Metro Weekly

‘Sweeney Todd’ Broadway Review: Pop Goes the Bloodshed

Recording artist Josh Groban leads a solid cast in Broadway's riveting new revival of a classic American musical.

Sweeney Todd: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford and the company -- Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Sweeney Todd: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford and the company — Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The last time the homicidal barber Sweeney Todd raised his razor to the sky on Broadway was 2005. Two-time Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris assumed the title role, playing opposite three-time Tony winner Patti Lupone. Talented though he is, Cerveris lacked the brooding, hulking, diabolical mien required for the part.

Now, a Grammy-nominated singer has assumed the mantle in the marvelous third Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (★★★★★). The big question looming over the head of every theater geek when the cast was announced: Is Josh Groban menacing enough to play Sweeney?

It was a fair query. Sweeney Todd is about a British man wrongly punished for a crime he didn’t commit. Consequently, he is banished to Australia. His wife Lucy allegedly kills herself with arsenic and his daughter, Johanna, was taken from him. Such troubles can test a man’s patience and ultimately lead him to commit acts an otherwise rational fellow wouldn’t consider.

Given Groban’s “nice boy next door” looks and reputation, many wondered if he had the chops to embody one the best and bloodiest male roles in musical theater.

The answer: Not really. But neither is he completely miscast. Ultimately, he rises to the challenge. Although he repeatedly slinks into pop vocal stylizations for Sondheim’s traditional score, he still sings with clarity and conviction. Acting-wise, he’s not as terrifying as others in the role, nor does he have the haggard look of a hell-traveled soul, but it’s a perfectly acceptable performance.

Sweeney Todd: Gaten Matarazzo, Annaleigh Ashford, Josh Groban, Nathan Salstone and the company -- Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Sweeney Todd: Gaten Matarazzo, Annaleigh Ashford, Josh Groban, Nathan Salstone and the company — Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

There are those who will rush to buy a ticket strictly for the star. They will not be disappointed. And neither will theater aficionados who know and love this show, which features a compelling book by Hugh Wheeler. Director Thomas Kail (Hamilton) has assembled a Grade-A cast who traverse Sondheim’s exquisite and intricate score with masterful ease. Furthermore, music supervisor Alex Lacamoire has instructed his cast quite well on diction and enunciation.

Sondheim is perpetually intellectual and difficult to absorb, even for those familiar with the work. Yet those hearing this for the first time will be able to glean most of the lyrics — despite the cast’s thick British accents. Music aficionados will also appreciate Jonathan Tunick’s incredibly lush orchestrations — the same ones used in the original 1979 version. What a joy to hear them soar through the gigantic Lunt-Fontanne, for they were not fully appreciated in the last Broadway revival.

The classic musical is considered a thriller, and many have labeled it as a penny dreadful. It’s easy then, to write it off as pure melodrama. Yet Kail has mined the depths and has made this more of a study of human nature. It’s not just the tale of a madman seeking revenge and an equally troubled woman pining for the affection of her old friend. Instead, it becomes a look at what drives humankind past the brink of sanity and the lengths that others will go to protect themselves and the people they love.

There are several reasons to grab a ticket to this sleek and sexy Sweeney Todd, but the greatest one is Annaleigh Ashford. It’s quite clear that — with her name above the marquee — a fine performance will ensue. The two-time Tony Award winner has had showstopping moments in Kinky Boots and You Can’t Take It With You. No one will be shocked if she earns another nod here for her turn as Mrs. Lovett, the role originally created by Angela Lansbury.

Ashford has an enormous legacy to live up to, but she fully commits. Through impeccable comic timing and agile physical antics, she creates a Mrs. Lovett that will surely be remembered in the history of Sweeney Todd productions.

Gaten Matarazzo is heartwarming as Tobias, the troubled orphan who assists Mrs. Lovett in her pie shop. He delivers one of the show’s most tender moments with the ballad “Not While I’m Around.”

Set designer Mimi Lien has recreated an imposing warehouse in Victorian London and the liberal use of dry ice enhances the eerie feeling this show is meant to impart. So does Natasha Katz’s lighting, which casts shadowy glints of malice over the town and its people.

Many living artists tend to favor revivals and recreations of their works, presumably because they are getting royalties and a share of the profits. Yet it’s safe to assume that if the late creative team of the original production — Sondheim and director Harold Prince — were alive, they would bleed joy over this new production, not for economic gain, but from genuine admiration.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th St. in New York. Tickets are $152 to $458. Call 877-250-2929 or visit

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