Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

There are true stories of people who have not only forgiven the person who murdered their child/parent/fellow parishioner, but meet with the perpetrator, visit, write, and even testify to have that person freed from prison and maintain an ongoing relationship.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sent away to prison for life on trumped up charges by a Judge who wanted to seduce Sweeney’s beautiful wife, Sweeney is hell-bent on revenge.

Somewhere in between those two extremes are most of the rest of us. Surely we have been wronged in our lives, sometimes grievously, sometimes seemingly unforgivably. Perhaps we have been the victim of violence, dishonest business partners, lied about in divorce or custody battles, or had our heart wounded by a life-long cumulative toxic build-up of injustices.

To those who live in a moral limbo — not wishing to add any further pain to the universe through a vengeful response, but not being able to fully forgive, time may prove to be a salve. Love, true to cliche, may heal as well. And then there is art — art such as this current production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece. Extraordinary art. Art that uses tragedy, humor, music & lyrics to remind us of the cost of hell-bent revenge, no matter how justified it may be.

But you needn't have a past of pain nor require a palliative prescription to see a superb production of a classic musical. Sweeney Todd is flawless theater. Eight amazing performers, led by a brooding, I-have-but-one-thought-in-my-mind Norm Lewis as Sweeney Todd, and Carolee Carmello as a cheerily good-natured psychopath side-kick Mrs. Lovett.

The set is “immersive.” Since much of Sweeney Todd occurs in a London pie shop with a barber shop above, the Barrow Street Theater has been turned into a pie shop. The actors move all about the space and interact with you, sometimes singing inches away from your seat.

Even though Sweeney Todd is not an improv show, this intense cast-audience connection reminded me of the brilliant improv troupe Chicago City Limits (NYC based, the name confusingly referring to their point of origin) in their heyday of the 1980’s and 90’s. In that show the boundary between stage edge and seating meant nothing; actors and audience rejoiced in a deeply shared experience. There will likely always be a place for the proscenium stage, but productions like these show us how utterly engaging more creatively intimate theater can be.

Bravo to Barrow Street for this tour de force, bravo to director Bill Buckhurst, and bravo to the entire cast and production team. Bravo is what I and many others shouted as part of a standing ovation at the end.

It should be noted that the bloodshed that is integral to the story is not graphic, but this show may still be too intense a subject for children or theatergoers who who prefer to see lighter fare. For everyone else, Sweeney Todd is as good as a musical gets, as good as theater gets, and a great reminder that, no matter how tempting, meeting injustice with wanton revenge will rarely give lasting satisfaction. Art though, like this musical, adding something beautiful or meaningful to this world in spite of every reason not to, just might soothe our wounded souls.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"It must be said that the Tooting Arts Club’s deftly, uh, executed stunt of a show, which originated in London, delivers on its ingenious, if limited, objective. As directed by Bill Buckhurst, this latest version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1978 musical macabre puts its audience within throat-slashing distance of its sociopathic title character." Ben Brantley for New York Times

"The show is intimate, inventive and as in-your-face as it gets." Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"The sonic joys of Sondheim’s richly woven score and the Grand Guignol shocks of this primal tragedy are almost unbearably intense. From outside it may look like a light snack, but this thrilling, overwhelming Sweeney is a full-course meal: hot from the oven and dripping blood." David Cote for Time Out New York

"The chilling intimacy of this ingenious site-specific production has stayed with me." David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"All in all, this cheerily gory show is great family fun — if your family happens to be the Munsters." Marilyn Stasio for Variety

Originally published on

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