Sweeney Todd was once Benjamin Barker, a humble London barber with a beautiful wife, Lucy, and baby daughter, Joanna, until the esteemed Judge Turpin developed an obsession with Lucy and had Benjamin sent to a penal colony on false charges. He makes it back to London fifteen years later under his new name and finds out from Lucy’s friend, the widowed pie shop proprietor Mrs. Lovett, that Turpin never succeeded in courting Lucy but eventually raped her anyway, driving her to poison herself, and has since been raising Joanna as his own.
If there’s a better setup for a revenge story, I haven’t heard it.
With Mrs. Lovett’s help, Sweeney sets up his old business and lures Turpin into the barber’s chair, but when he finds out that Turpin plans to marry Joanna and is then interrupted before he can slit his throat with his signature straight razor, he loses what’s left of his mind in possibly the most chillingly epic musical number ever, “Epiphany.” Here’s a taste:
We all deserve to die, / even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I, / because the lives of the wicked should be made brief, / for the rest of us, death will be a relief. / We all deserve to die.
After that, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett strike it rich killing people in the barber shop and selling their flesh in the pie shop while they wait for another chance at Turpin. They take in an orphan who was working for one of their first kills and set up a full grizzly charade of economic and domestic bliss together. Yes, now we’ve got an awesome revenge story with awesome music that’s Broadway in style but metal in spirit, plus cannibalism.
In the end… well, here’s where I’m tempted to put a spoiler alert and gush about the twist that hit me like an anvil when I first saw it, but we all know in spirit how this kind of story has to go. Sweeney does get his revenge, and after the whole play’s buildup, it’s everything it should be, but there’s no happy ending for him. He racks up more bodies than just Turpin and some nameless extras, and when it’s finally his turn, he’s beyond trying to fight it.
The whole play is one beautiful, disgusting, unstoppable flash of a grease fire. A few peripheral good characters do manage to crawl out of the ashes at the end to offer hope, but at the center of the action, you’ve got Sweeney, formerly a good man, targeted through no fault of his own by an undeniable evil so strong that when he tries to fight it, it consumes him and, through him, everything else in his life, until finally, it burns itself out.
Pyrrhic victory honorable mention:
Hamlet of Hamlet. Like Sweeney, it’s kind of hard to blame him for losing it. His uncle did kill his father and then take over the kingdom he was supposed to inherit, but the fact that his uncle is one of the bodies by the end could almost be overlooked in the blood-running-down-the-backdrop ugliness of everything else Hamlet does.