Four-time Grammy nominee Josh Groban steps into the title role of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s gruesome musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Based on characters that first appeared in the penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls, Sondheim found inspiration after seeing a play adaptation, turning the murderer into a Victorian-era revenge tale with tragic consequences.
Annaleigh Ashford (Welcome to Chippendales) appears opposite Groban as the moral-lacking pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett, who’s happy to dispose of the evidence with a heavy-duty meat grinder. Also pulling its weight is a 26-piece orchestra featuring Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations — heard for the first time on Broadway since the original 1979 production.
No Tea, No Shade
Unlike the original source material, Sondheim and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd is a murderer with motive. Convicted of a trumped-up criminal charge by Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) 15 years prior, Todd returns to London to avenge his wife’s death and rescue his daughter Johanna (Maria Bilbao), whom the judge has taken as his ward with the intention of marrying her. Coincidentally, Todd’s travel companion, a young shipmate named Anthony (Jordan Fisher), locks eyes with the girl and sets in motion a dual plot to rescue the girl from her creepy captor.
Director Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and a powerhouse design team (Mimi Lien, scenic design; Emilio Sosa, costume design; and Natasha Katz, lighting design) lure the audience into the underbelly of late 18th-century London. The stench (at least, thematically) hovers in the air, punctuated by Steven Hoggett’s choreography. Though occasionally over-fussy, Hoggett’s (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) ensemble taps the guttural impact of a dog-eat-dog world (or, in this case, whatever Lovett puts through the grinder).
New York audiences have had plenty of opportunity to indulge in Sondheim recently, including revivals of Company and Into the Woods, along with Merrily We Roll Along and his final work Here We Are both opening this fall. But Sweeney Todd is one of Sondheim’s crowning achievements, with Groban and Ashford delivering master classes in the late composer’s work.
Groban is neither the “heavy-set, saturnine man” described in the script nor the fresh-faced singer who reached international acclaim with a 2003 power ballad cover of “You Raise Me Up.” Instead, he alluringly hovers somewhere in between, like the acrid smoke that rises from Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop oven. Groban treads methodically until Sweeney Todd’s simmering insanity takes hold, and he sings:
“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 man’s face.”
Mrs. Lovett sees this predicament as a source of opportunity. Ashford, who previously proved her prowess in a revival of Sunday in the Park With George (opposite Jake Gyllenhaal), doesn’t miss a beat. Never mind that her Lovett occasionally chews the scenery with as much fervor as it takes to swallow one of her meat pies — Ashford may very well go down as one of the great interpreters of Sondheim’s lyrics.
Let’s Have a Moment
If there’s a crack in Mrs. Lovett’s survivalist exterior, it comes by way of Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo, Stranger Things), a wayward teen she takes in after she and Todd dispose of his boss, Pirelli (Nicholas Christopher). Though “simple-minded,” Tobias senses something’s not quite right between the adults in this unconventional household. He pledges to protect her and sings:
“Demons’ll charm you with a smile
For a while,
But in time
Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around!”
Mrs. Lovett appears entranced by the boy. Has someone finally awoken her conscience? Perhaps not. After all, “times is hard.”
The Final Word
“I just wanted to scare audiences,” Sondheim said of his inspiration to turn Sweeney Todd into a musical. “It’s very hard to scare people in the theater… and I wanted to see if I could do it.”
Sweeney Todd’s latest incarnation (its fourth on Broadway) is terrifying — not just because of a bloody straight razor or what happens to those who befall its sharp edge. But because of its natural descent into madness to which any of us could succumb. Add a final tableau that will steal your breath faster than a shave in Sweeney Todd’s barber chair, and Sondheim, even from beyond the grave, has achieved his goal.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontane Theatre.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed The String of Pearls to Charles Dickens.
Wish I could see it! This is one of my favorite shows but I don’t see making it to NYC anytime soon.
I am making plans to go to NYC in May to see the demon barber.
Would love to see this. Josh Groban is one of my all time favorites.