Sweeney Todd: What You Need to Know about Literary and Theatrical Origins

Though there are some who claim that Sweeney Todd really existed as a person and was responsible for 160 murders in eighteenth 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 the sold to an unsuspecting public.

In 1847, Prest's story was adapted as a play that bore the subtitle, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Pretty soon, Sweeney Todd's notoriety was rivaling that of another infamous nineteenth century London serial killer, Jack the Ripper.

Inspiration for Theatrical Shows

While the Sweeney Todd 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 play, “Sweeney Todd,” that first introduced the Barker/Thurpin revenge plot now considered part and parcel of Sweeney's legend.

March 1, 1979

In 1979, using Bond's play as his template, Stephen Sondheim, the legendary American lyricist and composer, one of the very select group to have won an Oscar, 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 Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann (best known for his scores for Hitchcock's “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “The Birds”), it initially startled audiences, but quickly became recognized as Sondheim's masterpiece.


The Broadway production transferred to London and later was revived on Broadway twice, in 1989 and 2005.