On Theatre Noir: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Isn’t Horror.
It’s long believed that Sweeney Todd’s slasher-styled musical set in 1846 is a horror story. Sure, there is blood and blades involved. On the surface, it seems to fill the horror bill nicely. I beg to disagree. I think it’s a perfect musical example of theatre noir instead. Horror is a category reserved for another type of show altogether and I’ll explain why.
Unaware of the Sweeney story? A naive barber, Benjamin Barker, is charged with a crime so a Judge can pursue his gorgeous wife Lucy. This judge sends him offshore where Ben develops an ocean-driven hatred that goes deep than any ocean.
Ben Barker leaves London but it’s a much darker Sweeney Todd who returns some fifteen years later. As fortune would have it, his famed razors have been lovingly stored in a safe place by an old acquaintance of his, a lady pie-mistress who re-introduces him to them. He rents a room from her and she informs him that the Judge raped Lucy at a party. She bore a child, Johanna, and then the wife committed suicide. The orphaned child became a ward of the Judge. This meant that Todd’s entire former life was in the hands of his nemesis.
At first, Sweeney’s plan was simple: Get the judge into his barber’s chair, expose his neck to the blade and right the past’s wrongs… but the meeting doesn’t go well. The Judge is spooked during his shave and vows never to return. Anger and frustration almost turns Todd inside out. The chance for retribution had gone and wasn’t coming back, ever.
Todd broods over it by turning his attention to innocent men. Those without family but in need of a good shave go into his shop and never return.
Mrs Lovatt has a fortuitous idea: Why not turn Todd’s victims into meat filling for her pies? Real meat is expensive! Sure, waste not what not, I say!
Her pie business thrives. People sing and dance about it but profit and cheer isn’t enough for gloomy old Todd. His nemesis is alive and well. Todd’s daughter still calls the Judge father.
Let’s skip ahead to the ending.
It all hits the fan at the pie shop. We’re in the kitchen, the pie ovens are nearby and so are all of our main players, including an old beggar woman who Sweeney had slashed moments earlier. It turns out she was Lucy, the wife of Ben Barker. Oops! Can it get any worse? The Judge finally has his neck slit by an enraged Sweeney – yippee, but Sweeney turns on Mrs Lovett for not telling her the truth about Lucy. This causes her young assistant boy, Toby, to fire up and take out Todd. We’ve got blood and bodies everywhere when the curtain closes.
There are no happy endings, no righteous comeuppance to resolve or balance out the darkness. It is dark throughout the show. It’s darkest at its end.
Why Theatre Noir?
To me, horror is a far more bloodier genre. It spends more time on bleeding. Blood almost adopts a character of it’s own to wear. Also, horror tends to ride on the back of bucket loads of fear, charging at it nice and hard. There’s often a lot of wailing and screaming involved too. It’s audience holds onto that fear tightly as they too clench hands at the chair they sit in while the victims they watch are being chased.
Sweeney Todd isn’t all that chair or pillow-clenching. The musical doesn’t do chase-and-scream scenes. It hardly nuzzles at fear at all. Victims never really get to know fear, it never has time to develop. Anger drives the protagonist and that’s what we’re watching and listening to most. The narrative follows him and his anger all the way to the tip of his blade (Script: ‘…an extension of my arm’). Its script pursues the bleakness of the demon-barber’s state of mind rather than what fear it may generate. Sure, there’s blood, but as far as I’m concerned this is far closer to theatre noir than any form horror.
And remember, noir stories are about the victim/s or perpetrator/s of crime, not the subsequent investigation/s to them. That’s Sweeney Todd through and through.
Sweeney Todd should be listed under these three genres and no more:
- Theatre Noir.
I’ve also seen it listed under True Crime and Historical Crime but there’s little evidence to support any idea that the story is/was based on any real event. It’s simply a nice piece of Theatre Noir set to appropriately composed music!
-Michael Forman. Neo-Noir Author.