Big River Study Guide



Big River Study Guide
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
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Table of Contents
For Teachers and Students
• For Teachers: Using this Study Guide 4
• For Students: The Role of the Audience 5
Exploring the Play
• Sweeney Todd Plot Summary 6–8
• Plot Summary: Climbing the Plot Mountain 9
Worksheet: Sweeney Todd Plot Diagram 10
• Sweeney Todd’s Creators 11
• The Origins of Sweeney Todd 12
• Characters and What They Say 13
• Point of View 14
• Writing Lyrics for a Musical 15
• Design a Poster 16
• Setting 17–18
• Director’s Notes 19
Glossary 20
Additional Resources, Sources, and Fun Facts 21
STUDENT/Student Matinee Evaluation
TEACHER/Student Matinee Evaluation
For Teachers
Student matinee performances of Sweeney Todd will be held on October 23 & 30, 2014 at 11:00 am, at the Mountain
View Center for Performing Arts. The production is approximately two hours and a half hours, including an intermission.
The performance will be followed by a discussion with actors from the show.
Student audiences are often the most rewarding and demanding audiences that an acting ensemble can face. Since we
hope every show at TheatreWorks will be a positive experience for both audience and cast, we ask you to familiarize
your students with the theatre etiquette described on the following page.
How to use this Study Guide
This guide is arranged in worksheets. Each worksheet or reading may be used independently or in conjunction
with others to serve your educational goals. Together, the worksheets prepare students for the workshops, as
well as seeing the student matinee of Sweeney Todd produced by TheatreWorks, and for discussing the performance
Throughout the guide you will see several symbols:
Means “Photocopy Me!” Pages with this symbol are meant to be photocopied and handed directly
to students.
Means “English Language Arts.” Pages with this symbol feature lessons that are catered to
California State English Language Arts standards.
Means “Theatre Arts.” Pages with this symbol feature lessons that are catered to California State
Theatre Arts standards.
Means “Social Studies.” Pages with this symbol feature lessons that are catered to California State
Social Studies standards.
The Role of the Audience
All the work that goes into a production would mean nothing if there wasn’t an audience for whom to perform. As the
audience, you are also a part of the production, helping the actors onstage tell the story.
When the performance is about to begin, the lights will dim. This is a signal for the actors and the audience to put aside
concerns and conversation and settle into the world of the play.
The performers expect the audience’s full attention and focus. Performance is a time to think inwardly, not a time
to share your thoughts aloud. Talking to neighbors (even in whispers) carries easily to others in the audience and to the
actors on stage. It is disruptive and distracting.
Food is not allowed in the theatre. Soda, candy, and other snacks are noisy and therefore distracting. Please keep
these items on the bus or throw them away before you enter the audience area. Backpacks are also not allowed in the
Walking through the aisles during the performance is extremely disruptive. Actors occasionally use aisles and stairways
as exits and entrances. The actors will notice any movement in the performance space. Please use the restroom and
take care of all other concerns outside before the show.
Cell phones and other electronic devices must be turned off before the performance begins. Do not text during
the performance, as it is distracting to the audience members around you.
What to bring with you:
An open mind
What to leave behind:
Cell phones, etc.
Sweeney Todd Plot Summary
A delicious prologue sets the scene for Sweeney Todd:
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Two men dig a
grave six feet deep on the stage until a factory whistle
blows. The men lower a body haphazardly into the
grave. A woman pours black ashes onto the body from
a tin can labeled “flour.” They sing about Sweeney
Todd, who eventually rises out of the grave introducing
the play:
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
(“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”)
In the first scene of the musical, two men say goodbye
after returning from a long sea voyage. One is Anthony
Hope, a young and optimistic first mate, and the other
is a dour man in his forties named Sweeney Todd. We
learn that Anthony saved Sweeney from drowning on
the high seas, and Sweeney is eternally grateful. As they
say goodbye, Anthony expresses his enthusiasm for
London, and Sweeney warns him that the city is full of
greed and corruption (“No Place Like London”).
Sweeney tells him the tale of a “foolish barber and his
wife,” who were ruined by “a pious vulture of the law”
(“The Barber and His Wife”). Before he can go into
more detail, Sweeney rushes away.
Later on Sweeney walks by a pie shop that sits below an
empty apartment. Mrs. Lovett runs the pie shop, and
proclaims her pies to be the worst pies in London
(“Worst Pies in London”). She begs Sweeney to stay
awhile and try her awful pies, and tells him how slow her
business has been. She tells him about the couple who
used to live in the apartment above, a barber and his
beautiful wife. We learn that a local judge fell in love
with the barber’s wife and falsely convicted the barber
of a crime he did not commit. When the barber was
sent away to Australia to serve a lifetime jail sentence,
the judge lured the desperate wife (and mother to a
young daughter) to his house and raped her. The wife
eventually poisoned herself with arsenic, but her daughter
Johanna was adopted by the judge (“Poor Thing”).
Seeing that Sweeney Todd is deeply affected by the
story, Mrs. Lovett accuses him of being Benjamin
Barker, the very same barber of her story. Sweeney
Todd is indeed Benjamin Barker, and he tells her he has
returned to seek revenge on the judge, Judge Turpin,
and on the Beadle who helped the judge steal his wife,
Lucy. Mrs. Lovett then gives Sweeney his set of barber
knives that she’s been keeping safe all these years (“My
Friends” and “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd Reprise”).
Next we meet the beautiful, yellow-haired Johanna who
leans out of a window at Judge Turpin’s mansion and
watches a bird-seller pedal her wares on the street
Continues on the next page
Plot Summary, continued
below. She sings to his caged birds, asking them why
they sing so sweetly when they cannot fly freely (“Green
Finch and Linnet Bird”). Anthony Hope wanders by and
catches sight of Johanna, falling in love with her instantly
(“Ah, Miss”). He buys her a bird from the bird-seller,
and just as he is about to give it to her, Judge Turpin
and the Beadle discover the two and threaten Anthony
away. The Beadle takes the bird from Anthony and
wrings its small neck, forbidding Anthony from ever
visiting again. Johanna runs away in fear from Judge
Turpin, and Anthony swears to steal her away from the
evil judge (“Johanna”).
In the next scene, Italian pedlar Adolfo Pirelli proclaims
that he has a cure for baldness, and that he gives the
best shave in London (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”). His
assistant is a young, simple-minded boy named Tobias
Ragg who serves Pirelli dutifully. When Sweeney Todd
and Mrs. Lovett arrive, Sweeney challenges Pirelli to a
competition to determine who gives the best shave in
London. Beadle Bamford (Judge Turpin’s right-hand
man) presides over the competition and determines
Sweeney the winner (“The Contest”). Sweeney, knowing
exactly who the Beadle is and how he helped the judge
steal his wife, invites him to his shop for a free shave
anytime that week. The Beadle gladly accepts, and
Sweeney is delighted (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd
Sweeney obsesses over when the Beadle will pay a visit,
hoping to kill him as soon as possible, while Mrs. Lovett
reassures him that all will go as planned (“Wait”). Pirelli
and Tobias pay a visit to the barbershop. As Mrs. Lovett
feeds Tobias pie in the shop below, Pirelli tries to
blackmail Todd, revealing that he knows that Sweeney
Todd is really Benjamin Barker who has escaped from
his life-long prison sentence in Australia. Pirelli is actually
Daniel O’Higgins, an Irishman who used to be Benjamin
Barker’s assistant. Sweeney strangles and slits Pirelli’s
throat, stuffing him in a trunk and telling Tobias that his
master fled the shop in a hurry (“Pirelli’s Death” and
“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd Reprise”).
Elsewhere, the Judge tells Beadle Bamford of his
intentions to marry his ward Johanna the following
Monday. Meanwhile, Johanna and Anthony meet in her
room, and she is a wreck, overwrought with horror at
the thought of marrying her adopted father. They make
a plan to flee together that night (“Kiss Me”). The
Beadle counsels Judge Turpin to get a haircut and a
nice shave from the barber Sweeney Todd. He suggests
that if Judge Turpin put more effort into his appearance,
he might win Johanna’s affections (“Ladies in Their
Sensitivities”). The judge thinks this is a splendid idea.
The Judge immediately visits Sweeney Todd, who has
just that day killed Pirelli. Turpin has no idea that Todd
is really Benjamin Barker, the man who he sent to
Australia for life on trumped-up charges. Todd is
beyond delighted to see his enemy, and they make
conversation about women, in particular the judge’s
intention to marry Johanna (“Pretty Women”). Just as
he readies himself to slit an oblivious Judge Turpin’s
throat, Anthony Hope bursts into the shop telling Todd
that he plans to elope with Johanna that very night. The
judge, recognizing Anthony instantly, leaves in a fury,
scolding Todd for keeping company with such ruffians.
Devastated at having missed his chance to murder
Turpin, Todd proclaims revenge on all of humanity
(“Epiphany”). Mrs. Lovett consoles him, suggesting that
they begin to bake the dead bodies of Sweeney Todd’s
revenge killings into pies. Meat is scarce, and this idea
could benefit both Todd and Lovett alike (“A Little Priest”).
Act II begins with great cheer as we watch customers
swarm Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, where she’s created an
outdoor eating garden. People love the new taste of
her pies (“God, That’s Good!”). Little do they know that
the pies contain the remains of human beings whom
Sweeney Todd has killed. Tobias Ragg now works for
Mrs. Lovett as a server and assistant. Though Mrs.
Lovett is delighted by her success, Sweeney Todd still
obsesses over how to find his daughter and how to kill
Judge Turpin. Meanwhile, Anthony wanders London
searching for Johanna, who no longer lives at Judge
Turpin’s mansion. We learn that she is in Fogg’s Asylum,
a madhouse for lunatics. Judge Turpin has sent her
there in order to imprison her and keep her from
Anthony (“Johanna—Quartet”).
Continues on the next page
Plot Summary, continued
A beggar woman begins to suspect something foul and
immoral is going on at Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. We see
the big ovens, the chute, and the meat grinder in the
basement of the shop, and we see the thick black
smoke that emanates from the chimney. The beggar
woman tries to warn passers-by of the dark things
inside the shop (City on Fire).
Mrs. Lovett hopes to convince Todd that they should
marry and travel to the seaside. Anthony arrives and
tells Todd that Johanna is locked up in Fogg’s Asylum,
and the two devise a plan to have Anthony pose as a
wigmaker and pretend to buy hair from the asylum’s
inmates (“Wigmaker Sequence”). Todd, however,
secretly sends a letter to the Judge informing him of
Anthony’s plot to break Johanna free from the asylum,
hoping to win the judge’s trust and lure him to the
barbershop once more (“The Letter”).
Tobias, simple-minded and young though he is, tells
Mrs. Lovett that he thinks Todd is up to no good. He
offers to protect her from the barber. Mrs. Lovett
soothes and tries to dismiss his worries (“Not While I’m
Around”). When Tobias notices that Mrs. Lovett has
Pirelli’s coin purse, he begins to suspect even more that
something is not right. Mrs. Lovett leads him to the
basement, showing him the ovens and the meat grinder,
and locks him down there. Upstairs, she discovers Beadle
Bamford waiting for her, hoping to investigate the foul
smell from the chimney and the dark dealings that
passers-by suspect. She entertains him as they wait for
Todd, and when Todd arrives, the Beadle is offered a
free shave and his throat is slit. Todd and Mrs. Lovett go
to the basement to kill Tobias.
At the asylum, Mr. Fogg tries to stop Anthony from
taking Johanna. When Anthony cannot shoot Mr. Fogg,
Johanna does. They flee as all of the lunatics flood the
streets. While Todd and Mrs. Lovett search for Tobias in
the bakehouse basement, Anthony arrives with Johanna
(disguised as a sailor). Johanna hides in the trunk to
wait for Anthony to find them a coach, and the beggar
woman bursts into the barbershop, screaming for the
Beadle. Todd returns to find the beggar woman, and,
knowing Judge Turpin is due to arrive, he promptly slits
her throat and sends her down the chute (“Beggar
Woman’s Lullaby”). He then cheerfully ushers Judge
Turpin in, seats him in the barber chair, and reveals his
true identity before slitting his throat and sending him
down the chute (“The Judge’s Return”). As Todd is
about to return to the basement, he sees Johanna climb
out of the trunk, and because she is disguised as a
sailor, he doesn’t recognize her. He nearly slits her
throat, but then hears Mrs. Lovett scream below and
goes to help her. Johanna flees, and Mrs. Lovett struggles
to finish killing the half-dead Judge. After she does, she
pulls the beggar woman’s body toward the oven as
Todd arrives. He suddenly recognizes the beggar
woman to be Lucy, his wife, whom Mrs. Lovett said had
committed suicide many years before. He pretends to
forgive Mrs. Lovett, waltzes with her, and then throws
her into the fiery oven. Tobias, now completely insane,
emerges from the shadows of the basement and slits
Sweeney Todd’s throat as Todd cradles his dead wife.
Johanna, Anthony, and the police arrive to find a
bloody and grim scene.
Plot Summary: Climbing the Plot Mountain
A lot happens in Sweeney Todd. Just when you think Sweeney is about to get his revenge on Judge Turpin in the
barber chair the first time, Anthony arrives and the Judge flees. What follows is a series of unexpected twists and
turns. Read the plot summary and then, using the Plot Mountain Diagram on the next page, identify the events that
correspond with the Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
Three Big Questions
1. Why do you think the creators decided to include a Prologue that tells us the story of the Demon Barber of
Fleet Street before the story begins? What do you think is the purpose of this prologue? What would the
story be like if the prologue were not included?
2. What do you think would have happened if Sweeney Todd had been able to kill Judge Turpin in the barber
chair the first time? Do you think he would have been satisfied with his revenge, or do you think he would
have continued to kill?
3. Is Sweeney Todd a villain or a hero? Are we meant to support him or to disapprove of his actions?
3. ________________________________________________________
4. ____________________________________________________________
5. ________________________________________________________________
6. _____________________________________________________________________
7. _________________________________________________________________________
External Conflict:
Internal Conflict:
1. ________________________________________________
2. ____________________________________________________
13. ____________________________
12. ___________________________________
11. _________________________________________
10. ________________________________________________
Author’s Theme:
8. _____________________________________________________________________________
9. _________________________________________________________________________________
Sweeney Todd
Plot Diagram
Sweeney Todd’s Creators
Composer and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 in
New York City. He is considered to be one of the most
influential voices in modern American musical theater.
Sondheim has won the Tony Award seven times and has
been nominated another six times. At a young age
Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein and
Richard Rogers, two giants of American musical theater
responsible for hits like Oklahoma! and Carousel. After
working as a lyricist on the musicals Gypsy and West
Side Story in the 1950s, Sondheim’s fame grew.
Notably, he had the double talent of being able to
compose music AND write lyrics.
Sondheim’s work was not always as popular as it is
today. In fact critics were quite tough on him, because
his musicals were very different from the more upbeat,
cheerful trends in musical theater. In a 2013 piece about
Sondheim in New York Magazine, Frank Rich wrote,
“Steve’s response to box-office failure was not to pander
to a Broadway audience but to be more adventurous
with each successive work.”
Sondheim chose to compose music and write lyrics that
defied conventional American musical theater. He
helped redefine the possibilities for what musical theater
can be. In a New York Times interview with Frank Rich,
Sondheim said,
The kind of writing that I do in the musical theater, for
which I’m both praised and condemned, has to do with
its individuality, I think. It has to do with the fact that it’s
not like others. I started to become aware of it with
Company, which is where I first got to start my own
voice loud and clear. And the anger and condemnation
and snottiness and sneering that I got with Company
quite startled me. Because I’d been dismissed before,
which is not the same thing […] because it’s so much
better to be disliked than ignored.”
Critics and audiences didn’t always like Sondheim’s
unconventional style, but Sondheim found a way to stay
true to his artistic vision. “I’ve never been popular,” he’s
said, even as his musicals have been produced and continue
to be produced again and again, all over the world.
In a popular interview with The Paris Review, Sondheim
reveals an additional inspiration for creating Sweeney Todd:
When I was fifteen years old I saw a movie called
Hangover Square, another epiphany in my life. It was a
moody, romantic, gothic thriller […] about a composer
in London in 1900 who was ahead of his time. And
whenever he heard a high note he went crazy and ran
around murdering people. It had an absolutely brilliant
score by Bernard Herrmann, centered around a onemovement piano concerto. I wanted to pay homage to
him with this show, because I had realized that in order
to scare people, which is what Sweeney Todd is about,
the only way you can do it, considering that the horrors
out on the street are so much greater than anything
you can do on stage, is to keep music going all the
time. […] So Sweeney Todd not only has a lot of
singing, it has a lot of underscoring. It’s infused with
music to keep the audience in a state of tension, to
make them forget they’re in a theater, and to prevent
them from separating themselves from the action.”
Librettist Hugh Wheeler
The book (or script) of Sweeney Todd: The Demon
Barber of Fleet Street was written by Hugh Wheeler, an
English writer, poet, and librettist who spent most of his
life in America and who became an American citizen in
1942. Born in 1912 in Hampstead, England, Wheeler
wrote many plays, stories, and approximately 30 books
during his life. He won the Tony Award for Best Book of
a Musical three times: in 1973 for A Little Night Music
(music and lyrics by Sondheim), in 1974 for Candide
(lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Sondheim), and in 1979
for Sweeney Todd (music and lyrics by Sondheim).
The Origins of Sweeney Todd
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler based Sweeney Todd on a play by British playwright Christopher Bond, published in
1973. His play premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. Bond updated a very popular urban legend that had
been circulating for over 150 years. The story of Sweeney Todd began as a legend about a barber and a pie shop owner
who robbed the wealthy. Christopher Bond made Todd a more sympathetic character by giving him a motivation to kill—
a judge who had wrongfully accused him of a crime in order to steal his wife. Over the years Sweeney Todd has been the
subject of short stories, books, plays, operas, ballets, silent films, musicals, and films. Early versions of the legend are found
in stories like “Martin Chuzzlewit” by Charles Dickens or “The String of Pearls: A Romance,” a penny dreadful (a serialized
British publication that cost a penny) by Thomas Pecket Prest and James Malcolm Rymer. The motivation for Todd’s immoral
actions have changed from version to version, but the core elements of the story—the corruption of Victorian London and
the division between social classes—remain the same.
Characters and What They Say
Sweeney Todd is full of rich and vivid characters. Below is a list of the major characters in the musical and a few lyrics
that they sing. For each character, write three to five sentences describing him or her as though you were writing to a
friend who has never seen Sweeney Todd, or as though you were pitching the musical to a producer who doesn’t know
the story. How would you describe the words they use when they sing, the images each character conjures up?
Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker
There’s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it
And its morals aren’t worth
What a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London
Mrs. Lovett
These are probably the worst pies in London.
I know why nobody cares to take them—
I should know,
I make them.
But good? No,
The worst pies in London—
Even that’s polite.
Anthony Hope
I feel you,
And one day,
I’ll steal you.
Till I’m with you then,
I’m with you there,
Sweetly buried in your yellow hair…
Johanna Barker
Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate,
Sitting in cages,
Never taking wing?
Judge Turpin
What we do for
pretty women!
Blowing out their candles
Or combing out their hair—
Then they leave—
Even when they leave you
And vanish, they somehow
Can still remain
There with you there…
Tobias Ragg
Demons are prowling
I’ll send ‘em howling.
I don’t care—
I got ways.
No one’s gonna hurt you,
No one’s gonna dare...
Beadle Bamford (The Beadle)
Excuse me, my lord.
May I request, my lord,
Permission, my lord, to speak?
Forgive me if I suggest, my lord,
You’re looking less than your best, my lord,
There’s powder upon your vest, my lord,
And stubble upon your cheek.
And ladies, my lord, are weak.
Beggar Woman
There! There!
Somebody, somebody look up there!
Didn’t I tell you? Smell that air!
City on fire!
Quick, sir! Run and tell!
Warn ‘em all of the witch’s spell!
Point of View
In 3-5 sentences, tell the story of Sweeney Todd from the perspective of the following characters:
Mrs. Lovett:
Anthony Hope: ____________________________________________________________
Judge Turpin:
Writing Lyrics for a Musical
“One of the hardest things about writing lyrics is to make the lyrics sit on the music in such a way that you’re not aware
there was a writer there, and it sounds natural. Well, that means things like inflection, the elongation of syllables. Now
I’m talking about a certain kind of songwriting. You know, opera librettists and opera composers will take a word and do
a whole melisma on it, because it’s not about the language. It’s about the voice and the music. But if you’re dealing with
a musical in which you’re trying to tell a story that is like a play, and particularly if you’re trying to tell a contemporary
one, or something from the last 50 years, it’s got to sound like a speech. And in order not to sound so songlike that you
lose the scene.”
—Stephen Sondheim
The Sondheim Musical Toolkit
Counterpoint: When two or more melodies are sung
or played together at the same time. They weave in
and out of each other, maintaining their individual
structures, but blend into harmonies at key moments.
Harmonies : When notes are blended together in a
pleasing way, often to create a chord
Leitmotif: Merriam Webster defines a “leitmotif”
as “an associated melodic phrase or figure that
accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person,
or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama.”
We hear a leitmotif in “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,”
a song that is reprised again and again throughout the
The Dies Irae: A medieval religious chant originating as
early as the 1200s that spoke of the Day of Judgment.
We hear remnants of this music tradition in “The Ballad
of Sweeney Todd” when the chorus sings, “Swing your
razor wide, Sweeney!/ Hold it to the skies!”
Design a Poster
In the space below, design a poster for the musical Sweeney Todd. What images would you include? Which characters
would you show? What would you want audiences to know about the musical before they saw the show? Would you
include any lyrics or quotes on the poster?
The original production of Sweeney Todd was set in the
mid–1800s, when England was experiencing the Industrial
Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a historical
period starting in the 1700s when inventions like the
steam engine changed the way countries made money
and conducted business. Farming-driven economies
in rural areas were steadily replaced by industry and
technology in cities. Inventions like the steam engine,
light bulbs, the telegraph, and more caused businesses
and factories to boom in cities like London. Goods could
be manufactured and transported at a rate never seen before.
Unforunately, during this time poverty was rampant, and
the strict class system divided England into the wealthy
upper classes, the working classes, and the poor.
However, Director Robert Kelley and TheatreWorks
designers have decided to try something different.
They’ve set this production of Sweeney Todd in 1940s
London, during the Blitz of World War II.
Britain fought in World War II as part of the Allied
Forces from 1939 to 1945. In the summer of 1940, the
Germans invaded France and prepared to subdue
Britain for good by destroying airfields and all aspects
of the Royal Air Force (RAF). By accident, German
bombers intending to bomb Royal Air Force facilities
near London lost track of where they were and dropped
bombs on central London on August 24th. Churchill, the
Prime Minister of England, then ordered an air attack
on Berlin the next day. This took Germany by surprise,
as Berlin had never been bombed before. Hitler delivered
an enraged speech, saying, “...When the British Air
Force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of
bombs, then we will in one night drop 150-, 230-, 300or 400,000 kilograms. When they declare that they will
increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze
their cities to the ground. We will stop the handiwork of
those night air pirates, so help us God!”
On September 7th, Hitler ordered German air strikes all
over London. From 4pm until 4am until the next morning,
German bombers dropped thousands of bombs, destroying
hundreds of buildings and killing approximately 448
Firefighters tackle a blaze after a London air raid.
people died in one night. London was bombed every
day for the next two months, and continued to be
bombed until May of 1941, eight months later. At that
point, Hitler ordered his bomber planes back to Germany
to prepare for the invasion of Russia. This violent and
traumatic period in Britain’s history is known as The
Blitz, short for Blitzkrieg, the German word for “lightning war.” During this time 40,000 British citizens died
and thousands more were injured, and over a million
homes were destroyed.
During the War, Britain imported 60% of its food from
other countries. Germany, in the hopes of demoralizing
Britain, used its U-Boats to attack ships carrying food
products to England. As a result, food supplies were
low, and Britain had to issue food rations to its citizens.
Things like sugar, eggs, meat, and coffee were scarce.
Additionally, during the Blitz, Londoners often took
shelter in Underground Tube stations or below factories
where makeshift beds and toilets were assembled. Life
was really difficult and Londoners lived in constant fear.
Though they are two distinct periods in Britain’s history,
the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and the Blitz of
the 1940s impacted London’s citizens in similar ways.
Poverty, hunger, and a lack of resources shook the city
during both moments of history.
Continues on the next page
Setting, continued
By the Numbers
During the eight-month Blitz of 1940-1941 Britain:
• 18,000 tons of explosives were dropped on
18,629 men, 16,201 women, 5,028 children, and over
600 unknown British people died during these eight
The Blitz left 375,000 Brits homeless.
Approximately one third of London was destroyed.
When Patemoster Row (a center of the British
publishing industry) was destroyed, five million
books were also destroyed.
Despite the damage to homes, Westminster Abbey,
the Tower of London, St. Thomas’s Hospital,
Buckingham Palace, the House of Commons,
Lambeth Palace, churches, schools, museums, and
more, several relics from ancient Roman times were
discovered beneath the rubble. For example, a
Roman wall under Cripplegate was found in the
Fleet Street
Fleet Street is an actual street in the center of London,
right next to the Thames River. It is named after the
Fleet River, one of London’s largest underground rivers
that was once used to transport goods around England.
As a result, Fleet Street served as a port or merchant
harbor for a much of London’s history. We know the
Thames to be the big central river of London, but centuries
ago there were approximately 21 smaller rivers that fed
into the Thames and that shaped the geography of this
major city. These smaller rivers became canals and
sewer systems for London, and were eventually paved
over or turned into storm drains in order to create more
room for London’s booming population. The Fleet River
was one of the smelliest and most disgusting of these
canals. In 1710, the famous writer Jonathan Swift
described the Fleet as being full of “the sweepings
from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood.” In his satirical
poem, “The Dunciad,” famous poet Alexander Pope
wrote about the kingdom of England, “to where Fleet
Ditch, with disemboguing streams,/ Rolls the large tribute
of dead dogs to the Thames.” What a fitting setting for
Sweeney Todd.
In the early days of London (the 1200s, 1300s), Fleet
Street connected the old city of London to Westminster,
its political center. Many famous literary figures like
John Milton and John Dryden either lived on Fleet
Street or spent lots of time in pubs there. Fleet Street
also served as the home to many London newspapers
for centuries until they moved elsewhere in the 1980s.
Director’s Notes by Robert Kelley
Astonishing experiences
bear repeating. As we
celebrate TheatreWorks’ 45th
Anniversary, the astonishing
Sweeney Todd joins a small
list of plays and musicals that
we have found worthy of a
second production. Not
surprising, the list includes
several masterworks by
Shakespeare and a wealth of
Sondheim classics, from
A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures to Into the
Woods. Since we first produced the then-controversial
Sweeney Todd in 1992, it has become an international
phenomenon, a highlight at opera companies around
the world, a recurring Broadway regular, and a
blockbuster film. With all that attention elsewhere,
why Sweeney redux? Why now?
Among its intertwined themes, Sweeney Todd is
about humanity’s fascination with evil and its corollary,
violence. Some part of us thrives on conflict; some
genetic trait encourages us to force our point of view
(or culture, or religion) upon another. When that instinct
leads to violence it becomes the fodder of our nightly
news: a punch in an elevator, a gunshot in the back, a
village destroyed, a country overrun. We are at once
repelled and transfixed. And that’s how I see Sweeney
Todd, played out against a background of violence, a
background of war. Our first production was in 1992,
prompted by the bombings of Baghdad displayed
nightly on national TV. It was set in London, 1916, the
year the first bomb was ever dropped from an airplane
on a city.
That was then. Now, a sea of wars engulfs the world
again. The advent of evil seems ever greater, our
involvement ever deeper, whether our boots are on the
ground or under a desk as we guide drones to distant
human targets. I’ve long wondered how my parents felt
about World War II, about a single culture seeking to
dominate all, about the decision to use the atomic
bomb, about the appalling premise of “ethnic cleansing.”
I wish I’d asked, for what seemed beyond belief then
seems commonplace today, when anyone can download a
beheading on his or her phone, tablet, or even wristwatch. In our inter-connected world of instant communication,
we are inevitably drawn into what once seemed distant
disputes, increasingly threatened by conflicts we can
neither resolve nor escape.
My reaction to such a world is Sweeney Todd. It is a
play about the darkest corners of human existence. It’s
also about our ways of dealing with evil: countering it
with virtue, disarming it with humor, crushing it with
force, or transforming it into art. Picasso’s Guernica,
Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs, Spielberg’s
haunting Schindler’s List—Sweeney Todd belongs
among these unforgettable transmutations of evil. This
time out we’re in 1940 amidst the defining war of our
time, as Londoners “carry on” even when forced
underground by the nightly bombings of The Blitz.
Often that subterranean world included entertainers,
perhaps even entire theatre companies determined to
continue rehearsal for an upcoming production—a
production of Sweeney Todd.
Slashing through the 1848 serial novel A String of
Pearls, the first Sweeney was a maniac on the loose,
and each installment proved more shocking than the
last. By the time Sondheim turned Sweeney into the
greatest villain of the musical theatre, the demon
barber had become a complex everyman driven beyond
reason by the injustices of the British court and class
system. That we understand him, as well as his
entrepreneurial cohort Mrs. Lovett, makes the face
of evil fascinatingly human, even as we condemn it as
thoroughly inhumane. With two such unforgettable,
almost lovable protagonists to engage us, Sondheim
shows evil’s slippery slope, its rationale, even its comic
side marching in tandem with its tragedy. This is humanity,
for better or for worse, its poles of good and evil intertwined
until some resolution is found at last, some victory
declared. Or perhaps it’s just an armistice, temporarily
reached, aware that there’s always more to come.
Beadle: A law enforcement or educational officer
Tonsorial Parlor: A barbershop
Upward mobility: The ability for someone of lower socio-economic means to gain wealth and social status in a
particular society
Transportation: The act of sending a criminal to serve out his sentence in another country or colony; in Sweeney
Todd/Benjamin Barker’s case, Australia
Botany Bay: A bay in modern day Sydney, Australia famous for being home to transported English prisoners in the
19th century
Librettist: The book writer or the person who writes the script for a musical
Asylum/Madhouse: A prison or home for people who were considered to be insane
Slums: Poor, over-crowded apartments in an urban environment
Industrial Revolution: A period of great economic and social change in the 18th and 19th centuries originating in
England that saw inventions like the steam power and that caused economies to shift from agriculture to
Penny Dreadfuls: Short, serialized stories of the Victorian age, filled with gruesome, often fantastical elements;
published in periodicals that cost a penny each
Grand Guignol: A type of French theater popular at the end of the 1800s that featured horror and violence
Esplanade: An open area for walking
Lavabo: A makeshift sink, a bowl with water for washing hands and implements; sometimes attached to a spigot
Muslin: A type of light fabric
Plymouth: A city on the south coast of England, about 190 miles southwest of London
Additional Resources
“The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit” by Charles Dickens
“The String of Pearls” (The original penny dreadful featuring Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a 2007 film directed by Tim Burton, featuring Johnny Depp and
Helena Bonham Carter.
Fun Facts
Stephen Sondheim went to military school when he was ten years old.
Stephen Sondheim loves puzzles and word games. He used to write crossword puzzles for New York Mazine.
Sondheim liked to use yellow-lined paper and Blackwing pencils when he worked. They don’t make these kinds of
pencils anymore.
Student Matinees/STUDENT Feedback
Performance Tasks based CA State theatre arts standards
Select and complete one of the following activities:
Rewrite the ending of the play. How would you like to see it end? Why?
Pick a moment in the play that affected you. Describe the stage elements that created that moment for you
(the script, acting, lighting, music, costumes, set design, sound design and/or direction).
Write a review of the play or an actor.
Describe something you would change in the production. Describe what benefit that change would create in
the production and why.
Identify and describe how this production might affect the values and behavior of the audience members who
have seen it.
Write about any careers you learned about in attending this production (example: stage hands, set designers,
actors, etc.).
Assessment Survey
Really Yes
I learned a lot from this experience
I would like to do this sort of project again
I will remember what I learned
STUDENT evaluation (cont)
Finish the following statements:
The most important thing I learned from this play was:
Besides getting out of school, the best thing about attending this student matinee is:
Learning through the theatre is different from my regular class because:
If I could change something about attending a student matinee, I would:
I'm going to use what I learned, saw, or experienced by:
Student Matinee/TEACHER Evaluation
Please rate your Student Matinee experience below:
Strongly Disagree
Strongly Agree
TheatreWorks maintained communication with
me and/or involved administrators at my school
It was clear to me that the production and study
guide incorporated curriculum standards
I received sufficient and timely information
from TheatreWorks before the matinee
Strongly Disagree
Strongly Agree
Matinee Workshops
Supported other curriculum areas/subjects
Targeted students' educational needs
Provided a grade-appropriate experience
Engaged students' interest and attention
I would like to learn how to lead more of these
kinds of activities on my own in the classroom
Strongly Disagree
Students were engaged in this experience
Strongly Agree
The experience was valuable to my students'
The "Performance Tasks" were useful in helping
my students understand their experience
I would be interested in bringing more drama
related activities into my classroom
TEACHER Evaluation (cont)
For your classrooms please list the strengths of watching a student matinee.
In terms of your teaching, did this particular Student Matinee give you any arts integration ideas for
your curriculum?
We are very interested in your feedback. What worked for you about this experience?
What did not work for you?
Additional Comments:
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please visit for the most up-to-date information. Please keep us updated with your current
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