Audio clip: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. Requires RealAudio
The barber himself was a long, low-jointed, ill put-together sort of a fellow, with an immense mouth and such huge hands and feet that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity; and what was more wonderful considering his trade, there was never such a head of hair as Sweeney Todd's. We know not what to compare it to; probably it came close to what one may suppose to be the appearance of a thick-set hedge in which a quantity of small wire had got entangled.
- The String of Pearls by George Dibdin-Pitt
Up until Christopher Bond's 1973 retelling of the story, Sweeney Todd was a cartoonish, outrageous monster, slashing his way through customers with the exclamation "I'll Polish Him Off!" In early versions of the story, many characters are morally bankrupt, but Sweeney is downright wicked. He kills his first victim for a necklace brought from an exotic land by a sailor. This is the String of Pearls of the original penny dreadful title.
Following standard melodramatic conventions, George Dibdin-Pitt's play of the Sweeney tale contains shocks, thrills and several false endings. Constantly lurking about and cackling, the demon barber eludes capture and escapes at the brink of doom on nine different occasions. At one point, driven mad by what he thinks are the ghosts of his victims, Sweeney breaks down on the witness stand and confesses his wicked deeds to the judge. Sentenced to prison, he leaps at the last minute from the clutches of justice, returning to his shop in search of his treasures. While rooting around in the cellars, he is confronted and overtaken by the surprisingly still-alive romantic sailor-hero of the play's opening, but Sweeney outsmarts him and escapes - again - this time through a secret trap door.
It was Christopher Bond who added another dimension to the Sweeney character and gave him a dose of humanity. The barber's evil plot made more sense when seen as a twisted revenge fantasy being perpetrated against the corrupt society that destroyed his family and deprived him of his freedom. The cruel irony he faces as he holds the beggar woman at the end of the play causes Sweeney to tearfully repent and offers the character some redemption. Bond shows us that he is a madman, but he is human after all.
George Hearn won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of the title wrole in Sweeney Todd after having played the role on Broadway and in the national tour with Angela Lansbury. He returned to the role in 2000 with the New York Philharmonic. Mr. Hearn created the role of Max von Mayerling in the Los Angeles premiere and Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard, for which he received his second Tony Award. He won his first Tony as Albin in La Cage aux Folles - a role he reprised in London and that won him an Olivier Award nomination. He received Tony nominations for Putting It Together, A Doll's Life and Watch on the Rhine. Hearn's many television credits include Law and Order, Murder, She Wrote, L.A. Law, The Golden Girls, Dear John, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the TV films A Fire in the Dark, False Arrest, Annie: A Royal Adventure, Durango and Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter's End. His motion pictures include Barney's Great Adventure, See You in the Morning, The Vanishing, Sneakers and The Devil's Own.
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