The start of "Sweeney Todd" as we know him today

In 1846, The People’s Periodical Family Library published a story titled The String of Pearls. It was a weekly "penny dreadful" written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. It told the tale of a murderous barber, his pie maker accomplice, and their victims, turned meat pies. This was the first literary appearance of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

This story features many of the same characters as Sondheim and Lapine’s musical version. "Sweeney" and "Mrs. Lovett" are present and quite similar to the musical telling. "Tobias Ragg" can also be found in this version. Although still an apprentice, he works for Sweeney in this version, an apprentice to learn how to be a barber. "Johanna" is also present, but she is not Todd’s lost daughter. She is the lover of a sailor, ("Mark," not "Anthony") who has disappeared and is thought to be lost at sea. The title of the story comes from a string of pearls that Mark's friend, "Lieutenant Thornhill" is sent to deliver as a gift to Johanna in Mark’s stead.

The Todd in this story doesn’t seem to have his revenge motive, or any for that matter. But the murders and pies are just as vicious. However, Sweeney’s way of “polishing off” his victims is actually reversed. He still has his fancy chair, and that’s how he initially murders his victims. While he shaves them, he pulls the lever and they go down a shoot to their death by broken neck or skull. If the chair doesn’t work, Sweeney comes down with his razor and finishes the job. And his victims still become meat pies.

"Penny dreadfuls" were a type of British fiction in the 19th century. They were stories told in weekly parts in magazines that cost a penny. Sweeney was not alone in his dark tales. The stories told in penny dreadfuls were often just that: dreadful. Tales of serial killers and romance and all kinds of adventure that was targeted to a younger, less sophisticated audience of the time.

The full version of The String Of Pearls can now be found online for free. Much cheaper than a penny. If you love Sweeney and his history as much as we do, it makes for a very interesting read. Here is the link!



A "Sweeney Todd" Interview with PMT Artistic Director Michael Weber


Porchlight's Dramaturgy Department Interviews Artistic Director Michael Weber on PMT's plans for our upcoming Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street 

-What were some of the major reasons you and the creative team at Porchlight chose Sweeney Todd to be in the season?

Sweeney Todd stars David Girolmo and Rebecca FinneganI was introduced to Sondheim and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street  as a young man in my early twenties, which is a great age to discover this musical. Completely absorbed by the humanity in the story, I was a total sucker for the dramaturgical surprises of the melodrama. I think the potential for great acting connected with genuine emotion and expert musicianship is the exact combination that we look for at Porchlight. Plus the opportunity to collaborate with artists of the calibre of David (Girolmo), Rebecca (Finnegan), Doug (Peck) and our entire artistic/production team and cast make Sweeney Todd  a perfect match for the “Chicago-style” musical we produce here at Porchlight.

-Were you aware of all of the different mediums that this story has been adapted to before?  Would you use these for inspiration? Which adaption do you prefer?

I was aware that the story of a murderous barber and his cannibalistic cohort had some fairly sketchy origins before becoming exposed to a wide audience via the “penny dreadful” accounts of George Didbin-Pitt, but I was delighted to discover the numerous theatrical and film interpretations of the legend. Each one enhancing different flavors of the story, from a perspective of genuine Grand Guignol horrors to the audience participation “boos” and “hisses” of the comical music hall melodramas of the early part of the last century, Sweeney Todd was a solid story ripe for many different interpretations. English actor Tod Slaughter made a career out of playing “Sweeney” as well as other blood and thunder characters like “Maria Marten,” “Jack Sheppard” and “The Silver King.” Playwright Christopher BondPlaywright Christopher Bond created a smashing (and very successful) theatrical adaptation of the tale in 1968 that appeared on the London stage in 1973, where it was discovered by Stephen Sondheim. Even though it is this version that most people think of today, other interpretations of the Sweeney Todd story continue to appear including recent film adaptations starring the likes of Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone. There was even a ballet in 1959.

-How long did the casting process take?, What were you looking for?

Casting took place over the course of months starting with open general auditions leading to specific callbacks. Doug (Multi award-winning Music Director and Porchlight Artistic Associate Doug Peck) and I were very interested to meet actors of all diversities to be considered for all the available roles. Of course excellent musicianship was a must for this kind of production, but given that the audience is only a few feet from the players, it is imperative that each and every role is filled by the finest actor we can find. There is no hiding the the chorus of a Porchlight production. The audience can look right into the eyes of the actor since the proximity is so close. At Porchlight you find actors who are not only found in our leading Chicago-area music theatres, but who are also comfortable on the stages at our most noted “store-front” theatres as well as the large stages at Chicago Shakespeare, Steppenwolf and The Goodman.

-What is your favorite song/ scene in the show?

Oh, that’s too hard. I don’t have one. I will say, the show makes me cry at the strangest moments! 

-Have you directed this show before? If so, how will it be different?

Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Hal Prince's original productionI have never had the honor of directing Sweeney Todd. If “different” means from the well-known original Hal Prince concept of the show, that is a great challenge as much of the play was conceived in conjunction with a fascinating and precise original physical production that was the inspiration of Mr. Prince’s interest to explore the ramification of the early industrial revolution on man’s soul and how continuous repression could create a virtual factory that manufactures “Sweeney Todds.” This was somewhat in contrast to the vision Mr. Sondheim had in reaction to Christopher Bond’s play that he attended in 1973. Bond wrote a hair raising and comical melodramatic thriller. Sonheim saw an opportunity to pay musical tribute to a number of unsettling inspirations, namely the music of Mozart’s Requiem, Dies Irae and the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, Composer Bernard Hermann with frequent collaborator, Alfred Hitchcockwho composed the iconic music of the movies Citizen Kane, Psycho, Cape Fear and so many more. Sondheim wanted his Sweeney Todd to play in the smallest theatre on Broadway and to scare the hell out of the audience. Instead, Mr. Prince put their collaboration in the largest theatre on Broadway (1933 seats) and made you “think” (while also scaring the hell out of people!). In the intimate 147 seat confines of Stage 773 we will be able to envelop the audience in all the grizzly doings, but also show you the terrifying humanity behind the cold, dead eyes of these diabolical characters. This will be a Sweeney Todd for actors who can really sing, not singers blasting to the back row of a Broadway barn. Doug has conceived an extraordinary and unique music scape that is proportionally appropriate for a new and up-close approach to the material. This is going to be like walking into a haunted house and having the doors slammed and locked behind you.

-Have you ever directed a show that was this dark before? Do you prefer more upbeat and happy shows or do you like a variety of tones?

The closest musical to something this dark I have directed has probably been Grand Hotel, set on the brink of the fall of Berlin, basically what’s going on at the hotel down the street from the “Kit Kat Klub” of Cabaret. Porchlight's, Assassins (2007)Also Assassins (Also with Doug Peck at Porchlight Music Theatre) was very dark and got into the minds of murderers. I like the balance. I am just as excited to direct A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum later this season.

-What will be the biggest challenges? (Technically, physically/emotionally for actors, etc)

With any production of Sweeney Todd, the 1st technical challenge to confront is how to stage the murders and the vision for “Sweeney’s” engenius “barber chair.” Again, the ghost of the original 1979 production looms over any approach to this musical. Hal Prince and his team created an iconic, hilarious and gruesome theatrical gesture that is the modern standard for Sweeney Todd. Through our research we discovered that, historically, there have been a number of fantastic approaches to the challenge since the story first started being adapted for the stage. A personal favorite is the 1936 film with the great stage “Sweeney,” Tod Slaughter, where the entire floor rotated around sending the victim hurtling to the cellar below leaving the customer at the mercy of “Sweeney,” razor in hand, descending the stairs to “finish ‘im off!” Our outstanding Scenic Designer, Jeff Kmiec and Production Manager, Aaron Shapiro (Both Porchlight Artistic Associates) have offered imaginative guidance in our creating a distinctive, and very brutal, solution to the challenge of “Sweeney” exacting his revenge that will be new to even those very familiar with the play through it’s numerous stage and film interpretations.

As for the actors, this is the “King Lear” of musicals. Not only is the through-sung composition a challenge to accomplish performance after performance, but the emotional circumstances are so extreme and bizarre, it is only the finest singing actor who can truly do justice to the gauntlet of Messrs Sondheim and Wheeler’s vision of the story. At Porchlight, we have been gifted with the phenomenal artistry of Rebecca Finnegan and David Girolmo (Both Porchlight Artistic Associates) in an awesome company of 19 that includes 14 actors making their Porchlight debuts.  

-What is your directing style?  Do you come in with all of the blocking and everything very planned or is it more of a general outline, is it a collaborative process, etc?

Sweeney Todd, scenic design by Jeff KmiecI like to, first, thoroughly understand the physical world of the production, in fact, I feel very unsettled until the Scenic Designer and I have arrived at how a production will “move.” When it comes to blocking, larger cast scenes will be certainly guided by our choreographer (PMT Artistic Associate Dina DiCostanzo) and me. When it comes to smaller scenes, good actors always know more than me where they need to move when it comes to action. In those cases I find it is most organically successful to collaborate with the actors in their needs as they are discovering what to do as they work through what their characters want. I trust my aural senses most of all, probably a result of my great appreciation for classic radio drama, and often I will just shut my eyes. It never fails that when it sounds right, I’ll open my eyes and the actors are naturally standing right where they need to be. It may sound weird, but it’s never failed me.     



Part One: Welcome to the Tale (and Saga) of Sweeney

 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s a title that has become common in today’s household. An award winning musical that made it’s debut in 1979, and traveled to theatres, concert halls and movie screens. The various themes including revenge and selfish capitalism resonate with audiences around the world, who long to watch this thriller unravel before their very eyes.

Tony Award winner, Hugh Wheeler, wrote the book for the beloved musical by collaborating with the composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim to base it off of Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name. But Bond’s work wasn’t the starting point for the tale. It goes back much further...




The earliest version of the story first appeared in an 1824 publication called The Tell Tale,  which reported how a barber and wig-maker of the Rue de la Harpe in Paris cut his customers' throats, relieved them of their valuables, and then had their bodies made into meat pies, utilising the services of a pastry cook whose establishment was on the same street.

This is supposedly based on an account by Joseph Fouché, the Parisian chief of police, but the supposed book by Fouché is impossible to trace.

The earliest version of the story claims, "This case was of so terrific a nature, it was made part of the sentence of the law, that besides the execution of the monsters upon the rack, the houses in which they perpetrated those infernal deeds, should be pulled down, and that the spot on which they stood should be marked out to posterity with horror and execration." About six years before this story appeared, two houses on the street had been torn down to allow access to the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny. It is suspected this may have fed or sparked the rumour.

A somewhat similar story would have taken place in France. In 1387 in Paris in the Ile de la Cité (Island of the city), in the corner of the Marmosets and the Two Hermits.

A barber and his neighbor, a pastry chef, were arrested following an attempted murder of a Touraine noble. Arriving in the early evening in Paris, the young man had wanted to shave before going to his family, and had nearly had his throat cut by the barber. He had allowed the discovery of a terrible traffic: the barber cut the neck to transient guests, and provided his neighbor enough to make pies known in the whole city.

The two criminals were burned alive at the location of their homes. This story is narrated by the writer Jacques Yonnet in his book
Street Hex (Denoël, 1954). Which one do you think is the real story? Is it just an urban myth? What do you beleive? 

Attend the next chapter of the tale soon to learn more about the story behind the legend, proceeding to the stage and interviews with the Porchlight Music Theatre creative team, crew and cast of Sweeney Todd!  



Stage VS Screen and "How to Succeed…"

While both original stars Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee returned to the stage in various incarnations of "How to Succeed..." all the way up to 1976,

it was in the 1967 film adaptation that they, along with original cast members Michele Lee (who replaced Bonnie Scott as Rosemary during the show's Broadway run), Sammy Smith and Ruth Kobart, preserved the interpretations of their roles, again with Bob Fossee choreographing.

As so often happens with stage to screen transfers, bigger film/TV "names" were considered to star as J. Pierrepont Finch including Dick Van Dyke (who dismissed the idea acknowledging he was too old) and Tony Curtis (who while also too old, expressed interest). Fortunately the producers realized that, like Robert Preston, Rex Harrison, Yul Brynner, Ray Bolger, Vivian Blaine, Peter Palmer, Joel Grey, Zero Mostel and others, the original stage stars were the best choice.  

The 1967 film has some significant differences from the 1961 stage show, most obviously in that the production, in some cases, was filmed on the streets of New York City with the scene featuring Robert Morse skipping & dancing down the street on his way to work (immediately after the "Old Ivy" fight song duet with Rudy Vallee) filmed using hidden cameras and a small earpiece to cue Morse on his timing.

The various amused & astonished passersby were not extras, but rather actual New Yorkers reacting genuinely to someone dancing to his own tune. The stage production had a decidely cartoonish post 1950's appearance and mentality while the film was certainly living in the real world of the swinging '60s.

Several songs were omitted from the score, including "Love From a Heart of Gold," "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," "Cinderella Darling," "Paris Original," and "Coffee Break" (which was filmed but later dropped,) although there are musical and verbal references respectively to the last two.  

Rosemary is given a version of "I Believe in You," which she does not sing in the play, making Finch's film version in the washroom now somewhat of a reprise. 

Supplimental music in the film is by Nelson Riddle and, if you listen closely, you'll recognize the music during Miss Jones' first entrance is the same that Riddle used as the "Penguin's Theme" in the TV series "Batman" (1966) for which he also created music. 

Overall, the Broadway version of Finch had a lot more "edge" to him. The movie producers felt they had to make him nicer for the movie in order to be more likeable to the audience. Even Bud Frump got off a bit easier, in the film's finale, Frump was not lowered onto the stage on a window washing platform, nor did he swear revenge against Finch one final time, nor did he fall off the platform, nor was he left hanging upside down by a rope.

Instead, Frump was among the entire company singing a finale version of "The Company Way."

The film offers a great record of the performances of the original actors, but to get the full Pulitzer Prize winning impact of the work of authors Frank Loesser, Abe BurrowsJack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert you need look no futher than Porchlight Music Theatre where our new production of the original "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is packing houses at Stage 773 through June 1! Get your tickets HERE:

Until we see you, enjoy Robert Morse recreating his most famous role on TV in the 1980s, below...


(And don't get us started on the 1975 TV movie version!!!) 


Behind the Scenes at AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'

With Ain’t Misbehavin’ starting previews tonight, it’s worth noting that some of the vision of the show, and elements of the set design, are inspired by the work of artist, AARON DOUGLAS.


Mr. Douglas (1899-1979), a Kansas native considered the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. In paintings, murals, and book illustrations, Douglas produced powerful artistic forms that incorporate music, dance, literature, and politics and had a lasting impact on American art history and the nation’s cultural heritage. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined angular Cubist rhythms and seductive Art Deco dynamism with traditional African and African American imagery to develop a radically new visual vocabulary that evoked both current realities and hopes for a better future.


Douglas’s collaborations with writers such as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, and his skill at combining art and text, created a socially engaged vision of optimism and self-expression that has influenced generations ever since. Douglas’s bold work opened doors for many and invited a dialogue with modernism that put African American life, labor, and freedom, along with African traditions and motifs, at its center.


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