an appetite for horror

Sweeney was smooth / Sweeney was subtle / Sweeney would blink and rats would scuttle / Inconspicuous Sweeney was / Quick and quiet and clean ’e was / Like a perfect machine ’e was

Although Sweeney Todd essentially tells a story of revenge, it also retains elements of humor; perhaps we laugh at the absurdity of the method by which our dangerous protagonist chooses to exact his revenge. But somehow, as witnesses, we find ourselves rooting for this poor, deranged serial killer and indulging in the same satisfactionthat he finds from shedding the blood of unsuspecting Londoners. 

The musical aspect of this dark tale emphasizes the irony of audience enjoyment in response to the horror and prolific gore at the “meat” of the show (pun intended). There is something slightly cruel and disturbing about tapping your foot and singing along to the cries of cannibalism. However, from “penny dreadfuls” to Edgar Allen Poe and modern indulgences, such as Stephen King, human nature has proven to delight from fear and gruesome thrills. 

“Sweeney Todd” is an odd breed of theater, and therefore it becomes difficult to categorize either as simply a “musical” or as a “thriller.” Even so, “Sweeney Todd” is not in a league of its own. A gory genre of performing arts arose from Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a theater in the Pigalle area of Paris. The type of theater that was performed there is often referred to as Grand Guignol; the full translation of the name is “The Theater of the Big Puppet.” This playhouse, which was open from 1897 to 1962, specialized in naturalistic horror shows (probably extreme versions of Sweeney’s stage executions). The original Parisian building was an old church, and with only 293 seats, it was the smallest and most intimate venue in Paris. Eventually, the legacyof Grand Guignol traveled to London, which is also the homeland of our beloved butcher. The exaggerated goriness of “Sweeney Todd” may also be attributed to a more modern genre often referred to as “campy horror.” Though the myth of the demon barber has existed for centuries, Sondheim and Wheeler were the first to set the story to music, for the Broadway musical that premiered in 1979. Shortly thereafter, another iconic horror story was created with a score, when “Little Shop of Horrors” ran Off-Broadway in 1982; this musical was also adapted, but from the 1960 comedic film. “Little Shop of Horrors” may not maintain the intensity of Todd’s revenge plot, but the two do share the irony that results from combining humor, serial murder and Broadway flare

.--From Portland Center Stage’s “A Theatergoer’s Resource”