“A Little Priest” in Performance: Three Different Interpretations Combined (Broadway, Concert, Film)

This ingenious YouTube compilation – showing the versatility of Sondheim’s musical and dramatic skill – cross-cuts between director Harold Prince’s original 1979 Broadway staging (from his 1982 national touring company, with George Hearn & Angela Lansbury, Broadway’s original Mrs. Lovett), a 2001 concert performance (with George Hearn & Patti LuPone), and Tim Burton’s 2007 feature film (with Johnny Depp & Helena Bonham Carter). NOTE: After the compilation, the video will continue playing with rare 1982 TV commercials for the touring company. THANKS to YouTube contributor “sondheimcombined” for creating this video!

We’re going to explore how composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim turned a pivotal half-page of Christopher Bond’s 1974 non-musical play, Sweeney Todd (based on 125 years of earlier Sweeney Todd novels and dramas; in 2022, we’ve had 175 years of Sweeney Todds), into the jaw-dropping – hilarious, horrifying, and toe-tapping – Act One finale, “A Little Priest,” from the landmark 1979 Broadway show, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller, from Sondheim, librettist Hugh Wheeler (as the published libretto states: “Based on a version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ by Christopher Bond),” and director Harold Prince. As always, Sondheim’s musical numbers work simultaneously – and ingeniously – as both song and dramatic scene.

(NOTE: “A Little Priest” is the second part of the astonishing Act One ‘double finale’ – that goes from terror (“Epiphany”) to pun-filled, gut-busting hilarity. Here’s my brief Sondheim / Verdi comparison, between “Epiphany” and Iago’s spellbinding aria, “Credo in un Dio crudel” (“I believe in a cruel god”), from Verdi’s 1887 opera, Otello.)

Before turning to the quintessential, and wildly popular, Sondheim song, “A Little Priest,” let’s take a look at its inspiration in C.G. Bond’s play.

Excerpt from Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Melodrama, the non-musical source play by Christopher Bond (copyright © 1974 by C.G. Bond):

From Act One, scene eight

[NOTE: Mrs. Lovett is referring to a blackmailer whom Sweeney Todd has just inadvertently killed.]

Mrs. Lovett: Seems a shame to bury him.

(Todd looks at her)

With business so bad

Todd: I don’t understand. He’ll eat no more pies…

Mrs. Lovett: No, he couldn’t eat them – but he might help in the making of them – in a manner of speaking.

Todd: The boy – Tobias Ragg, you mean?

Mrs. Lovett: Well, he might help sell them, perhaps – but that gent in there – it would be a pity to waste him. I mean, he is nice and plump, isn’t he?

(Todd begins to understand)

And with meat the price it is these days…

Todd: O sweet, delectable, rare and choice. By my assistance you shall never want for meat, Mrs. Lovett. Your pies shall be the wonder of the town. For every customer who comes up here shall serve the ones below.

(They both start to giggle, then fall into each others arms laughing helplessly, as – )

the CURTAIN Falls.

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Act One finale, “A Little Priest.” From Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Actors Angela Lansbury & Len Cariou in a scene fr. the Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd.” (New York)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1979. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/43dc8840-db72-0130-616c-58d385a7bbd0

“A Little Priest,” from Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller (1979), music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book (script) by Hugh Wheeler, directed by Harold Prince (“A Little Priest” copyright © 1978 RILTING MUSIC, INC.)

First page of “A Little Priest” score

Sondheim’s pun-filled number, “A Little Priest,” developed over eight riveting minutes, is also the final scene of the musical’s first act, as in Bond’s play. But Sondheim’s number is much more than a crucial ‘plot point.’ Its eclectic music – combining bawdy music hall and a gorgeous waltz – both reveals and comments on the characters, while keeping the audience “wantin’ more…,” and getting it. This is a brilliantly sustained, constantly evolving duet. NOTE TO ENTREPRENEURS: This is NOT a viable business plan – you have been warned!

Act One Finale: “A Little Priest”

Seems a downright shame…
Seems an awful waste…
Such a nice, plump frame
Wot’s ‘is name has…
Nor it can’t be traced…
Bus’ness needs a lift,
Debts to be erased…
Think of it as thrift,
As a gift,
If you get my drift!
Seems an awful waste…
I mean, with the price of meat
What it is,
When you get it,
If you get it…
Good, you got it!
Take, for instance, Mrs. Mooney and her pie shop!
Bus’ness never better using only pussycats and toast!
And a pussy’s good for maybe six or seven at the most!
And I’m sure they can’t compare as far as taste!
Mrs. Lovett, what a charming notion
Well, it does seem a waste…
Eminently practical
And yet appropriate as always!
It’s an idea…
Mrs. Lovett, how I’ve lived
Without you all these years, I’ll never know!
How delectable!
Also undetectable!
Think about it!
Lots of other gentlemen’ll
Soon be comin’ for a shave,
Won’t they?
Think of
All them
How choice!
For what’s the sound of the world out there?
What, Mr. Todd?
What, Mr. Todd?
What is that sound?
Those crunching noises pervading the air!
Yes, Mr. Todd!
Yes, Mr. Todd!
Yes, all around!
It’s man devouring man, my dear!
And [LOVETT: Then] who are we to deny it in here?
TODD: (spoken) These are desperate times,
Mrs. Lovett, and desperate measures are called for!
LOVETT: Here we are, now! Hot out of the oven!
TODD: What is that?
It’s priest. Have a little priest.
Is it really good?
Sir, it’s too good, at least!
Then again, they don’t commit sins of the flesh,
So it’s pretty fresh.
Awful lot of fat.
Only where it sat.
Haven’t you got poet, or something like that?
No, y’see, the trouble with poet is
‘Ow do you know it’s deceased?
Try the priest!
TODD: (spoken) Heavenly!
Not as hearty as bishop, perhaps,
But then again, not as bland as curate, either!
And good for business, too — always leaves you wantin’ more!
Trouble is, we only get it on Sundays!
Lawyer’s rather nice.
If it’s for a price.
Order something else, though, to follow,
Since no one should swallow it twice!
Anything that’s lean.
Well, then, if you’re British and loyal,
You might enjoy Royal Marine!
Anyway, it’s clean.
Though of course, it tastes of wherever it’s been!
Is that squire,
On the fire?
Mercy no, sir, look closer,
You’ll notice it’s grocer!
Looks thicker,
More like vicar!
No, it has to be grocer —
It’s green!
The history of the world, my love —
Save a lot of graves,
Do a lot of relatives favors!
Is those below serving those up above!
Ev’rybody shaves,
So there should be plenty of flavors!
How gratifying for once to know
That those above will serve those down below!
LOVETT: (spoken) Now let’s see, here… We’ve got tinker.
TODD: Something… pinker.
LOVETT: Tailor?
TODD: Paler.
LOVETT: Butler?
TODD: Subtler.
LOVETT: Potter?
TODD: Hotter.
LOVETT: Locksmith?
Lovely bit of clerk.
Maybe for a lark.
Then again there’s sweep
If you want it cheap
And you like it dark!
Try the financier,
Peak of his career!
That looks pretty rank.
Well, he drank,
It’s a bank
Never really sold.
Maybe it was old.
Have you any Beadle?
Next week, so I’m told!
Beadle isn’t bad till you smell it and
Notice ‘ow well it’s been greased…
Stick to priest!
Now then, this might be a little bit stringy,
But then of course it’s… fiddle player!
TODD: No, this isn’t fiddle player — it’s piccolo player!
LOVETT: ‘Ow can you tell?
TODD: It’s piping hot!
LOVETT: Then blow on it first!
The history of the world, my sweet —
Oh, Mr. Todd,
Ooh, Mr. Todd,
What does it tell?
Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!
And, Mr. Todd,
Too, Mr. Todd,
Who gets to sell!
But fortunately, it’s also clear
That [L: But] ev’rybody goes down well with beer!
LOVETT: (spoken)
Since marine doesn’t appeal to you, ‘ow about… rear admiral?
TODD: Too salty. I prefer general.
LOVETT: With, or without his privates? “With” is extra.
TODD: What is that?
It’s fop.
Finest in the shop.
And we have some shepherd’s pie peppered
With actual shepherd on top!
And I’ve just begun —
Here’s the politician, so oily
It’s served with a doily,
Have one!
Put it on a bun.
Well, you never know if it’s going to run!
Try the friar,
Fried, it’s drier!
No, the clergy is really
Too coarse and too mealy!
Then actor,
That’s compacter!
Yes, and always arrives overdone!
I’ll come again when you have JUDGE on the menu!
LOVETT: (spoken) Wait! True, we don’t have judge yet,
But we’ve got something you might fancy even better.
TODD: What’s that?
LOVETT: Executioner!
Have charity towards the world, my pet!
Yes, yes, I know, my love!
We’ll take the customers that we can get!
High-born and low, my love!
We’ll not discriminate great from small!
No, we’ll serve anyone,
Meaning anyone,
And to anyone
At all!

Source: LyricFind

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“A Little Priest” (Broadway Original Cast Album, 1979)

In “A Little Priest,” Sondheim’s lyric is joined to his astonishing music, that draws on such divergent styles as boisterous “low” music hall comedy (embodying Mrs. Lovett, brandishing her rolling pin) and the elegant “high” form of the waltz. This iconic performance is from the original Broadway cast recording of Sweeney Todd, starring Len Carious as Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. In the 1980 documentary on the first London production (LINK DIRECTLY BELOW), Sondheim notes that his two favorite types of theater are farce (consider Mrs. Lovett) and melodrama (Sweeney Todd). You can see aspects of both genres ‘sung large’ in this number, and throughout the entire “Musical Thriller.”

In Rehearsal (London, 1980)

“A Little Priest” in Rehearsal (video link), with stars Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock, comments from director Hal Prince and source playwright Christopher Bond; followed by excerpts from the finished scene, of the 1980 London production that opened on July 2, 1980, at the West End’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This video is an excerpt from the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED complete 85-minute documentary, Sweeney Todd: Scenes from the Making of a Musical (free on YouTube). NOTE: This “A Little Priest” excerpt begins at 48:47 (from the complete documentary); the segment with Hal Prince starts at 52:08.

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Analysis as Discussion Questions for “A Little Priest”

Sweeney Todd is a work of many interconnected layers, perhaps driven by the creative tension between director Harold Prince, who wanted to explore the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution (the historical period of the action), and Stephen Sondheim, who personally conceived of this show – the only project that Sondheim, of all his many musicals, ever originated himself – as a psychological exploration of obsession. How does Sondheim combine dazzling entertainment and (perhaps) catharsis, for both characters and audience – including you personally – specifically in “A Little Priest”? How does this particular musical number relate to the towering, even crushing, Victorian “British Beehive” (SEE image below), reflecting a rigid social hierarchy, that director Harold Prince shows the audience as they enter the theater (show curtain by designer Eugene Lee, based on a historic Victorian era print)? Note that Prince has, below the beehive, gravediggers busily at work. Might their literary ancestors have had employment, in the same vein, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act V, scene 1 (“Alas, poor Yorick”)?

The finale (SEE image below), a variation on the opening number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” also reflects the “beehive” with the cast representing a wide swath of Victorian society: homeless people, workers, sailor, police, judge, conman, entrepreneur, and barber/executioner. The ending “Ballad” reprises the beginning, but is it full circle? How does Prince’s sociopolitical interpretation relate to Sondheim’s songs: How many “perfect machine[s]” are there in Sweeney Todd, including Todd, his ‘chute-ing’ apparatus, and the massive set that (in the original Broadway production) incorporated an actual abandoned factory, not to mention the text, verbal and musical, itself? How does your personal vision of Sweeney Todd’s world, unlimited by financial or practical constraints in ‘the theater between your ears,’ differ from Prince’s visualization (Sondheim biographer Meryle Secrest said that the original set combined elements of a factory, a prison and a cathedral); or do you think the Prince vision is definitive?

Is another example of a “perfect machine” basic song form itself? (Most songs are typically in AABA form, with the three A sections using the same music but different lyrics, and the single B section providing, in songwriting jargon terms, a “release” that utilizes contrasting words and music.) Even more speculatively, might song form itself satisfy a deep need in people, including ‘outsider’ LGBTQ+ artists and audiences, for both a larger-than-life outpouring of emotion that is nonetheless constrained by the ’emotional safety’ of the underlying AABA structure?) Can you interpret Sondheim’s joining of music, lyrics, and drama as another kind of “perfect machine”? Are any of those “machines” in Sweeney Todd actually “perfect”? If not, why and how do they break down?

Also consider, is there hope in this work, maybe or maybe not counting the decreasingly innocent sailor Anthony Hope; and if so, what is hopeful and why? How many different layers do you see in this musical, whether you hate it or Lovett? How do those layers work together – comedy, pathos, horror, tragedy – and how are they embodied in Sondheim’s score? Do you believe that “No one can help, nothing can hide you – / Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” Or is Sweeney maybe, sometimes, looking back at you from your own mirror? To borrow a line from Sondheim in Sunday in the Park with George (1984), “Art isn’t easy.”

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A Little More…

First… The British Beehive – Original 1979 Show Curtain by designer Eugene Lee, envisioned by director Harold Prince

Show curtain “The British Beehive”, and gravediggers. From Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Show curtain designed by Eugene Lee fr. the Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd.” (New York)” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 31, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/63cf3640-db72-0130-5695-58d385a7bbd0

Last… From “Epilogue: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”

No one can help, nothing can hide you –
Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?
Sweeney wishes the world away.
Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday,
Is Sweeney!
There he is, it’s Sweeney!
Sweeney! Sweeney!
(Pointing around the theater)
There! There! There! There!
There! There! There!
(Pointing to the grave)

(Todd and Mrs. Lovett rise from the grave)

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!
He served a dark and a hungry god!

To seek revenge may lead to hell,

But everyone does it, though seldom as well

As Sweeney,

As Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet…

(They start to exit)


(The Company exits. Todd and Mrs. Lovett are the last to leave. They look to each other, then exit in opposite directions, Mrs. Lovett into the wings, Todd upstage. He glares at us malevolently for a moment, then slams the iron door in our faces. Blackout)

From Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Actors (Front) Angela Lansbury & Len Cariou w. cast in a scene fr. the Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd.” (New York)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1979. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/34ce64f0-db72-0130-09fb-58d385a7bbd0
Finale: “Epilogue: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” [Reprise] – NOTE: the 1982 touring production did not have the trapdoor and lift (“elevator”) from the Broadway original, that in the opening scene allowed Todd to rise wraithlike from the grave, and in this epilogue let Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett do the same (compare this video with the 1979 still photo directly above).

One more question, might there – still – be a connection in 2022 between the violent grievances of some people, obsessed with an illusory ‘idyllic past,’ and Sweeney Todd as depicted in the chorus’s line?:

Sweeney wishes the world away.
Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday,

Is Sweeney!
There he is, it’s Sweeney!
Sweeney! Sweeney!
(Pointing around the theater)
There! There! There! There!
There! There! There!
(Pointing to the grave)

And what about that arch enabler, Mrs. Lovett, as an embodiment of amoral – and fatal – opportunism?

But can a ‘mere musical’ be political, horrific, hilarious, melodic, lovingly tender, and cathartic, all at once?

Thank you, Stephen Sondheim.

“BONUS” Here is a recent Korean staging that includes excerpts from “Epiphany,” “Wait” and “A Little Priest,” from OD Company and Lotte Entertainment, circa 2019.

Here are two dozen more curated resources for Sondheim and Sweeney Todd.

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Begun January 27, 2022 / Updated February 15, 2022