Hollywood Gothique
LA Theatre GothiqueMusicals

Stage Review: Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd at A Noise Within

A Noise Within serves up Stephen Sondheim’s comedy-horror musical with a vengeance as delectable as Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
Sweeney Todd Stage Review
Cassandra Marie Murphy as Mrs. Lovett and Geoff Elliott as Sweeney Todd

It turns out that revenge is not a dish best served cold. It should be piping hot, like a pie fresh out of the oven, and spiced with fiery passion that warms the gut, irresistibly inviting the audience to devour the unhealthful repast, consequences be damned.

This is the recipe that director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott uses to tell the tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The relatively small-scale production at A Noise Within lacks the lavish presentation of the Broadway productions, but that is in keeping with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s original vision for his Tony-winning musical-horror-comedy, which was always intended to go for the jugular with Grand Guignol enthusiasm. Though visceral horror is not on the menu, the show serves a sizzling meal of madness, lust, and vengeance, in which the essential ingredients are undiluted by unnecessary additives. There is no need for a fancy crust atop a meat pie this delicious.

Below, we dig into the details of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – providing historical context that shaped our perception of the production on stage at A Noise Within.

Sweeney Todd Stage Review: History of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A String of Pearls
Sweeney Todd first appeared in the penny dreadful story “A String of Pearls.”

The character of Sweeney Todd began his bloody career in the pages of Victorian penny dreadfuls (cheap periodicals so-called because the authors, paid a penny a word, dragged their stories out as badly as a modern steaming mini-series). Though attempts have been made to authenticate the story as based on reality, most authorities agree that he is entirely fictional.

In his original form, Todd was the archetypal Victoria villain, murderous and evil with nothing to redeem him. Basically, he was a depiction of lower-class evil, a ruthless cutthroat (literally), preying on innocent victims for financial gain and maybe just because he enjoyed killing (“How I should love to polish you off” was his signature catchphrase while prepping the latest victim in his barber’s chair).

Something about the gruesome story’s combination of murder, robbery, and cannibalism caught the public attention, and the character quickly made the jump to the stage and eventually to the screen. For a glimpse of what Todd used to look like, check out the 1936 film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring the aptly named Tod Slaughter, who specialized in this sort of scheming villainy. The film is creaky and old-fashioned, but Slaughter makes a compelling monster, employing the sort of over-the-top enthusiasm (bordering on camp by today’s standards) that Vincent Price would later make his own.

Christopher Bond’s rewrite of the Sweeney Todd story led to Sondheim’s musical.

Sweeney got a complete makeover in Christopher Bond’s 1970 play, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which incorporated elements of the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo and the Jacobean play The Revenger’s Tragedy. The lustful side of Todd’s nature was split off into the character of the corrupt Judge Turpin, and Todd was transformed into an anti-hero with whom the audience could identify. Wrongly convicted by Turpin, who had designs on his wife, barber Benjamin Barker renames himself Sweeney Todd and returns fifteen years later after escaping from an Australian penal colony, seeking revenge.

Watching Bond’s play, which he found “really creepy,” Stephen Sondheim saw the potential for a musical, combining melodrama, farce, and horror. The exact emphasis would become a bone of contention. Sondheim developed his vision for a musical adaptation in collaboration with director Harold Prince, who initially dismissed the genre elements as “English stuff,” “fog,” and “Sherlock Holmes.” Prince eventually got on board when he decided there was a larger theme at play, about sweatshop slavery, assembly lines, and Victorian class struggle, which he depicted by setting the show inside a foundry (an odd choice for a story taking place mostly inside a pie shop).

Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim
Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd made its Broadway debut in 1979.

“Hal always thought it was about the Industrial Age,” Sondheim noted dryly. “I thought it was about scaring people.”

Class conflict is certainly built into the story since Bond’s play transformed Sweeney into a working-class anti-hero seeing to revenge an injustice at the hands of an upper-class scoundrel hiding behind a veneer of respectability. However, that quest takes place within a Victorian setting perfectly suited to old-fashioned Gothic horror, and in the process, Sweeney slices more throats than you can count, and Mrs. Lovett feeds the victims to her customers. Horror – of a black comedy variety – is at the heart of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and that is where it should remain (as it did in Tim Burton’s blood-stained film version). Anything else should be a spicy crust atop the meaty pie.

Sweeney Todd Review: Staging the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd Theatre Review
The Ensemble fills the stage at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz

The search for deeper social relevance is evident in the production at A Noise Within. The production notes indicate that director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott was focusing on the trauma afflicting the characters. This is an interesting lens through which to view the story, but it is not always apparent while watching the play. Most of the characters suffer in various ways, but it is not clear that they are psychologically traumatized, and Mrs. Lovett glides through the proceedings with no concern at all.

Sweeney Todd at A Noise Within
Sweeney’s wife is lured to Judge Trupin’s house under false pretenses – an example of trauma that the Noise Within production explores.

The most obvious victim of trauma is Sweeney’s wife, who is seldom on stage. Sweeney himself is more a victim of injustice than of trauma; however, discovering his wife’s fate is certainly traumatic and no doubt feeds into the mental breakdown that leads him to switch from focusing his vengeance on Judge Turpin to killing random customers unfortunate enough to sit in his barber’s chair.

The benefit of Rodriguez-Elliott’s approach is that it grounds the events in the characters’ emotional lives: Sweeney’s torment over his wife’s fate, Mrs. Lovett’s unrequited love for Sweeney, Toby’s suspicion about Sweeny, and the romance between Johanna and Anthony. By its very nature, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street requires a certain distance between the audience and the unpleasant actions of its anti-hero and his accomplice, so that we can laugh along with their cannibalistic predations. The risk is that the laughs might drown out the tragedy at the story’s core. Director Rodriguez-Elliott avoids this pitfall giving us a dramatically powerful rendition of Sondheim’s musical, even if it lacks some of the Gothic trappings that would have been more to our taste.

Sweeney Todd Musical Review
A few chairs, a ladder, and a gloomy backdrop portray Johanna (Joanna J. Jones) locked in her room while Anthony (James Everts) and Beadle Bamford (Harrison White) meet on the street. Cellist Karen Hall in b.g. Photo by Craig Schwartz

On a practical level, the production is small-scale with minimal sets and props that manage to convey settings with effective simplicity, such as a ladder to suggest Johanna perched high in her room where Turpin keeps her locked away, supposedly to protect her from the ravages of the world. The fairly intimate size of the venue keeps the audience engaged with the action, especially when it spills off the stage and into the aisles. There is of course the famous moment during the song “Epiphany” when Sweeney Todd (Geoff Elliott) breaks the fourth wall to threaten members of the audience: ” You sir, how about a shave?…You sir, too sir? Welcome to the grave.”

Going a step further, Rodriguez-Elliott has members of the ensemble appearing from behind the audience and speeding toward the stage, trailing long gossamer fabrics with head-sized holes that they place over Sweeney’s customers like oversized towels as they sit in his barber chair. Their deaths are conveyed bloodlessly but eerily with flashes of red light glimmering off the white surface of the fabric, punctuated of course by the music. It’s a great example of how the artificiality of live theatre can achieve effects with as much impact as so-called realism.

The only minor disappointment appears near the end, which does not hit the emotional beats quite as well as the 2007 film. Young Tobias (Josey Montana McCoy) seems to wander in almost incidentally instead of showing up to settle a score, and Sweeney’s fate lacks the the sense of deliberate surrender that added a heartbreaking poignancy to a very grim finale.

Sweeney Todd Stage Review: Orchestrating the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Cassandra Marie Murphy and Harrison White sing while the show’s small ensemble, including cellist Karen Hall, plays behind them. Photo by Craig Schwartz

In keeping with the subject matter, Stephan Sondheim felt that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was an opportunity to create “creepy” music. A fan of film scores, Sondheim was particularly inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s work in thrillers and psychological horror, such as the mad piano concerto from Hangover Square (1945) and the shrill strings of Psycho (1960). This is particularly evident in the ominous underscoring that accompanies the action when characters are speaking or silent instead of singing, adding an extra layer of tension to the melodrama.

Famously, Sondheim also recycled the “Dies Irae” as a recurring motif throughout his score for both instruments and voices. The eerie Gregorian chant (whose title means “Day of Judgement”) had previously been incorporated into numerous classical compositions (e.g., Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz), and a year later its iconic status as “horror music” would be solidified when a synthesizer version by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind was used as the opening theme for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

Sondheim threaded the chant’s famous opening throughout his score but not always in its instantly recognizable original form. Particularly when crafting melodies for his songs, he often broke the eight-note phrase into building blocks and forged them into variations through such techniques as inverting the notes (e.g., F – E – F becomes E – F – E). In other instances, the ominous theme blasts forth in all its grand orchestral glory. These variations provide variety while also maintaining consistency; even if not readily identifiable by the average listener, the theme’s aura of gloom and doom is felt throughout.

Somewhat amazingly, Music Director Rod Bagheri manages to convey the immensity of Sondheim’s score with a very small ensemble: two pianos and a cello. Enhanced by amplification, the trio of performers fills the theatre with music that sounds full and strong and confident throughout. Obviously, the full variety of orchestral timbres are not available, but even so the performance captures both the delicate beauty of songs such as “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and the dark majesty of the “Dies Irae”-infused instrumental passages.

Sweeney Todd Stage Review: Murderous Melodies for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

“Sondheim’s songs are like one-act plays forged into large-scale musical frames of operatic complexity. His lyrics display an unmatched verbal felicity and wit and evolve from character, situation or mood.” – Mark Stryker (Detroit Free Press)

Another interesting aspect of Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is its somewhat operatic quality – ironic in that Sondheim, in spite of his classical training, was not a fan of the form. (He found opera too slow, stopping to showcase the singer instead of letting a song make its point and move on.) In spite of this, Sondheim called Sweeney a “black operetta,” saying it was close as he got to a full-blown opera.

Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott
Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy) sings to Sweeney (Geoff Elliott) about the worst pies in London. Photo by Craig Schwartz

In an interview with Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker, Sondheim acknowledged that the “operetta style” of Sweeney Todd‘s ensemble pieces, duets, trios, and quartets was “different in flavor and style than most Broadway shows” and added that only 20% of the story was told through dialogue – very low by the standards of a musical theatre, which tends to intersperse songs throughout a largely dialogue-driven story. However, Sondheim also noted that he did not employ recitative – i.e., the operatic technique of singing expositional dialogue (which is distinguished from an operatic aria, which serves a function closer to an emotional song in a Broadway musical).

The melodic and harmonic complexities of the score for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street are evident even to the untrained ear. Sondheim took his music to operatic heights that Andrew Lloyd Weber never achieved (even in The Phantom of the Opera). Always advancing the story or revealing the characterizations, the songs are melodically engaging without sounding like popular hit tunes (with the possible exception of “Johanna,” but even that soaring love song strikes a note or two of unease). The duets and quartets offer complex harmonies and counterpoint to great dramatic effect. And the ensemble choral pieces include dense chords topped by notes whose shrill, high-pitched quality cuts through the dense audio texture with a deliberately dissonant, unnerving quality. (For a closer look at the operatic moments in Sweeney Todd, check out this analysis at The Listener’s Club.)

Cassandra Marie Murphy as Mrs. Loveet and Geoff Elliott as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott sing “A Little Priest.” Photo by Craig Schwartz

In addition to melodic complexity, Sondheim was famous for his intricate rhyme schemes (after his death in 2021, one obituary called him a “rhyming machine”). He had a gift for pulling unexpected words seemingly out of the air to create surprising rhymes that somehow never sounded contrived.

Also, Sondheim often managed to squeeze interior rhymes into his lyrics, as exemplified in “A Little Priest.” In the excerpt below, both stanzas have a main rhyme (in boldface) which shows up at the end of three lines, while a second rhyme (in italics) sneaks into the middle of a line:

Lawyer’s rather nice,
If it’s for a price.
Order something else, though to follow
Since no one should swallow it twice.

Anything that’s lean.
Well then, if you’re British and loyal
You might enjoy Royal Marine.
Anyway, it’s clean.

Stephen Sondheim's musical at A Noise Within
Josey Montana McCoy, Cassandra Marie Murphy and The Ensemble perform “God, That’s Good” at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz

The upshot of all this is that Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street presents a number of challenges to the singers, and the cast at A Noise Within prove themselves capable of performing the required vocal acrobatics, reminding us once again of the phenomenal talent available in Los Angeles. This relatively modest production, without any stars imported from Broadway, hits all the right notes, literally and figuratively; beyond technically getting the tunes right, everyone captures the drama inherent in the music.

Cassandra Marie Murphy (as Mrs. Lovett) and Geoff Elliott perform the bulk of the songs and really carry the show on their shoulders, but there is not a weak voice to be heard. Most of the cast serves double or triple duty, singing in the ensemble and playing one or two supporting characters. Together, they manage to maintain what feels like peak enthusiasm for the entire two-hour-forty-five-minute runtime (with fifteen-minute intermission). That is a lot of singing, which might lead you to think that actors’ voices and audience’s eardrums might grow weary. That is not the case here. One of the joys of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is that it is relatively hard to pick out highlights, because almost every song is a highlight: “No Place Like London,” “The Worst Pies in London,” “My Friends,” “Johanna,” “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixer,” “The Contest,” “Pretty Women,” “Epiphany,” “A Little Priest,” “By the Sea,” “Not While I’m Around,” and the recurring “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

This means there is little room to coast through weaker numbers while saving up energy for the big moments. Not every song is a virtuoso showcase, but they do require full-throated commitment, which the performers deliver with an enthusiasm that holds the audience in rapt attention from beginning to end.

One minor glitch is a slight sense of dislocation that arises once or twice due to the cast being amplified through throat microphones. On occasion when a character wanders off stage, the amplified voice remains dead center emanating from the speakers overhead instead of following the actor’s movements.

Sweeney Todd Stage Review: Conclusion

Johanna (Joanna J. Jones) and Anthony (James Everts)
Johanna (Joanna J. Jones) and Anthony (James Everts). Photo by Craig Schwartz

We have attended more elaborate musical productions at the Ahmanson and the Pantages, but A Noise Within matches them in terms of quality. Even without orchestral accompaniment, the musical performances resonate with exceptional power, and the cast sounds so good that if you close your eyes, you will easily imagine you’re listening to a Broadway show. Not to take anything away from the supporting players, but Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott shine like stars.

In the end, the alleged focus on emotional trauma does not shine through with great clarity; that particular aspect might have been better enhanced by emphasizing the horrific side of the story in a way that made the trauma viscerally palpable to the audience. Also, the potential for stylish Victorian-era horror goes largely untapped in favor of a gloom based on lower-class poverty rather than fog-bound atmospherics.

Fortunately, the tragic melodrama of Sweeney’s quest for vengeance burns with a bright, blazing heat that eclipses any shortcomings. With smooth scene transitions quickly switching to different locations, director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott keeps the action flowing at such a pace that the lengthy runtime breezes by, and when the lengthy story finally comes crashing to its conclusion, you’ll be glad it’s over – not because it took too long but rather because, like a good meat pie, the delicious repast has completely satisfied your hunger.

Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

The production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet at A Noise Within is a triumph of talent utilizing modest resources to great effect, yielding an end result as satisfying as many a more elaborate show. The musical’s melodrama and black comedy are fully articulated. Our only reason for rewarding a four-star rating rather than a full five stars is our desire for an overtly Victorian-Gothic take on the material.

Cast: Geoff Elliott, James Everts, Amber Liekhus, Joanna A. Jones, Jeremy Rabb, Cassandra Marie Murphy, Kasey Mahaffy, Josey Montana McCoy, Harrison White.

Credits: Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, From an adaptation by Christopher Bond.  Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Music Director: Rod Bagheri. Presented by A Noise Within. Geoff Elliot and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, producing artistic directors.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues at A Noise Within through March 17, with performances on Thursdays at 7:30pm (dark February 9), Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $29. Student tickets start at $18. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. Recommended for ages 14 and up. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (626) 356–3100 or go to anoisewithin.org.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at A Noise Within – Photo Gallery

All photos by Craig Schwartz

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.