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“Sweeney Todd” is Trans and I Can Prove It

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is how long it took to become itself. Not only is the story of a man forced to take on a different name, identity, and relationship to society inherently trans to begin with, there’s an interesting meta-textual transness any reader can pick up on who knows something of the long historical journey Sweeney himself took from being a one-dimensional penny horror villain to one of the most iconic—and sympathetic—figures of modern theater. 

Origins

In November of 1846, the first installment of a penny dreadful called “The String of Pearls” was released, part of an 18-part serial written by an unknown hand1. The story revolved around a stolen necklace, an escaped convict running a barber shop under an assumed identity, and the intrepid daughter of a Fleet street “spectacle maker” searching for her fiancee, who is presumed to be lost—probably dead—at sea. Although the story’s famous final twist is revealed in the first installment, by way of a joking aside, the tale kept readers engaged from start to finish. By 1847, the story experienced its first dramatization: the actor and playwright George Dibden Pitt staged a theatrical version of the story, with a completely different ending2. Staging the play in the sensationalist “blood tub” theaters of London, he also gave the play what would become its most distinct piece of set dressing: the barber’s chair that would allow audiences to see Sweeney slit a victim’s throat, pull the lever, and have the body come tumbling down onto Mrs. Lovett’s slab below to become meat for the pies3. Playwright Christopher Bond, in adapting Dibden Pitt’s play, understood he needed to retain “the title, the razors, the pies and the trick chair …”,4 if little else.

It was this version that Stephen Sondheim saw in London’s Stratford East Theater in 1973 and ultimately, along with Hugh Wheeler, decided to adapt as what he termed a “musical thriller.” 

Far from what Sondheim expected to be a play in the Grand Guignol style, he found Bond’s text to be “charming melodrama, and melodrama and farce are my two favorite forms of theatre because … they are obverse sides of the same coin.”5

Here we find our first of many layers of contradiction present in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Melodrama—a dramatic format so overwrought and serious it often slides into camp territory—and farce, a form so silly it nearly succeeds in becoming serious, are joined in Sondheim’s own take on the demon barber of Fleet Street, via Bond’s original script. 

Much of Sondheim’s script is pulled from Bond’s own wording, with phrases twisted around or isolated to become a musical refrain. It also provides the final form of Sweeney as we know him today: a figure of sympathy, camp horror, and identification for audiences, rather than what Rymer described as a kind of monster with no friends or relations to speak of, a “long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity.”6 

Sweeney’s final transformation, at the hands of Bond and Sondheim, was the thing that gave him an enduring life. He is given a backstory, a purpose for revenge, and perhaps most significantly, a pessimistic, hard-earned world view. He comes to us finally as a character we can root for despite his grisly deeds because he has come the thing we, as trans people and queer people, can identify with most: a disenfranchised person kept from the world of respectability and safety by a society that cannot come to terms with who he is, and why he is the way he is.

The Stubborn Author

Though the aesthetic and style of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” has always had something of a queer appeal, the author’s insistence on taking his work at surface level has perhaps discouraged critics and scholars from reading the story of Sweeney as a specifically queer or trans story. In an interview with his biographer Meryle Seacrest, he admitted that he “was never easy with being a homosexual, which complicated things.” One of the more consistent complications was his dissatisfaction with queer readings of “Company,” among other of his works. Of all his productions, 1999’s “Bounce/Road Show” is the only one that dips into explicit queerness. 

But with or without Sondheim’s agreement, there are aspects of “Sweeney Todd” that feel written specifically about the trans experience. There is first the detail of Todd’s new name and created identity. Todd refers to his past self, Benjamin Barker, as “dead” in the text, and in fact banks on the hope that no one in London, including the primary subject of his revenge Judge Turpin, will recognize him. The person who does recognize him first is another trans-coded character, the pie-maker Mrs. Lovett. She sees through his disguise at once, and reveals to him in “Worst Pies in London/The Barber and His Wife” that she know exactly who she is, and that his dead identity is safe as a secret with her. 

It’s also Lovett who has kept Todd’s barber shop unoccupied, and who saved his most precious possession—his straight razors—for him all these years. When Sweeney and Lovett enter the upstairs shop, Sweeney experiences the first true—and most important—reunion since returning to London. In “My Friends,” he speaks of his razors as cherished confidants, companions, and as a piece of his body long missing. The phallic meaning is hardly subtle: without his razor, Sweeney has felt incomplete, truly disenfranchised. The song ends with one of the play’s most iconic gestures, as Sweeney holds his extended razor aloft as he shouts, “at least, my arm is complete again.”

The more interesting aspect of this symbology, for trans viewers, is the implication that Sweeney’s appendage isn’t for fucking, but for fucking over. His razor is the instrument of his revenge (“my friends, you shall drip rubies”) and the tool he must use to make his world view clear and understood (the thing whereby “those above will serve those down below.”) It is not simply a phallus, but a symbol of his specific masculinity, something that could not be less concerned with sex and intimacy, but instead exists to clear a space for him in a world that has tried its best to snuff him out. 

A Specifically Trans Temporality

Unlike most of Sondheim’s leading men, Sweeney Todd is decidedly working-class. He is fuelled by class rage, but in Sondheim and Wheeler’s version (aided by Bond’s rewrite) we’re given to believe that Benjamin Barker would have been content to live out his days as a barber had not Judge Turpin decided to ruin his life for the chance at raping his wife Lucy. This event acted as a catalyst not only for the barber’s transformation from Benjamin Barker to Sweeney Todd, but for the revising of his entire worldview. It’s not simply that Todd is the version of Barker who has seen unspeakable horrors and been ripped from his family and his place in society. Todd is a version of Barker that can see clearly. While Barker ostensibly had no class criticisms, Sweeney serves “a dark and a vengeful God,” and he serves this God to a purpose. 

In “Epiphany,” Sweeney’s new worldview first comes to us in detail, as Sweeney explains that “we all deserve to die” because “the lives of the wicked should be made brief, for the rest of us death will be a relief.” 

Like most trans people, Sweeney was born with the expectation of being cis. He tried–again, like most of us–to meet the world on its own terms, establishing a trade and a family unit. When these things were taken away from him, he became radicalized after seeing just how little his own society cares for him or bothers to protect him. Like many trans folks, he takes a service-oriented job that places him in an ironically powerful, yet patently subservient, position. As he shaves the faces of “gentlemen who never thereafter [are] heard of again,” he keeps in mind his ability to not only kill these gentlemen, but turn them into meat, into something inhuman and unrecognizable. The process whereby so many trans people are turned in the public imagination from humans deserving sympathy to cardboard representations of a presumed progressive political mindset or the death of a certain conservative value system by those who fear and hate us is mirrored in Sweeney’s specific revenge politic. As trans people, we are hated by the people we must serve in the jobs we are allowed to have. In using his position as a means to level the playing field, as he sees it, Sweeney is doing no more than enacting the fantasies that remain, for many of us, on the theoretical level. 

As for trans community, Sweeney has only his fellow disenfranchised worker Mrs. Lovett to confide in. Lovett’s transness, however, is of a much tamer variety. Lovett’s first words to Sweeney are “wait what’s your rush what’s your hurry,” identifying his impatience with the present before letting him even get a word in edgewise. While Sweeney can take no pleasure in life until the moment of transition (killing Judge Turpin and thus being able to feel that his work is finally done), Lovett is of a more “smell the flowers” mindset, reminding Sweeney in “Wait” that:

“Half the fun is to plan the plan” and that:

“Soon will come– soon will last.” 

Lovett’s words act as a promise that Sweeney will have what he wants in the way of self-realization, and that once he gets it, it will “last.” This way of seeing time is specifically trans, anchored as it is to the long-craved moment of realization (whether a long-awaited gender-confirming surgery, starting on HRT, or the “coming out” process in general) and believing that life can be separated into “pre” and “post” eras. Sweeney’s transness is defined by shame and anger—anger at the system that keeps him subservient to a man like Judge Turpin (a trans reading could read Turpin as the legal establishment, which often stands in the way of trans realization in America, or the healthcare system, which requires trans people to adhere to certain transmedicalist standards in order to receive care.) Lovett’s transness, meanwhile, is less specifically dysphoric and more focused on survival. They both, however, share a trans sense of time and a desire to self-actualize. What the world will not give them (success, money, financial stability) they will take for themselves, using the surgeon’s instrument of the knife and the “butcher’s” cleaver– a convenient metaphor and stand-in for off-the-grid clinics such as the Orchi Shed, where trans women would band together to provide each other with the life-saving surgeries they couldn’t access otherwise. Similar to Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” chorus of “Soon/Now/Later,” the dueling ballads of “Wait/Epiphany” show two characters dealing with the maddening reality of having to meet the world where it is, rather than forcing time or society to catch up with them. 

A trans sense of time (and priorities) can also be found on display in “God That’s Good,” in which Lovett shows an enjoyment and appreciation of the present as Sweeney, upstairs, views the same as a tortuous waiting period. Sweeney’s inability to embrace this waiting period can also be seen in “Johanna,” where he admits that he’ll never see her again (possibly due to fearing her horror at his transformation, echoing the fear of trans folks who transitioned during quarantine and must face family members in an unrecognizable body) but that he misses her “less and less” as every day goes by. Rather than show himself to his daughter, he would prefer to stay in the shadows and wait until he has become what he needs to become, again by the self-actualizing instrument of the razor. 

The Johanna Effect

Johanna herself—an often overlooked aspect of the play—brings with her the only canon-trans aspect of the text. More curious still is that fact that Johanna’s male disguise comes from Rymer’s original story. In that version, Johanna disguises herself as a shopkeeper’s assistant in order to be hired by Sweeney so that she can find proof of what she fears is his and Lovett’s cannibalism ring. In the musical, Johanna still must disguise herself as male to get out of Fogg’s asylum with Antony, and this disguise is nearly the thing to end her life, as Sweeney finds her hidden in his office, nearly slashes her throat, but is distracted by Lovett’s cries from below. Johanna’s disguise, however, is far from an afterthought. In “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” she likens herself to an imprisoned bird in a cage, asking those birds to “teach [her] to be more adaptive.” This she becomes, realizing that the only (safe) way toward her freedom, aside from a marriage with Antony, is to pass as male. 

This adaptation echoes Sweeney’s own, and the conscious mirroring moment at the end provides more than a dose of irony: it shows how, as disenfranchised people, it’s easier to remain strangers to ourselves even within the family unit than reveal to each other who we are, or who we wish to be.

Slamming the Door

Sweeney’s purpose, as with many trans folks living for the moment when a truer self can be realized (whether a surgery date, a first HRT dose, or a plan to move to a more permissive environment to start presenting as one’s true gender), is completely single-minded. His dismissal of life, society, and paths to happiness within a period of misery is itself recognizably trans. In the repeated chorus, we’re told things about Sweeney that feel like communal observations about someone who, though present and somewhat famous in society, remain ultimately unknown. Sweeney—like all trans people—is feared, and thus becomes the subject of query, gossip, and assumption. Whether Sweeney is possessed by the devil, hears “voices” that nobody else hears, or is under the spell of an angry God is never decided. It’s even implied, to some extent, that the chorus itself is one of the many “voices” Sweeney hears and is determined to shut out. In closing the door on a reunion with Johanna, on Lucy as the “beggarwoman,” on Lovett’s amorous attentions, on the very assumption that there could be a purpose to his life beyond revenge, Sweeney is engaging in the trans politics of refusal. This is a Bartleby-like need, on the part of a person who is so utterly in disagreement with society at every level, to refuse any participation in that society’s specific opiates. Marriage and sex, as offered by Lovett, hold no appeal, and indeed disgust Sweeney. Society itself is made up not of other people, but of flavors, taxonomies, as evidenced in “A Little Priest.” The idea of having a renewed relationship with his daughter is even less exciting to him. Even building up his trade and finding success with the pie shop offers no reward. His goal is to achieve revenge and die, the final “transition” he will make on earth. 

To that end, Sweeney’s iconic exit from the play—the loud slamming door shut in the audience’s face—is a poignant example of the trans refusal to suffer a monent further for the purpose of cis entertainment. The entire show has been a story of coming back as a sort of ghoul of one’s former self to correct past wrongs, knowing full well that none of those wrongs can fully be corrected. As trans people, we can work our service jobs, use the crappy health insurance they provide, obtain the psychiatrist’s letter that will let us have our surgeries, and live out our lives publicly or in stealth mode. We can also do this and refuse to be palatable. We can reject the narratives we’re given by transmedicalism that would have us believe there is something called a “post-transition” life, in which a trans person can, now presenting as the person they truly are, fit in with society and become a hard-working and celebrated member of that world. But it is a fiction, as Sweeney knows. To become palatable to cis society—to society in general—has never been the aim, just as passing is more of a necessity for protection (for Sweeney and trans people) than a necessary part of trans desire. To slam the door on the audience is an effective statement: this is not for you or about you, and I did not do this for you. Sweeney remains, to his dying moment, as unpalatable as ever, unable to be digested by cis society, unable to tame his appearence, unable to have anything but the grimmest and most cynical outlook on life. 

If romanticism as a worldview can be summarized in the phrase “death before compromise,” Sweeney’s fate is the ultimate fate of the trans romantic: he has changed, but never compromised. He has become fully hismelf, but never fully palatable. His refusal to live in an imperfect world creates his tragedy, and by taking control over life and death (his own and others) he has landed on the ultimate trans rebellion, the ultimate path to refusal. 

By closing the door on the audience, Sweeney closes the door on respectability, good taste, optimism, transmedicalist dictates, and the idea that any “other” can exist in a society without losing something of itself. ♦


Footnotes:

  1. The author is believed to be James Malcolm Rymer, or by some accounts Thomas Peckett Prest, and by further accounts a combination of the two.
  2. Rymer, James Malcolm, and Dick Collins. “Introduction to the Revised Edition.” Sweeney Todd, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, 2010, pp. i-xxvi.
  3.  Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1999.
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6.  Rymer, James Malcolm, Sweeney Todd, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, 2010, pp. i-xxvi. 
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