Open main menu

Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain of the Victorian penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls (1846–47).

Sweeney Todd
Tod Slaughter as Sweeney Todd, 1936 film
First appearancePenny dreadful serial titled The String of Pearls (1846–47)
Created byJames Malcolm Rymer
Thomas Peckett Prest
Portrayed byMoore Marriott (1928 film)
Tod Slaughter (1936 film)
Maver Moore (1947 CBC Radio drama)
Freddie Jones (1970 television)
Len Cariou (1979 Broadway, 2000 London concert)
George Hearn (1980 Broadway, 2000 New York concert, 2001 San Francisco concert)
Denis Quilley (1980 London cast, 1993 London revival, 1994 BBC Radio)
Ben Kingsley (1998 drama)
Kelsey Grammer (1999 Los Angeles concert)
Brian Stokes Mitchell (2002 Kennedy Center)
Michael Cerveris (2005 Broadway revival)
Ray Winstone (2006 drama)
Johnny Depp (2007 film)
Mikhail Gorshenev (album 2011, album 2012, zong-opera 2012-2013)
Michael Ball (2012 London revival)
Bryn Terfel (2014 New York concert, 2015 London concert)
Jeremy Secomb (2015 London revival, 2017 Off-Broadway revival)
Norm Lewis (2017 Off-Broadway revival)
Hugh Panaro (2017 Off-Broadway revival)
Anthony Warlow (2019 Australia)
AliasThe Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Benjamin Barker
Serial killer
SpouseNone in original version
Lucy Barker (musical version)
ChildrenNone in original version
Johanna Barker (musical version)

The tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama and London urban legend, and has been retold many times since, most notably in the Tony award–winning Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler.

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a historical person[1][2] are strongly disputed by scholars,[3][4][5] although possible legendary prototypes exist.[6]


Plot synopsisEdit

In the original version of the tale, Todd is a barber who dispatches his victims by pulling a lever as they sit in his barber chair. His victims fall backward down a revolving trap door into the basement of his shop, generally causing them to break their necks or skulls. In case they are alive, Todd goes to the basement and "polishes them off" (slitting their throats with his straight razor). In some adaptations, the murdering process is reversed, with Todd slitting his customers' throats before dispatching them into the basement through the revolving trap door. After Todd has robbed his dead victims of their goods, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime (in some later versions, his friend and/or lover), assists him in disposing of the bodies by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop. Todd's barber shop is situated at 152 Fleet Street, London, next to St. Dunstan's church, and is connected to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop in nearby Bell Yard by means of an underground passage. In most versions of the story, he and Mrs. Lovett hire an unwitting orphan boy, Tobias Ragg, to serve the pies to customers.

Literary historyEdit

Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance. This penny dreadful was published in 18 weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7–24, 21 November 1846 to 20 March 1847. It was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer, though Thomas Peckett Prest has also been credited with it; possibly each worked on the serial from part to part. Other attributions include Edward P. Hingston, George Macfarren, and Albert Richard Smith.[6][7] In February/March 1847, before the serial was even completed, George Dibdin Pitt adapted The String of Pearls as a melodrama for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: "I'll polish him off".[6]

Lloyd published another, lengthier, penny part serial from 1847–48, with 92 episodes. It was then published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls, subtitled "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages long.[6] A plagiarised version of this book appeared in the United States c. 1852–53 as Sweeney Todd: or the Ruffian Barber. A Tale of Terror of the Seas and the Mysteries of the City by "Captain Merry" (a pseudonym for American author Harry Hazel, 1814–89).[6]

In 1865 the French novelist Paul H.C. Féval (1816–1887), famous as a writer of horror and crime novels and short stories, referred to what he called "L'Affaire de la Rue des Marmousets", in the introductory chapter to his book "La Vampire".[8] A version of this story is related by the author Jacques Yonnet in his book Rue des maléfices (1954). This version is set in late medieval (1387) Paris, at the corner of the Rue des Marmousets and the Rue des Deux-Hermites. The familiar plot of the barber and the pastrycook who sell pies made with human flesh is followed, the dénouement following one of the victims' dogs alerting neighbors and the gendarmes. The two confess, and are summarily burned alive; the houses where the crimes took place are then razed. Whether this version of the story is based on The String of Pearls or its dramatisation, or a much older tale alluded to by Féval is unclear. In any case, it may well be the source for some recent versions that move the tale from London to Paris.[9]

In 1875, Frederick Hazleton's c. 1865 dramatic adaptation Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (see below) was published as Vol 102 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays.[6]

A scholarly, annotated edition of the original 1846–47 serial was published in volume form in 2007 by the Oxford University Press under the title of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, edited by Robert Mack.

Alleged historical basisEdit

The original story of Sweeney Todd quite possibly stems from an older urban legend, originally based on dubious pie-fillings.[6] In Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836–37), the servant Sam Weller says that a pieman used cats "for beefsteak, veal and kidney, 'cording to the demand", and recommends that people should buy pies only "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten."[10] Dickens then developed this in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846–47), with a character called Tom Pinch who is grateful that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis".[11]

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person were first made in the introduction to the 1850 (expanded) edition of The String of Pearls and have persisted to the present day.[6] In two books,[1][2] Peter Haining argued that Sweeney Todd was a historical figure who committed his crimes around 1800. Nevertheless, other researchers who have tried to verify his citations find nothing in these sources to back Haining's claims.[3][4][5]

In literatureEdit

A late (1890s) reference to the urban legend of the murderous barber can be found in the poem by the Australian bush poet Banjo PatersonThe Man from Ironbark.

In his 2012 novel Dodger, Terry Pratchett portrays Sweeney Todd as a tragic figure, having lost his mind after being exposed to the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars as a barber surgeon.

In performing artsEdit

In stage productionsEdit

  • The String of Pearls (1847), a melodrama by George Dibdin Pitt that opened at Hoxton's Britannia Theatre and billed as "founded on fact". It was something of a success, and the story spread by word of mouth and took on the quality of an urban legend. Various versions of the tale were staples of the British theatre for the rest of the century.
  • Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (c. 1865), a dramatic adaption written by Frederick Hazleton which premiered at the Old Bower Saloon, Stangate Street, Lambeth.[6]
  • Sweeney Todd (1962), a four-act melodrama adapted from The String of Pearls by Brian J Burton who also composed new songs and lyrics. It was first performed at the Crescent Theatre,[12] Birmingham.
  • Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973), a play by the British playwright Christopher Bond. This version of the story was the first to give Todd a more sympathetic motive: he is Benjamin Barker, a wrongfully convicted barber who after 15 years in an Australian penal colony returns to London under the new name Sweeney Todd, only to find that Judge Turpin, who is responsible for his conviction, has raped his young wife and adopted his daughter. He at first plans to kill Turpin, but when his prey escapes, he swears revenge on the whole world and begins to slash his customers' throats. He goes into business with Mrs. Lovett, his former landlady, who bakes his victims' flesh into pies. At the end of the play, he gets his revenge by killing Turpin, but then unknowingly kills his own wife, whom Mrs. Lovett had misled him into believing had died. He kills Mrs. Lovett, and allows Mrs. Lovett's assistant Tobias Ragg to slit his throat.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A Musical Thriller (1979), the acclaimed musical adaptation of Bond's play by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler starring Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon later succeeded Cariou and Lansbury in the lead roles. In 1982, the musical was televised on The Entertainment Channel, starring Hearn and Lansbury, and directed by Terry Hughes and Harold Prince. It was produced by RKO Pictures and RKO/Nederlander Productions. A Broadway revival, directed by John Doyle, was mounted at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 2005. The 10-person cast, who played their own instruments in new orchestrations, consisted of John Arbo (Jonas Fogg; bass player), Donna Lynne Champlin (Pirelli; piano, accordion, flute), Alexander Gemignani (The Beadle; piano, trumpet), Mark Jacoby (Judge Turpin; trumpet, percussion), Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman/Lucy Barker; clarinet), Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony Hope; cello, piano), Lauren Molina (Johanna Barker; cello), Manoel Felciano (Tobias; violin, clarinet, piano), Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett; tuba, percussion), and Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd; guitar). Cerveris, LuPone, and Felciano were all nominated for Tony Awards; the show itself was nominated for Best Revival and won Tonys for Best Direction and Best Orchestration.[13] In 2017, a London revival produced by Cameron Mackintosh with Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney Todd, Siobhan McCarthy as Mrs. Lovett, Duncan Smith as the Judge and Joseph Taylor as Tobias was transferred to Off-Broadway, with Norm Lewis and then Hugh Panaro later replacing Secomb.[14]

In danceEdit

In filmEdit

In musicEdit

  • "Sweeney Todd, The Barber", a song which assumes its audience knows the stage version and claims that such a character existed in real life. Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1956, attributed it to R. P. Weston, a songwriter active from 1906 to 1934.
  • "Fleet Street", a hard rock/heavy metal song by the Canadian band Fist (AKA "Myofist" in parts of Europe), released on their 1982 A&M Records album Fleet Street, also known as Thunder in Rock in the USA and Europe.
  • "Sweeney Todd" by Brotha Lynch Hung, a song about a modern-day murderer who takes the character's name and modus operandi.
  • TODD. Act 1. Feast of Blood (TODD. Акт 1. Праздник крови 2011) and TODD. Act 2. At the Edge (TODD. Акт 2. На краю 2012), two albums by Korol' i Shut, a horror punk band from Saint Petersburg.
  • "Demon Sweeney Todd," a song by British heavy metal band Saxon on their 2009 studio album Into the Labyrinth.
  • "Floyd the Barber," a song by grunge band Nirvana on their 1989 album Bleach, features a scenario in which Floyd Lawson, the barber from The Andy Griffith Show, becomes a murderer stylized after Sweeney Todd.
  • "Sweaney G.O.D." is a tribute to Sweeney Todd by the Canadian band Ytheband (now disbanded) which was released as a promo EP in 1999 and was also the first video from the band.
  • Sweeney Todd were a Canadian rock band of the late 1970s featuring Nick Gilder, and later Bryan Adams on lead vocals. Both vocalists did versions of the group's hit single Roxy Roller.

In radio and audio playsEdit

On televisionEdit

  • In The Avengers 1967 episode "Escape in Time", the barber's name (seen briefly) is "T. Sweeney".
  • "Sweeney Todd" (1970), an episode of the ITV series Mystery and Imagination starring Freddie Jones as Sweeney Todd and Heather Canning as Nellie Lovett. In this adaptation, written by Vincent Tilsey and directed by Reginald Collin, the title character is portrayed as insane rather than evil. Lewis Fiander played Mark Ingesterie with Mel Martin as the heroine Charlotte and Len Jones as Tobias.
  • Sweeney Todd (1973), an hour-long TV production by the CBC Television series The Purple Playhouse with Barry Morse as Todd. This was again Pitt's version of the play.
  • Teeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Quarter Street was a musical comedy skit performed on The Two Ronnies with Ronnie Corbett as the pint-sized half-brother of Sweeney Todd and Ronnie Barker as Mrs. Lovett. They revive the arrangement that Lovett had with Todd, and nearly get away with it until a bit of clumsiness on Teeny's part reveals to a room full of police the chute down to the kitchen.
  • The Tale of Sweeney Todd (1998), directed by John Schlesinger, a made-for-television version first broadcast on the Showtime network, starring Ben Kingsley as Sweeney Todd, Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Lovett, and Campbell Scott as Ben Carlyle, a police inspector; commissioned by British Sky Broadcasting for which Ben Kingsley received a Screen Actors Guild Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of the title role.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert (2001), a filmed concert version of Sondheim's musical, starring George Hearn as Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker, Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, Timothy Nolen as Judge Turpin, and Neil Patrick Harris as Tobias. A new version of this production was broadcast in September 2014, this time with Bryn Terfel as Todd, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett and Philip Quast as Judge Turpin.
  • Sweeney Todd (2006), a BBC television drama version with a screenplay written by Joshua St Johnston and starring Ray Winstone in the title role and Essie Davis as Mrs. Lovett. In this version, Todd's murderous ways are the result of physical (possibly sexual) cruelty and assault while imprisoned as a child in Newgate Gaol for a crime committed by his father who had escaped; at the film's conclusion, while in the condemned man's cell in Newgate and shaving himself on the morning of his execution, he deliberately slashes his own throat rather than be hanged.
  • "Oh My, Meat Pie" (2008), an episode of the Cooking Channel series Good Eats, which inserts the inventor of shepherd's pie into the world of Sweeney Todd in a historical recounting of the original recipe of the dish.[16]
  • "Andy's Play" (2010), the 129th episode of The Office series where Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) sings and acts in the production of "Sweeney Todd". It originally aired on NBC on October 7th, 2010. It can now be found on Netflix under season 7, episode 3.

In comicsEdit

  • The character of Sweeney Todd is presented as a villain in Marc Andreyko's Manhunter series, wherein he appears as a ghost which possesses men (causing them to resemble him) and murders women. A supporting character, Obsidian, is shown to be a fan of Sondheim's musical.[17]
  • Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli were to have created a Sweeney Todd adaptation for Taboo, published by Steve Bissette and Tundra, but only completed a prologue.[18]
  • Classical Comics, a UK publisher creating graphic novel adaptations of classical literature, has produced a full colour, 176-page paperback, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2010),[19] with script adaptation by Sean M. Wilson, linework by Declan Shalvey; colouring by Jason Cardy & Kat Nicholson, and lettering by Jim Campbell.

In rhyming slangEdit

In rhyming slang, Sweeney Todd is the Flying Squad (a branch of the UK's Metropolitan Police), which inspired the television series The Sweeney.


  1. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1979). The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. London, England: The Book Service Ltd. ISBN 0-584-10425-1.
  2. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1993). Sweeney Todd: The real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. London, England: Boxtree. ISBN 1-85283-442-0.
  3. ^ a b "Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd" (Press release). BBC Press Office. 2005-08-12. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  4. ^ a b Duff, Oliver (2006-01-03). "Sweeney Todd: fact". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 2006-07-01. Retrieved 2006-11-15. (Full text[permanent dead link])
  5. ^ a b "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Robert Mack (2007) "Introduction" to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  7. ^ "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" Retrieved 11 February 2006.
  8. ^ "La vampire by Paul Féval".
  9. ^ "SuicideGirls". SuicideGirls.
  10. ^ Dickens, Charles (1837). The Pickwick Papers. Oxfordshire, England: Oxford Classics. pp. 278, 335. ISBN 978-0140436112.
  11. ^ Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit. Oxfordshire, England: Clarendon Press. p. 495. ISBN 978-0199554003.
  12. ^ Crescent Theatre
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Sweeney Todd NYC". Archived from the original on October 4, 2017.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Manhunter (2004) #23 (August 2006)
  18. ^ Schiff, Len (Fall 2005). "Into the Stratosphere: "TSR" Talks with Neil Gaiman". The Sondheim Review. 12.1: 39, 41 – via Proquest.
  19. ^ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Text ed.). November 2010. ISBN 978-1-906332-79-2.

Further readingEdit

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street edited by Robert Mack (2007). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-922933-3
  • Robert Mack (2008) The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-9791-8
  • Rothman, Irving N. "Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979). In The Barber in Modern Jewish Culture (2008). 365–76. ISBN 978-0-7734-5072-1

External linksEdit