An unseen organist plays a dirge. Two men hastily digging a grave are interrupted by a long loud shrill factory whistle.
Lights fade to black, then rise on a grim-faced ensemble, who instruct the audience to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”). Sweeney himself, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” rises from the grave to join them. Blackout.
Lights rise on the London docks, where Sweeney and Anthony, a sweet-natured sailor, are just arriving in the city. Anthony declares that there’s “No Place Like London,” but Todd is less saccharine: “Life has been kind to you. You will learn.”
A ragged, desperate Beggar Woman asks Anthony for alms, then propositions him for sex (“Beggar Woman’s Lament”). Ever the gentleman, Anthony assents to the former, and refuses the latter. Suddenly, the Beggar Woman turns her attention to Sweeney, whom she seems to recognize. Not wanting to be identified, he chases her away.
Anthony, who rescued Sweeney weeks before from a small raft lost at sea, asks his secretive friend if he needs help or money. “No!” Todd declares sharply, then gloomily recalls the story of “The Barber and His Wife”-- describing how a London judge once lusted after a barber’s beautiful wife and had the barber “removed” so he could have the woman to himself. “And the lady, sir -- did she -- succumb?” Anthony asks. “Oh, that was many years ago,” answers Todd, “I doubt if anyone would know.” Sweeney tells Anthony he will be able to find him in the vicinity of Fleet Street, and the two men part company.
Entering a foul-smelling Fleet Street pie shop, Sweeney is accosted by the delighted and dotty Mrs. Lovett, who bemoans that “times is hard,” and offers her customer one of “The Worst Pies in London.” If times are so hard, why doesn’t she rent out the room over the shop, Sweeney asks her. “People think it’s haunted,” Lovett explains, and launches into the terrible story of what happened there (“The Barber and His Wife