This is a play I did not imagine I would go to see. Most of what I knew about it was that he was a barber that had gone so far off the deep end that he was slitting throats and having their remains made into meat pies to hide the evidence, and that it had really good music. But since I get easily freaked out by blood and gore, I was just not interested. However, when I heard Acting Out Theater Company was going to be doing a production and that I knew some of the people in it, I decided to take the opportunity to go and see it with the desire to learn why this musical has appealed to so many of my peers.
One of the people I knew in the show happened to be playing Sweeney Todd, and since Cody’s family goes to my church, I decided to go with them. It was a very hot Saturday to have the show outdoors, but the setting in the heart on downtown Kankakee was very appropriate to the play. It fortunately cooled down by the time the show started around 8pm. When the play was done, I found myself saying that I didn’t dislike it as much as I thought I would, but I wasn’t totally in love with the show either. It was an incredible well done production, but I walked away from the show with more questions than answers. But what I did know from seeing this play is that it shows that both obsession and revenge are dangerous, and when these two feelings are combined, the consequences are often extreme. This is what I saw as the consequences of obsessive vengeance that are played out in the plot of Sweeney Todd.
[All the photo used in this post are from Acting Out Theater's Production of Sweeney Todd.]
The Value of Human Life Is Down-Played By Selfish Choices
Not only does this become the consequence of Todd’s vengeance, but it is the very thing that led him on his path of revenge. A little ways into the plot of the show, you discover that Todd’s real name is Benjamin Barker. He was at one point in time one of the most accomplished barber in all Victorian London. He was married with a beautiful wife and infant daughter. But the unjust Judge Turpin begins to lust after Barker’s wife, Lucy. Wanting Lucy for himself, Turpin has Barker wrongly convicted and sent to prison in Australia. After her husband is arrested, Turpin summons Lucy Barker to his house, sets up a fake masquerade ball to confuse her, and then Turpin rapes her. When Barker finally manages to escape and return to London 15 years later, he has rechristened himself Sweeney Todd and learns that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by Turpin. Barker’s daughter Joanna, who is now a young woman, has become Turpin’s ward.
Upon hearing the story of his wife and daughter from Mrs. Lovett (the owner of the meat pie shop below Barker’s old barber shop), Todd is determined to seek revenge against Turpin and his accomplice Beadle Bamford. His plan is to reopen the shop under his new name, lure them to his shop, then use his barber blade to slip their throats. Todd becomes more driven when he learns that Turpin is so determined to “protect” Joanna from the world, he is going to force her to marry him. When the young sailor Anthony Hope accidently reveals that he intends to take Joanna away to elope with her, Turpin has her sent to an asylum to silence her. This accident also foils Todd’s attempt on Turpin’s life and he is so driven mad by the incident that he begins to revenge on all of mankind who wronged him. He starts to slit the throats of many of his customers just to cope, until he finds his next opportunity to get revenge on Turpin. To hide the evidence, Mrs. Lovett conceives of the idea to use the remains of Todd’s victims in her meat pies and selling them to unsuspecting customers.
Turpin’s selfish choices devalued the lives of the whole Barker family. Benjamin was reduced to being unjustly imprisoned. Lucy was reduced to feeling like she was damaged goods, leading her to the most drastic choice of all, to end her life. Joanna was reduced to a different type of prison for an unjust reason. All so that Turpin could get what he wanted or cover it up when he didn’t get it. It reminds me of Mister of Judge Claude Frollo in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Not only was he a judge corrupted by his own biases, but his selfishness devalued not only the life of Esmerelda, but also of all the gypsies in Paris. I honestly think that Turpin could have sang the song Hellfire and it totally would have fit into this play. Both Turpin and Frollo has this attitude of “she will be mine or she will burn.” That is disheartening.
In the end, Turpin’s selfish choices led to Todd making several selfish choices of his own. Some of it was probably because of mental instability that resulted from his imprisonment, but I think Todd was sound enough of mind to know exactly what he was doing. He was so bend on revenge that the lives he had to end in order to cope didn’t matter to him at all. And the one person that knew what he was doing was encouraging him just boost her business. Although some may give Todd an excuse because of his mental state, Mrs. Lovett doesn’t have that excuse. She didn’t seem to have any more of conscious about it than Todd. She devalued their lives just as much as Todd did by reducing them to pie filling. But in the end, she also had more selfish motivation.
This is a powerful reminder what happens when we become blinded by our own selfish ambitions. As a Christian, I never want to devalue any human’s life. No matter who they are, what choices they’ve made, or what decisions they made against me, they are still people made beautifully in the image of God. I never want to force them to do something against their will for or make choices that could end their life for the sake of my ego. We have to be intentional about valuing the people around us, so that we can live out the Bible’s second greatest command: loving our neighbor as ourselves. If only Todd and Turpin would have realized that sooner.
Morally Ambiguities Become Amusing
You can probably tell already that this is a very dark play. When the plot is this dark, it is important to interject humor to lighten the mood. However, the nature of much of the humor in this show didn’t completely sit right with me. A lot of humor ends up arising from the devaluing of lives that I just talked about or other actions that make the characters’ morality ambiguous amusing to the audience. Probably the worst example of this is shown in the song A Little Priest. This is when, after Mrs. Lovett suggests using the remains of Todd’s victims in her pies, they sing about what pies of people with different occupations would taste like. They talked about how the priest would taste “heavenly,” and then goes through a long list of others that are reduced to how well their body meat tastes. Even the notion of Todd slitting throats is almost made into a joke by the end of the show. This is all done for the sake of lightening the mood, because it’s hard to find any other way to do it. I think there is a profound lesson to be made from this.
Our society wants to give us heroes that are morally flawed and present that as OK. For example, I’ve watch a documentary about how superheroes as we know them exist today. They talked about how comic book readers were getting sick of heroes that they thought were too “one dimensional” because they were too perfect. For example, Superman is so strong, he usually doesn’t struggle with doubts or fears, and he has a high moral code that he usually never breaks. Many heroes, especially the ones created by DC Comics, fit into a very similar mold. Many of the heroes from Marvel struggle more with inner fears and doubt themselves, but many of them still have some sort of moral code that doesn’t break easily. But probably around the ‘80 and ‘90, certain comic book writers began creating character that had moral ambiguities, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. There were not driven by any code of ethics, sometimes even becoming part crime fighter, part criminal. They were not above killing a villain if they deemed it appropriate. This is what many of the fans were asking for, and when they got it, there were very amused by it and kept asking for more. Again, there is something about this that doesn’t sit right with me.
As a Christian, I don’t think moral ambiguities are entertaining or amusing. We should be able to look at the things people do in plays and think to ourselves, “That’s not quite right,” or “That is morally wrong.” Even if the characters aren’t Christian themselves, everyone has some sort of inner moral code they adhere to or follow. We should be able to discern if they are follow their own private sense of morality based on their character and figure out whether their actions are wrong based on their own morals. We should be processing what we are seeing enough that we are aware of it something is right or wrong in what we are watching. Now I think we can laugh or be entertained at certain things that aren’t moral perfect within reason, but not at the cost of ignoring blatant moral problems. If the bad morals portrayed in any form of entertainment don’t send up some sort of red flag in your head, then you may want to rethink your viewpoint.
Romance Becomes the Only Light
Amidst the darkness of this play, there is only one ray of light: the romance between Joanna and Anthony Hope. Anthony is a sailor who helped rescue Todd from the sea as he was escaping from the Australian prison. When Anthony falls in love with Joanna from afar, he becomes determined to marry her, even though she is Judge Turpin’s ward. He devises a play to break her out of Turpin’s house to elope with her. When Turpin discovers this plan and has Joanna wrongfully committed to an asylum, Anthony stops at nothing until he is able to help her escape. He is aided in his plot by Todd, not knowing that Joanna is really his daughter. But even Todd’s desire to help is ultimately motivated by his unrequited desire to have revenge on Turpin. Anthony and Joanna survive through the end of the play, but the ending of their story isn’t explained. Although it could be assumed that they lived “happily ever after,” I’m sure what they witnessed of the bloodbath at the end of the play would probably haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Of all the things I saw in this play, the one thing I found myself enjoying was Anthony fighting to rescue Joanna. He stopped at nothing until he knew she was safe. In fact, Anthony is probably the most noble man in the show. Men that are willing to pursue and sacrifice everything for the women they love are rare. But at the same time, it made me sad to think that this was really one of the only rays of light within the darkness of the plot. Romance is not enough to redeem the plot from all the gore and moral ambiguities. It’s because of this that I found it difficult to love this play as a whole. I enjoyed watching it for its production value, but I didn’t love the plot as a whole or where it ended.
Other Things I Noticed in Sweeney Todd
There were a few things that stood out positively:
Production Quality - As far as the production I saw, the quality of the sets, the costumes, the singing, and the acting was top-notch! Cody did an incredible job playing the extremely difficult part of Sweeney Todd. It happened that the guy that played Judge Turpin played the part of Bert when I was in Mary Poppins last fall! I also knew a very members of the ensemble. These guys and the whole cast are incredible talented. Well done!
Compelling and Complex Music - One of the things that I did know about this play before seeing it was that it had really good music. I had some music major friends in college that loved the music and one or two guys that even sang songs from it in their recitals. Now, after having experienced the music within the content of the play, I can see why some people are so drawn to it. Because I watched this production, I now realize how incredibly difficult the music is. It is very complex, and not for the faint of heart. I heard that Cody said it was some of the most complex music that he has ever done. That’s saying a lot, because one of his last starring roles was playing Javier in Les Miserables! Although the messages within the songs are not my favorite, the quality of the music itself cannot be denied, as well as the talent it takes to perform the music well.
There are several other negative things to note:
Violence/Gore – Part of me had a false expectation that this show was going to be showing blood every 2 minutes. Although that may not be the case, it is still a pretty violent show. You see at least 6 different throats slit on stage, in which you see blood from the cut on the victim’s throat as well as coming out of their mouth. But much the actual death of these characters is left to the imagination when after their throat is slit, Todd drops their bodies from his barber chair through a trap door that leads to Mrs. Lovett’s basement. You hear the sound effect of a man breaking the neck of a little bird. Another character is shot, but you don’t see any blood. There was at least one scene where you see Mrs. Lovett tossing body parts into her oven. Eventually, you see a whole person thrown into the oven. These reasons alone are enough to keep any child from seeing this play.
Language – There is language sprinkled throughout the play. The moment where it felt the most excessive is when Todd is describing Pirelli’s fake hair elixir as smelling and tasting like urine, calling it p*** several times in a row. Although that was only specific instance of language of which I took note, there were a number of other small instances of language used throughout the play.
Sexual Content – You see a reenactment of Judge Turpin raping Lucy Barker during the fake masquerade ball at his house. There are people dancing around them, but you can see him on top of her. There is a beggar women who appears throughout the show who often hikes her skirt up to get attention. Also, at the end of the song Kiss Me (Part 2), Joanna and Anthony enter her room together in a way that could imply that they were about to sleep together. There also seemed to be a few mild innuendos throughout the dialogue.
Deception – There is a lot of deception going on the part of Todd, but the most deception happening in the show is from Mrs. Lovett. She lies to Todd to hide a major secret from him, mostly because she’s in love with him and it eventually helps boost her business. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen the play, but when her deception is exposed, it has severe consequences.
Obsession And Vengeance Have Serious Consequences
The main thing that I gained from seeing Sweeney Todd was a better understanding of the dangerous consequences of both obsession and revenge. I was given permission to share some of the thoughts from Cody Marcukatis, who played the part of Sweeney Todd, about what he learned about the nature of obsession through this character. This was portion of a much larger Facebook post he wrote about his experience:
“Obsession alters your perception.”
“I wanted everyone to see what could become of you if you let obsession rule you.”
Wow. That’s powerful.
I was totally taken back by Cody’s insight into the consequences of obsession. I think this is a powerful lesson for anyone to learn. Personally, I tend to have a passionate personality than can easily become obsessed if I am not careful. If I am into something, I am all in. But I know as a Christian, if I become too interested in something to the point that it diverts my attention away from loving God or loving others as I should, then I have become obsessed. Now, I’m beginning to realize how true it is that when I became obsessed with anything in my life, my perception was altered, as was my ability to be objective. That is a dangerous place to be. I am grateful to have a reminder what letting obsession rule me can do, thanks to the authenticity of Cody’s performance.
I am also reminded of the consequences of taking revenge against those who have hurt us. As I was looking through the program for Sweeney Todd, I was compelled by the notes of the staging director, Jerry Cohagan. He posed two powerful questions, “Can vengeance ever lead to salvation? Even if the answer is no, then why do we seek it?” As a Christian, I believe the answer is no, vengeance cannot lead to true salvation or liberation. And the reason we seek it out is because it not seeking it out would require letting go of our bitterness and choosing forgiveness. This is much more demanding for those of us that have been wronged. It seems so much easier to take justice into our own hands.
But I serve a God who instructed me not to seek out revenge. He said, “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.” (Deuteronomy 32:35) God will be the one to seek vengeance against those who hurt me or hurt others without repentance. He will carry the burden of our anger, bitterness, and hatred so that we don’t have to, if we choose to forgive. Otherwise, our bitterness will steal our joy, our faith, our loved ones, our ability to reason, and even end our lives if we let it consume us. I want to be sure that never happens to me. I hope the same is true of you.
In conclusion, although I disliked the violence of the play, I am so grateful to have had the experience of seeing Sweeney Todd. It is a thrilling tale full of suspense and violence, but it is a powerful reminder of what happens if you let obsession, vengeance, and selfishness rule your life. Although I probably won’t see the show again, I am glad I had to opportunity to learn these lessons. I hope you have learned something too.