Review: Sweeney Todd Stars Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford as a Match Made in Hell

A big revival of Sondheim’s bloodiest musical opens on Broadway.

Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford stand center stage, surrounded by chorus members with blurry faces.
Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford lead the cast of the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Thomas Kail, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)


Josh Groban springs forth from a pit in the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre like a demon leaping out of the mouth of hell. Natasha Katz’s spooky, precise lighting hits his makeup (by J. Jared Janas) in a way that makes him appear to have sockets, but no eyes. The chorus heaves around him like a lung struggling to breathe. It’s a breathtaking opening sequence for the big Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It perfectly sets the tone for a production that envelops the audience in its immense darkness.

New York audiences have become accustomed to Sweeney in miniature, between John Doyle’s 2005 actor-musician Broadway revival to Tooting Arts Club’s 2017 immersive production, which set Sweeney in a South London pie shop. Both productions were delightful in their own ways and proved that Sondheim’s most operatic, most cinematic musical can be pared down and still deliver chills. But sometimes you just want to hear a big string section portend doom as a giant chorus shrills, “SWEEEEE-NEEEEEY!” This spine-tingling revival delivers that, and so much more.

The story of a barber (Groban) who returns to London after escaping wrongful imprisonment, Sweeney Todd mostly takes place in and around the Fleet Street pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford). She quickly recognizes Sweeney as her old neighbor and recounts the sad tale of what happened to his family. His daughter, Johanna (Maria Bilbao in a memorable Broadway debut), is now ward to the cruel judge (Jamie Jackson), who raped Sweeney’s wife and deported him to Australia.

Hell-bent on revenge, Sweeney resolves to cut the Judge’s throat with his old razors, which Mrs. Lovett has saved for him. She urges him to wait, hoping that their mutual enterprise will convince him to move on. Meanwhile, Johanna has caught the eye of Sweeney’s traveling companion, Anthony (Jordan Fisher with vocals that will make you swoon). We know that none of this leads anywhere good, but we cannot turn away from the human meat grinder before us.

Gaten Matarazzo and Annaleigh Ashford dance on a table surrounded by the ensemble. On an upper level, Josh Groban raises a razor, prepared to slash the throat of a customer.
Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford) dance in the pie shop, while Sweeney (Josh Groban) prepares to slit the throat of a customer (Nathan Salstone) on an upper level of Mimi Lien’s set for the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

That’s the image Mimi Lien’s industrial brick and iron set evokes. Dominated by a tall crane that doubles as a chute for bodies, and a bridge that becomes Sweeney’s barber shop, it instantly places the story in 19th-century London and offers multiple levels for Thomas Kail’s bustling, dynamic staging. Steven Hoggett’s whirling, lurching choreography suggests the violent intersection of bodies and machines (although some of the moves feel left over from The Last Ship). Emilio Sosa’s black and gray costumes similarly capture a dark fantasy of the era, like a Munch painting come to life. He works beautifully with Katz to ensure that our eye always knows where to look on Kail’s grand canvas.

Sometimes, aesthetic concerns seem to trump basic storytelling, as in the case of an annoying wrought-iron railing that obscures the faces of every one of Sweeney’s victims (I suspect that Jeremy Chernick’s special effects are sophisticated enough to not require this kind of mask). But this is a minor quibble with an otherwise superb staging.

Sondheim’s score, with restored original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, has never sounded better than it does under the supervision of Alex Lacamoire, who previously worked with Kail on Hamilton and who conducts a 26-person orchestra here. How exhilarating to clearly a viola, a bassoon, and a piccolo from a Broadway pit (Nevin Steinberg’s pristine sound design ensures that we never miss a note). This is as close to a symphonic experience as you’re likely to get on Broadway.

Annaleigh Ashford plays Mrs. Lovett, and Josh Groban plays Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Thomas Kail, at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

It’s also beautifully sung, with Groban setting a high bar for the rest of the cast.  His lush baritone lulls us into a false sense of security in songs like “Pretty Women” and “Johanna,” but make no mistake — this is a man driven by homicidal rage, which comes out into full view during “Epiphany.” Not even the best crisis negotiator could talk him off that ledge, but there’s someone else who can and does.

Ashford is unquestionably the funniest Mrs. Lovett I’ve seen, adding an unexpected punch to each line, and seizing any opportunity to cop a feel of her would-be partner in crime. During “A Little Priest,” she is so deliriously happy to have won Sweeney’s approval that she does a Homer on the floor of her pie shop. This isn’t just schtick: In every beat, Ashford tells the story of a woman who desperately wants her happily ever after and has decided that a second marriage with her long-lost upstairs neighbor is her best shot. She’s willing to ignore a color guard of bright red flags in pursuit of this objective. No matter how ridiculous she appears, she’s going to make it work. Her second act scene with the shop boy Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo), in which she finally realizes the high price she’ll have to pay, is devastating.

Gaten Matarazzo offers a meat pie to the crowds as Annaleigh Ashford looks ojn from the steps above.
Gaten Matarazzo plays Tobias, and Annaleigh Ashford plays Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Playing Tobias as a human puppy dog, Matarazzo contributes with a heartbreaking rendition of “Not While I’m Around,” seemingly afraid to look in Mrs. Lovett’s eyes because the weight of his suspicions.

There are other great supporting performances: As the beggar woman, Ruthie Ann Miles stealthily plays the only sane person in a world gone mad. As Beadle Bamford, John Rapson smiles malignantly with a toxic mixture of grease and venom. Nicholas Christopher is hilariously over-the-top as the Italian barber Pirelli, and his shave seems realistically violent thanks to the magnificent befuddlement (veering into terror) of Raymond J. Lee.

There’s not a better cast on Broadway to bring this gruesome and tuneful revenge tragedy back to life. Sure, the staging will make you jump in your seat — but the scariest thing about Sweeney is how good the actors are.