The main character of the Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a romance genre hero in search of a happily ever after.
In this LitStack Review of Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd, A Blade-Wielding, Singing Romance-Hero Trope
I’ve read enough romance genre stories to have pegged Sweeney as a dark romance hero-type the minute he launches into his first song in the current Broadway production.
Dark romance heroes, especially in historical romance, share a number of specific traits. They have a tragic past, they’re mysterious, they’re consumed by their mistakes or what was done to them, and they have completely given up on love until the heroine enters their life. Jane Eyre’s Edward Rochester set the template for this kind of hero. Rochester is mysterious, and dangerous, he lies about his past, and he’s definitely committed sins, though the story itself seems to view the first Mrs. Rochester less as someone who needs help for mental illness and more as an unhinged woman obsessed with her husband. In the end, Rochester is humbled, he accepts his punishment, is freed of his obsession, and begins a new life with someone who loves him for who he is.
Now, let’s look at Sweeney Todd. Tragic past. Check. Life experiences have made him hard and unfeeling. Check. Has given up on love and only seeks revenge. Check. Attractive? Absolutely check. Josh Groban’s Sweeney is hot. He’s a physical, magnetic presence throughout the current production. (My son the theater nerd tells me Sweeney Todd is usually portrayed as weirder and more off-kilter. But Groban’s hotness in the role cannot be denied, even if he was suffering from the onset of Covid the night we witnessed his performance.)
This is the hero intent on revenge for wrongs done to him. In a romance, he would encounter a heroine dealing with her own issues, be caught up with them, and they’d help each other overcome what’s preventing them from living their best lives. The climactic moment would be when they must choose between past (revenge) or his present (love). (Note: there are some romances where the heroine is the one after revenge. For the best example of that, I recommend The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale.)
These romances are effective because they work through the trauma done to the main characters and conclude that recovery is possible. Seeing people deal with grief and conclude that life is worth living is a powerful story. It’s not that the heroine saves the hero, it’s that by her presence, the hero realizes there’s another type of life that might be possible.
Sweeney Todd deliberately plays on these romance tropes and flips them over.
Sweeney Todd’s Descent
When Sweeney hops off the boat and recites all the “society done me wrong” because of class differences, I thought, aha, I see where you’re going with this and I could write this romance. First, Sweeney refuses to help the poor beggar woman who used to be beautiful, after singing about his wife who was once beautiful. Hello, obvious clue! I immediately spotted Sweeney’s supposedly dead wife. If I were writing this as a romance, then the wife would’ve recognized him but have been crushed by his failure to recognize her. She would have been triggered to recover herself to finally save her daughter, at the same time that Sweeney plots revenge on the man who’s stolen his daughter.
They’d orbit each other until he realized what a fool he’d been to not recognize her. He’d win her trust again, probably by working together to rescue their daughter from the proverbial fate worse than death. (Meanwhile, Anthony and the daughter have the secondary romance, as the play does.)
Or, alternatively, make Mrs. Lovett the heroine. She’s someone who’s always loved Sweeney from afar. She agrees to help him with his revenge to be close to him and also because his business as a barber helps bring in customers for her pies. Whether there would be murder and people baked into pies, who knows, it depends on how dark the romance wants to be. There are plenty of romance heroes/heroines who are murderers. But, in the end, they’d see revenge as a dead end, realize their love for each other, pack up, and sail off into the sunset. (One would have to delete Sweeney unintentionally murdering his wife.)
Sweeney Todd isn’t that story but that it’s on track to be that story. Instead, it veers from romance into horror. It’s the fine line we all walk between choosing love or anger and the past or the future. That’s likely why it’s so effective and remains compelling even now. (Well, that and the music.)
Sweeney Todd’s Tragic Fall
Sweeney Todd is a tragedy, of course, not a romance with a happily ever after. But at each stage of his journey, the romance underpinnings are there. First, the beggar lurking in the background, showing in the beginning that Sweeney has lost his compassion.
That’s strike one for his tragic fate. Second, the choice to focus solely on revenge and choosing to team-up with Mrs. Lovett is strike two. Mrs. Lovett has a clear crush on Sweeney but whether it’s enough to overcome her lust for money and the good life depends on the portrayal. In the current production, it’s definitely the second choice. They’re bonded by obsession, revenge, and rage against the upper classes but not by any positive emotions. This, the end of Act I, “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest.”
However, that relationship of dark kindred souls is the death of them. (And many others.) She becomes fine with murder and cannibalism, so long as she makes money. He becomes fine with her greed, so long as it brings him revenge. In the most poignant song, “By the Sea,” Mrs. Lovett offers Sweeney a chance to retire together. But does she really mean it, or does she see him as a means to an end? He definitely sees her as a way to gain his revenge. And she definitely shows her true colors with the treatment of Toby.
In the end, Sweeney murders that beggar woman who is secretly his lost wife and sees through Mrs. Lovett’s deceptions. No redemption for Sweeney Todd, no retirement for Mrs. Lovett, no happy ending. Only death and madness.
I have one major issue with the story, however. It never tells us of the fate of Anthony and Johanna. If one is inclined to see a happy ending, they get away. If not, it’s likely they’ll be consumed by the same fires as the rest of the cast.
~ Corrina Lawson
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