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SWEENEY TODD

Prologue A Tale of Sweeney Todd
"I think the reason ‘Sweeney Todd' has endured for 150 years is that it's a really good story…a very gripping tale. It's a story about revenge and how revenge eats itself up,” says Stephen Sondheim, the creator of the acclaimed stage musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which has been adapted into a film directed by Tim Burton. "In that sense it's a tragedy in the classic tradition about someone who goes out for revenge and ends up destroying himself.”

"Beyond the fact that it has the arguably has the greatest score of any musical in last 50 years, the reason why Sweeny is such a classic is that for all of its murder and mayhem, it is about lost love,” adds Walter Parkes, one of the film's producers. "It combines our most violent impulses with our most tender. It is from the collision of these qualities that it derives its overwhelming power.”

What sets "Sweeney Todd” apart from other stories is the solid emotional core of the story. "The key to ‘Sweeney Todd' is emotion,” says screenwriter John Logan. "It is a very passionate story about a man who is wronged, who seeks revenge. And, in the process of achieving that revenge, goes mad. It's also about a woman who's in love with him, who yearns for him but can't make a connection with him. And it's about a young girl, raised by a brutal stepfather, trying to find love and happiness. All these emotional through-lines collide in ‘Sweeney Todd,' and the fact that it's heightened by music and singing makes it all the more lushly romantic. But at heart it's a very passionate, dark love story.”

Although there are some who claim that Sweeney Todd really existed and was responsible for 160 murders in 18th century London, it's more widely accepted that he's a fictional creation who first came to prominence in a story called "The String Of Pearls: A Romance,” written by Thomas Peckett Prest and published in The People's Periodical in November 1846. According to legend, Todd would cut his customers' throats while they sat in his barber's chair, then send their bloody corpses down a chute into the cellar below, where they were chopped up and used as the filling for meat pies by his accomplice in crime, the widowed baker Mrs. Nellie Lovett — pies that were then sold to an unsuspecting public.

A year later, Prest's story was adapted as a play that bore the subtitle "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Pretty soon, Todd's notoriety was rivalling that of another infamous 19th century London serial killer — Jack the Ripper. While the Todd story has been the inspiration for many theatrical shows, as well as a number of films for both cinema and television, it was British playwright Christopher Bond's 1973 stage play, "Sweeney Todd,” that first introduced the Barker/Turpin revenge plot now considered part and parcel of Sweeney's legend. Then, in 1979, using Bond's play as his template, Stephen Sondheim, the legendary American lyricist and composer — one of a very select group to have won an Academy Award®, a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize — brought the story of Sweeney Todd to a wider audience, with his and Hugh Wheeler's acclaimed stage musical, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Debuting on Broadway on March 1, 1979, and starring Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was quite unlike anything then seen on stage. Bloody and terrifying, with a score inspired by the work of legendary soundtrack composer Bernard Herrmann ("Psycho,” "The Birds”), it initially startled audiences, but quickly became recognized as Sondheim's masterpiece, with the production swiftly transferring to London and later being revived on Broadway in 1989 and 2005.

"It was so original,” observes one of the film's producers, Laurie MacDonal

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