Sweeney Todd is one of musical theater’s darker works, and one of its most popular. And why not? Who doesn’t love a good ghost story / urban legend?
Ghost stories serve several very important purposes. They provide an enjoyable adrenaline rush that helps us learn to manage stressful moments IRL. They teach us what not to do (“don’t open that door!”), and they remind us of the darker side of life and human nature.
One of the darkest facts of life is mental illness. Whether through delusion, dementia or other mental disorder, I can think of few fates scarier than losing one’s grip on reality and becoming lost between fantasy and reality. In dreams we generally learn to trust our subconscious because we know that morning is coming. But what if morning never comes? What if we know that what we see and experience is not, could not be real, but it is so pervasive and compelling that it supplants our judgement and our reality.
And what if in seeking help, the cure is worse than the disease? The treatment of mental illness in the early 20th century was a well intentioned catalog of horrors. Extended isolation, medieval restraints, toxic medications, and early attempts at psychosurgery which eventually lead to “miracle" treatments like lobotomy and electroshock therapy. Many casualties paved the way to success; failures that left patients dead, or even worse - locked in their psychosis for the rest of their lives.
Patients battling heroically with and against their demons, desperate to return to reality, unable to tell friend from foe. Striking out blindly, inadvertently hurting the ones they love. This is the tragedy of this Sweeney Todd.