I wanted to write this scheme of work because I felt that Sweeney Todd had acquired a bad name. I first taught this story back in my days as a student teacher, and both my mentor and lecturer at the time asked me what the point was. Surely it’s just a story of two murderers aimlessly and indiscriminately killing innocent people? In response to this I have written the following series of lessons, which I hope will persuade you that the themes of the story are well worth tackling.
In Stephen Sondheim’s version of Sweeney Todd (based on the 1973 play by Christopher Bond with a book by Hugh Wheeler), Todd is presented as a victim of society, a sympathetic figure driven to crime when he is unjustly imprisoned, and his wife and child are taken from him by a lecherous judge. Fifteen years later he escapes and returns to London to avenge these wrongs. It is a story of loss, anger, hurt and revenge – human traits that we all feel when we are wronged in some way.
In the original staging of this musical an inscription above the stage read ‘The blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanseth us from all sins’. On a white cloth suspended from the ceiling was a large diagram of the British Beehive, a symbol of industry and harmony. From top to bottom it depicted the royal family, the constitution, trial by jury, religious freedom, law and equity, figures representing the educated and commercial classes as well as tradesmen and labourers. The state, the church and the social nexus that fuelled the industrial world of 19th century England were displayed as a set of interlocking parts that dwarfed the individual.
And it is against this backdrop (quite literally) that we can view Sweeney Todd not as the emotive psychopath of Depp’s or Burton’s melodramas, but as a man driven to the depths of despair by the greed and inhumanity of those around him.
- To begin the story of Sweeney Todd in the ‘present’ of the narrative
- To introduce and explore what happened previously
- To use teacher-in-role as Sweeney Todd as a stimulus for dramatic activities to discover the truth about his past
- To use hotseating to develop our understanding of the character’s past
- To explore the themes of injustice and despair
- To delve deeper into the back history of Sweeney Todd to allow the class to empathise with the character
- To examine Todd’s life in Australia and his fears of what might be happening in London
- To set up still images that show key elements of Benjamin Barker’s old life in London 15 years ago
- To introduce the class to the convention of letter writing/diary entries as a new approach to discovering a character
- To set up activities that allow the class to understand the extent of Todd’s loss and grief
- To allow the class to explore issues of class structure in Victorian times and the injustice and greed inherent in the social system
- To set up a thought-tracking exercise where Barker, a prisoner in the dark, speaks his letters to Lucy and Johanna out loud
- To move the story back into the present and use Mrs Lovett as a narrator to tell the class about Barker’s return and new start under the guise of Sweeney Todd
- To use thought-tracking as a means of sharing the letterwriting work
- To use teacher narration to set up the next part of the story
- To conduct pair work that explores Todd’s reunion with his best and most faithful friend – his razor
- To take the narrative forward, but from the perspective of a neutral character
- To use teacher narration as a way to introduce the next task: writing news reports on Todd’s contest with Pirelli
- To discuss the use of this convention and how it can be manipulated explore the justifications for his mass revenge
- To introduce the idea of bodies in pies and discuss how Sweeney can lure the Judge back to the parlour
- To work as a whole group to allow your class to have more input on how the action should unfold
- To analyse the factors which send Sweeney Todd over the edge
- To reach the end of the story and tackle Sweeney’s final revenge against the judge
- To explore revenge by means of structured pair work
- To bring the scheme to a close by thinking back to Lesson 1 and asking whether the class’s thoughts on revenge, injustice and jealousy have altered.
Number of lessons: 6