If I ever had to write a musical, I would start by etching out the play and characters underneath it. Great music will captivate an audience, but a complex man will change them. The protagonist of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is an example of such a man that was built long before the musical named for him. Creators Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler adapted their show from Christopher Bond’s 1970 melodrama of the same name. That play was sourced from an even earlier text — a Victorian England folktale starring the murderous, mid-19th-century barber. Characters like Sweeney that mull around this long typically have a secret to their stickiness: They reflect the most primal desires of humanity: love, power, revenge. Thomas Kail is the latest director to take a stab at Sondheim’s epic — pumping thrilling life into a macabre Broadway revival, which has a firm hand on “Sweeney Todd” the musical, but a looser grip on Sweeney Todd the man.
Tragedy strikes before Sweeney’s first murder. Sweeney (Josh Groban) returns to London after serving a wrongful 15-year sentence, bestowed on him by the perverted Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) — the same man who raped Sweeney’s wife and kidnapped his daughter Johanna (Maria Bilbao). Sweeney curses the city with disdain that would have rivaled Upton Sinclair. In fact, the little affection Sweeney shows is to a pair of whetted razors from his former profession as a barber and returned to him by Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), who owns the failing pie shop below his salon. The Judge is Sweeney’s target, but several townspeople become collateral damage during what would otherwise be a routine shave. Rather than trash the bodies, Mrs. Lovett proposes to turn them into treasure: creating a new batch of people-pies that are as hot a commodity in 1846 as Popeyes’ chicken sandwich in 2019.