you get it,

If you get it…

Take, for instance, Mrs. Mooney and her pie shop:

Business never better using only pussycats and toast,

And a pussy’s good for maybe six or seven at the most,

And I’m sure they can’t compare as far as taste!

Delighted, Sweeney refers to Mrs. Lovett’s plan as “eminently practical”, a damning compliment straight out of Dickens’ worst factories.  Just as the city around them grinds up and devours its citizens, the villains will now grind up their own clients to serve to other clients, allowing the people of London to get fat off the deaths of others.  It’s a heavy-handed metaphor for capitalism made palatable by the wicked humor they approach it with.

Sweeney in fact ties their venture not to capitalism per se, but to a brutally Darwinian worldview that’s in keeping with his recent epiphany: if this really is a dog-eat-dog world, why not feed the dogs to each other?

What’s the sound of the world out there?

Those crunching noises pervading the air?

It’s man devouring man, my dear,

And who are we to deny it in here?

The irony of their situation, feeding the lower classes on the flesh of the wealthier clientèle, isn’t lost on either character.  Far from being disgusted by the idea, they leap into cannibalism with relish: their disturbing little duet runs through a list of middle class professionals, imagining them as food for the masses:

How gratifying for once to know

That those above will serve those down below!

This number is when I fell in love with Angela Lansbury:

On the Movie: this is also the most unsatisfying scene in the movie, in part because Burton approaches it more seriously than Sondheim, whose dark humor has never found a better outlet.  A more serious approach is fine, but Burton doesn’t change the lyrics to match – this leads to acid punchlines that are either out of place or strangely disjoint from the action, and from two leads who don’t seem to be enjoying themselves nearly as much as the words would lead one to suppose.  The flat, over-literal direction doesn’t help the situation at all.

The overwhelming success of their criminality will also prove their undoing.  Mrs. Lovett becomes so enamored of her income that she proposes abandoning their original plans (justice against two evil men, though that’s never interested her much to begin with) in favor of buying a big house near the sea.  Whatever pretensions of do-gooding on their part are long gone; like a good capitalist, Mrs. Lovett begins to envision a life of luxury in a house built on the bones of her neighbors.  

By the sea, Mr. Todd, that’s the life I covet!

Of course at this point Mrs. Lovett’s dreams are so pathetically divorced from reality that it’s impossible to laugh: she loves a man who doesn’t love her, and she’s planning an idyllic resort getaway while tending to a basement full of corpses.

I probably don’t have to tell you how it ends, since the greedy devouring of limited resources can only end with autophagia – real or symbolic.  And this is ultimately one of the musical’s most powerful levels of critique, as the audience watches the best laid plans collapse slowly but inevitably, “like a flan in a cupboard” as Eddie Izzard would say.

Why?  Because nothing is sacred in this Darwinian world: one by one the main characters turn on each other, and the only one who doesn’t is driven to madness in the end.  Sweeney Todd is not a musical to buffer anyone’s faith in the human race, except perhaps through the power of art to turn even the darkest and most depressing of material into gold.

On the Movie: the last half hour is where Burton really shines.  Whatever the stumbling and flatness in the first half, he more than compensates in the finale.  One of his best decisions is the re-envisioned character of Tobias, who is older and a little slow in the stage version; Burton’s Toby is instead a Dickensian waif.  For one thing it puts Dickens (and all the accumulated connotations of child labor and factories) into the foreground; for another it leads to a conclusion that’s less disturbing but more brutal.  The ensemble finale is sorely missed, but otherwise Burton handles the second half of the film with stunning success.

For more, check out this excellent essay by Larry Brown about the political subtexts of Sweeney Todd in its 1979 staging.


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    • pico on December 16, 2007 at 4:59 am

    for the film version:

    The first half, as I noted, it a bit choppy and often unsatisfying – but the second half is stunning.  Definitely worth the price of admission, especially to see how well Burton films the bloodbath of a finale.

  1. I will probably not have the opportunity to see it, but if I do I will now get far more from the experience. Thanks.

  2. …thank you for a review which educates without reducing my desire to attend by a whit.

  3. skip this movie until I saw your diary. Have never seen the play version.

    • Turkana on December 16, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    a couple months back, also had tobias as a waif- an amazing young actor/musician, too. if you’re not laughing your way through the horror, the play or movie isn’t capturing sondheim’s magic.

    best musical ever? maybe west side story. i also have a soft spot for urinetown. and then there’s starlight express

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