Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Kelsey Emery / Spoon

“Sweeney Todd”, “Assassins”, and the Nature of Community Through Revenge

Updated Published
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Riverside chapter.

Content Warning: mentions of sexual assault, murder/assassination, brief mention of suicide

I love a good revenge story. Admittedly, I haven’t read some of the classics like Hamlet or The Count of Monte Cristo, but there’s something to be said for watching a character rise from the ashes and swear bloody vengeance on everyone who wronged them. For a long time, my favorite revenge story was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim, a musical about the eponymous barber-turned-serial killer who only has two goals throughout the entire musical. The first is to reunite with his long-lost daughter, and his second, long-term goal is to get revenge on Judge Turpin, who got Todd falsely imprisoned and destroyed his family in the process.

By contrast, my current favorite musical, Assassins (also by Sondheim!), tells the stories of several of America’s most notable presidential assassins—successful or otherwise. The cast’s motives for wanting to kill presidents vary across the board, from wanting to solve perceived social injustice to simply wanting to bring attention to themselves. Both musicals are darkly comedic, with a cast of characters that are both charismatic and unhinged. But while Sweeney Todd’s desire for revenge is largely condemned throughout the events of his narrative, the assassins are actively encouraged to do so by each other and their circumstances,

Act one of the eponymous musical is when Sweeney Todd is shown at his most sympathetic: he’s fresh out of prison, disillusioned with society, and still grieving the loss of his wife and daughter at the hands of Judge Turpin. When Todd eventually learns the true fate of his family — that being Judge Turpin sexually assaulting Lucy, Todd’s wife, and adopting their daughter Johanna as his own — his desire for revenge and ultimate goal of murdering Judge Turpin is understandable.

However, Todd’s hypocrisy is put on full blast during the song “Epiphany” as he sings about how “we all deserve to die”, while simultaneously declaring himself to be the arbiter of who gets to live and die by his hand. He further justifies his imminent murder spree by claiming he’ll practice on “less honorable throats” in preparation for the day he’s going to murder Judge Turpin, but during act two, he never actually attempts to distinguish what constitutes a “less honorable throat”, and simply kills whoever has the misfortune of asking him for a shave.

Moreover, if he’s doing this to get revenge on behalf of his wife and daughter, there is a harrowing question of what he was going to do after he killed Judge Turpin. Todd’s wife had long since gone mad before the start of the musical, his daughter never recognizes him, and sooner or later he was always going to get caught in the act — with or without Mrs. Lovett’s help. Furthermore, I highly doubt he planned on following his own dogma and taking his own life, considering how shocked he was when Mrs. Lovett’s adoptive son killed him at the end of the musical.

Interestingly, while Todd is more than happy to come up with his own delusional rationale to justify his killing spree, the overarching narrative of the musical does exactly the opposite. Although Mrs. Lovett is initially introduced as a sympathizer to Todd’s misfortune and later becomes his partner in crime, it’s repeatedly established that Mrs. Lovett is only helping Todd as a way to revive her business and because of her infatuation with Todd.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street | 2023 Tony Award Nominee

Not only that, because of how much time has passed between his false imprisonment and the start of the musical, Todd and the rest of his family have all changed so dramatically that they don’t recognize each other anymore. Todd tries to kill Johanna without a second thought after she sees him murder Judge Turpin, and most tragically of all, Todd is only able to recognize Lucy — who’d gone mad long before the start of the musical — after he kills her in a moment of panic and is only able to see her face after the deed is done.

Meanwhile, the assassins in Assassins are all immediately established as a group of gullible and desperate individuals, willing to commit murder of the highest degree if it means they’ll get what they want. The musical’s opening number, “Everybody’s Got The Right”, is mainly sung by the Proprietor, who sells all of the assassins their guns by convincing them they can all get what they want most — be it a pretty girl or a cure for a stomach ache — if they can kill a president.

Watch Highlights of Assassins at New York City Center

The musical does give the assassins equal opportunity to justify why they tried to kill their respective presidents — successfully or not — but it hardly ever condones them. Several songs outright make fun of the assassins and repeatedly hammer in how futile their efforts were, such as “How I Saved Roosevelt” and “Unworthy of Your Love”, sung by would-be assassin John Hinckley — a song that literally ends with President Ronald Reagan mocking him for his terrible aim.

The only assassin whose motives are treated with any sort of dignity is Leon Czolgosz, who murdered President William McKinley. Both in real life and the musical, Czolgosz made literal pennies working at a glass bottle factory and a steel mill, and found solace in the anarchism movement due to his anger at the massive disparity in wealth between the upper class and the common working man. His motives for killing McKinley are expanded upon in “The Ballad of Czolgosz”, where the lyrics mock McKinley for his gluttony and his immense wealth; and when Czolgosz finally shoots him at the end of the song, it’s the only time — in my opinion — where a presidential assassination felt deserved.

As much as I love both musicals for reveling in both the darker and comedic aspects of their stories and characters, what ended up winning me over about Assassins were the bonds formed between all of the assassins in their request for revenge. In between the songs, the assassins are given the time to commiserate over their shared misfortune and establish various dynamics with one another, such as Guiteau constantly promoting the sale of his book and Booth trying to get Czolgosz to grow a spine.

Meanwhile, Todd’s obsession with revenge keeps him isolated from those he cares about, blinding him to his wife and daughter when they’re right in front of him, and only letting him recognize Lucy after he’s already killed her. It blinds him to any potential friendships and Mrs. Lovett’s affection for him — as self-serving as it was — and ultimately leads to him dying alone at the end of the musical. It’s a stark contrast to the ending of Assassins, where the characters have solace in each other, having finally found the sense of community they never had in life.

Trina Kolas

UC Riverside '25

Howdy! I'm a creative writing major and English minor at UCR, and I plan to become a published author and a screenwriter/showrunner in the future! I love writing original stories and fanfiction, and I listen to a lot of Mother Mother, Hypnosis Microphone, and Broadway musicals. My goal is to save up for a proper gaming computer so my laptop doesn't spontaneously combust whenever I try to play Portal or Legends of Runeterra on it.