Sweeney Todd was the last and arguably greatest of the five groundbreaking musicals Stephen Sondheim scored during the 1970s (following Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures). It is the first Broadway show that Sondheim himself came up with the idea to adapt into a musical; all his previous projects had been conceived by a collaborator.
While it’s unlikely there was ever a historical barber who sliced up his victims, baked their bodies, and fed them to unsuspecting passersby, stories of such a man go back hundreds of years. In 1846, a writer named George Dibden-Pitt, drawing on tales from the late 18th century, published a serialized “penny dreadful” that chronicled the tale of a Fleet Street barber who murdered his victims and offered up the corpses to a cook famous for her meat pies. Dibden-Pitt adapted the story himself into a play, which was a smash hit on the London stage. A 1936 movie starring Tod Slaughter also found a large audience, and the story was continuously revived, in one form or another, for many years.
In 1968, Christopher Bond, an actor at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, decided to mount his own adaptation. He added the characters of Judge Turpin and Lucy and found greater depth in Sweeney Todd and the newly named Mrs. Lovett. The production was revived several times, and Sondheim eventually saw it and, with Bond’s permission, decided to musicalize it. Initially working without a book writer, Sondheim finally reached out to Hugh Wheeler, with whom he’d collaborated on A Little Night Music. Hal Prince, who directly all of Sondheim’s work in the 1970s, signed on to direct, and the musical opened in the large Uris Theater on March 1, 1979.
Major revivals include a 1980 London production starring Denis Quilley, a pared-down 1989 Broadway revival starring Bob Gunton, and a 2005 Broadway revival starring Michael Cerveris. Directed by John Doyle, this most recent revival featured actors playing their own instruments, in lieu of an orchestra, and was set in an insane asylum, probably influenced by Peter Brook’s 1964 staging of Marat/Sade. A 2007 film version of Sweeney Todd starred Johnny Depp and was directed by Tim Burton. In September 2014, PBS aired a fully staged performance ("Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert with The New York Philharmonic") starring Academy Award Winner Emma Thompson and acclaimed opera singer Bryn Terfel. The full performance can be viewed at http://video.pbs.org/video/2365329433/