It’s kind of weird.
Picture a man singing as he holds a gory razor, slashing the throats of unsuspecting gentlemen. Picture a flock of hungry Londoners greedily eating their fellow man (in the form of pies.)
People usually find catharsis in finger-painting, yoga, or a good cry.
But a musical about butchering people and turning them into pies provides me with psychological relief. When I listen to the soundtrack, my soul kicks off its work shoes and says, “Ah. That’s the stuff.”
At first I found this catharsis perplexing, but I know now that Sweeney Todd isn’t stroking a latent serial killer in me.
For me, the catharsis in Sweeney Todd comes from a unique aspect of the show: its complete lack of answers.
Here is a show that digs deep into the filth of humanity. Rape, madness, murder, cannibalism. It has all the gore you could ever wish for. The story is steeped in hopelessness and misery and betrayal, and yet it’s beautifully and even hilariously portrayed.
Despite its display of human-horrors, however, the musical provides no answers. It takes us deep into the human condition, deep into the human question of “why us?” and then says nothing.
I’m not saying the writers of Sweeney Todd had no vision. It’s a beautifully sculpted show. But to me, Sweeney Todd provides no answer to the human agony, and I find that soothing.
It doesn’t preach.
I love that. I love every miserable part of this miserable musical because it makes no statement. It isn’t telling us that humanity is rotten through and through, and all is hopeless. It isn’t telling us that we can rise above our crimes and misery, if we only try.
It’s just a story.
They say the best psychological works gets done when we don’t categorize or qualify our emotions. When we simply feel our feels, just as they are. When we don’t try to make something out of them, we experience psychological relief.
Apart from the closing sequence, the last song in the show is, “Nothing’s Going to Harm You.” Toby sings it to Mrs. Lovett, right before he’s sucked into Sweeney Todd’s basement hell, and everything harms Mrs. Lovett. It is a simple, beautiful expression of how deeply our best intentions fail.
It gets me, every time. I don’t feel empathy for Toby, I feel empathy for humanity. “Nothing’s going to harm you,” we say. And then it does.
Sweeney Todd, for me, is a chance to lean back into how gross humanity can be. It’s a chance to sit with the pain for a little bit. Sagely, I can nod along with the show. “Wow, we suck.” And then, I’m not burdened with having to make something of that fact.