Review: Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s Bloody Barber, Is Back

The Broadway revival, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, offers more music and even more laughs, but not a lot of meat.

“I want you, bleeders!” the barber barks at us, near the end of Act I. But we may want him even more. There’s a reason we see a major Broadway or West End revival of Sweeney Todd every five or six years. We can’t get enough of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.


There are arguments to be made for Gypsy, Oklahoma! and West Side Story, but for my money, there’s no greater musical than Sweeney Todd—despite its bizarre, nihilistic subject matter. Composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler adapted the show from Christopher Bond’s 1970 version of the Victorian melodrama about a serial killer. In short: Benjamin Barker returns to the Dickensian hellscape of London to get revenge on the wicked Judge Turpin, who stole away his wife and daughter 15 years before. Disguised as Sweeney Todd, he drops in on Mrs. Lovett, the owner of the pie shop below his tonsorial parlor. Having always loved the poor barber, the baker resolves to help him get justice—and hits on a most unusual way for him to repay the favor.


The horror musical—or grusical, as the Germans call it—has been pretty hit-or-miss as a genre. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors are delightful, but Carrie, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dance of the Vampires are all, well, horrors. (Don’t get me started on Phantom of the Opera. It’s one tune hanging from a chandelier.) How then does Sweeney manage to be such a killer? It deals out equal measures of terror, delight and pathos. Along the way to a heartrending denouement, it alternates between gory spectacle and feverish wordplay—all of it set to a spellbinding score. Sweeney is the Hamlet and Macbeth of musical theater.

Or it can be. It’s no simple matter, staging a show that’s gorgeous, titillating, terrifying and devastating, often all at the same time. Unfortunately, the overstuffed production that opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre falls far short.


It’s definitely gorgeous. We’re not likely to hear a Sweeney that sounds this magnificent ever again, at least not on Broadway. Its soaring score finally proved that Sondheim, lionized as a lyricist, was also a composer of the first rank. And the present company—particularly Josh Groban, in the title role—sings the hell out of it. Seriously: If the afterlife has a soundtrack, let it be his rich lyric baritone. But though the platinum recording star’s name is above the title, the real star of the production is EGOT winner Jonathan Tunick, whose 26-piece orchestration is being heard for the first time since the original 1979 production. With Sweeney, Sondheim went for the challenging grandeur of his sometime collaborator, Leonard Bernstein, and Tunick’s multitextured arrangements show off just how well he succeeded.

The other pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit together. The play’s characters may offer different spins on theatrical archetypes—Sweeney is a meta musical, composed decades before that was a thing—but they still need to inhabit the same world. Mrs. Lovett is written as a broad music hall clown, landing each jaunty song with an emphatic button. But Annaleigh Ashford is a shameless laugh machine, and she’s so hilarious, it throws the show out of whack. It’s hard to blame her; she’s got to fill the awfully big shoes Angela Lansbury left behind 44 years ago. Lansbury was indeed a riot, but she was always in character, tirelessly trying to make Sweeney laugh. Ashford seems fixated only on making us laugh. She’s doing a marvelous show—the friendly preview audience I saw gobbled up every bit—but it isn’t Sweeney Todd.   


The barber himself is supposed to offer a stark contrast to Lovett’s mania. He’s written as a morose cipher bent on vengeance, borrowing identities, taking lives—even stealing much of his music, plucking snatches of melody from his scene partners and subverting them to his own macabre purposes. But Groban finds only a loose connection to the character. When he’s not singing, he’s a listless sadsack, a sort of Emo Sweeney, lacking the intensity the character demands. Len Cariou, who originated the role, unraveled onstage every night; and people say they feared his replacement, George Hearn, would actually crawl offstage to slit their throats. Groban seems like a nice man who just needs a good shrink.

The excellent supporting players are left to wander through the vacuum in between Groban’s glorious musical moments and Ashford’s standup routines. Maria Bilbao is lovely as the young, slightly mad ingenue, Johanna, and she nails the show’s trickiest song—the sweet but purposely shrill Green Finch and Linnet Bird. Jordan Fisher may be a bit too pop-sounding for Anthony Hope, Johanna’s hopeful suitor, but he’s perfectly pie-eyed playing the horniest lad in London. Jamie Jackson is exquisitely icky as Judge Turpin, the show’s stock Victorian villain; and John Rapson is a hoot as Beadle Bamford, his sidekick (and a closet show queen). Gaten Matarazzo, so good in TV’s Stranger Things, was born to play Toby, the wily, lovable orphan, and he’s got a marvelous tenor voice. Ruthie Ann Miles, especially outstanding as the raving Beggar Woman, elicits the evening’s only honest tears.

Director Thomas Kail, who set the bar for period-not-period pieces with Hamilton, is plainly a bit at sea. The show looks great, with Mimi Lien’s massive, gritty set, Natasha Katz’s ravishing lighting and Emilio Sosa’s lovely costumes. (One amusing touch: Wig designer J. Jared Janas has given the judge a blond-gray mop that recalls the real-life menace down at Mar-a-Lago.) But where Kail’s production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s opus flies along at a hurricane-force clip, his Sweeney is a slog. Even after cutting the judge’s marvelously unsettling S&M number Johanna, Act I stretches to an hour and 40 minutes. Alex Lacamoire’s conducting is a bit sluggish, but it’s when the music stops that the show really dies. The one bold choice in the staging is an awkward misfire. Steven Hoggett’s frenetic choreography for the Brechtian chorus—imagine Bill T. Jones staging Threepenny Opera—turns the show’s creepiest element into its cheesiest.

It’s a shame. Musicals are much harder to reinvent than plays—there’s no getting around the tone set by the score. (Consider the divided reactions to the recent re-imagining of Company.) But Sweeney is rich enough to invite experimentation: In 2017 we saw the Barrow Street Theatre’s “Teeny Todd,” and in 2005, John Doyle’s cast-as-orchestra interpretation. If Kail is too respectful of the original, he may have had no choice. With the tickets priced this high—seats in the mezzanine start at $193.50 and go up to a Beyoncé-level $522—his producers may have insisted on familiarity.


It’s kind of ironic, considering that Sweeney, in the end, is a blood-curdling critique of capitalism. Mrs. Lovett cynically deciding to bake Sweeney’s victims into pies doesn’t even feel like the darkest idea in a play that features colonialism, corruption, industrial pollution, child labor, alcoholism, prostitution and sexual assault. As we haven’t traveled anywhere emotionally, none of these other issues feel especially present either.


But date-night theatergoers will get their $1,000 worth at the end of the show, from Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s dazzling exit. “How’d they do it!?!?” they’ll wonder, before running off to the next pricey, meaningless spectacle.


Sweeney Todd plays at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Tickets available at

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