The Story Behind the Photo: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Tania Thompson
 | Mar 19, 2021
Sweeney Todd
Jamey Hood and David St. Louis in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2019). Photo by Jordan Kubat.

About ​​Sweeney Todd

In a barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s struggling pie shop, Sweeney Todd plots revenge on the lecherous judge who wronged him and his family. In the seedy underbelly of 19th-century London, desperate times lead to diabolical schemes—and strange alliances. With razor-sharp wit and extraordinary songs like “Pretty Women” and “Not While I’m Around,” this Tony Award-winning masterpiece was proclaimed, “more fun than a graveyard on the night of the annual skeleton’s ball” by The New York Daily News.

Kent Nicholson has ​directed a handful of productions at South Coast Repertory, mostly musicals—ranging from The Light in the Piazza (2013) to Once (2017). But his hope was to direct Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street—which he did to acclaim at SCR in 2019. “The whole endeavor … was just a dream,” he says. Read on to find out more about what made the production special for him and why he chose the photo above as a key moment from the musical.  

What moment does this depict?

This is from the middle of the song “A Little Priest,” which is the Act 1 closing number. It also happens to be one of Sondheim's lyrical masterpieces. Honestly, one of the cleverest songs in the musical theatre canon. The picture one generally associates with this number is the iconic photo of the original cast members, Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, arms aloft with a rolling pin and razor respectively. It's also the moment when Mrs. Lovett hatches the plan to make meat pies out of Todd's victims. It's funny, grotesque, vengeful and full of joy. All the things the musical is, in one number.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

I chose this particular moment because it reflects our approach to the show. The trend in productions of Sweeney Todd of late has been to really lean into the darkness of the tale. The macabre and grotesque of it all. And the tragic irony of the ending. And certainly, that is a really valid way to view the musical! But, what I love about the piece is that it is flexible enough to be side-splittingly funny as well as horrifying. It's a dark humor, to be sure, but, if one gets the tone right, it is ever so funny. 

The musical was derived originally from a 19th-century folk legend, popularized in the relatively new printed form of mass entertainment called the penny dreadful—cousin to the melodrama, which was a popular form of stage play at the time. So, we approached this production as a 19th-century melodrama, which was being performed by a troupe of down-and-out actors, all of whom had their specialties. I imagined the actor playing Sweeney as an actor who would make a marvelous Hamlet and the actress playing Mrs. Lovett as the ultimate music hall performer. 

Jamey Hood, who played Mrs. Lovett, is one of the most inventively funny comic actors I know. And David St. Louis, our Sweeney, has an immense power and range. The difficulty in staging this number was that Jamey kept cracking us all up. She would constantly keep David on his toes and the number became a sheer joy to watch. More than any other picture from this show, I think the joy of making this piece and the joy of these two extraordinary performers shines through. I can't help but smile every time I see it. Which is always how I feel when I think back on the production itself.

What’s the power about this moment?

It's a pivotal moment in the play and a classic of Act 1 closing numbers. The song itself is a microcosm of the show, cycling through much of the tone of the show and ending on a real note of danger. But, this is the moment when the characters realize their potential and purpose. Lovett has a “genius” idea and it takes a while for Todd to get it; but, once ​he does, it's the first time you see him have any semblance of happiness or joy. It serves as a release for the audience as well: they really get to let loose and laugh. And it sends them to intermission on a giddy high, ready to come see how the whole endeavor will fall apart.

Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

I've had a lot of professional highlights at SCR in my time there. And I have loved each production I have directed in its own ways. But Sweeney Todd was a show that I had always hoped to one day direct. The whole team made it a dream—from John Iacovelli's 19th century inspired set, Melanie Watnick's grotesquely humorous costumes, Lap Chi Chu's wonderful ​lighting, and Cricket Myers sound design—the whole endeavor ended better than I could have imagined. David O, our stupendous music director, made the show sound and feel like a dream. And the cast was first rate. Just a dream from top to bottom.