Musical-theater legend Stephen Sondheim turned 89 on Friday. His show “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — about a Victorian-era villain who murders victims in his barber shop, then disposes of their bodies by letting his baker neighbor Mrs. Lovett grind them up and mix them into meat pies — is one of his most famous works. In an era of franchise reboots, it’s time to consider an adaptation in which Sweeney is a world-renowned chef on Netflix’s popular series, “Chef’s Table.”
SWEENEY TODD, barber/chef: For me, food is the intersection of memory and avenging my wife’s death by murdering the powerful and corrupt and turning their bodies into meat pies.
Music cue: Dramatic violin solo.
DAVID CHANG, chef: Here’s a guy who started out as a barber, no culinary training, and he takes a humble meat pie and elevates it, using simple ingredients that other chefs would overlook: throat, fingernails, eyes, toes — you know, human body parts.
RUTH REICHL, food writer: He had this hole-in-a-wall bakeshop, crawling with roaches. Why would anyone come here? But Sweeney proved that if you cook without pretense and go straight for the jugular, people will come.
MRS. LOVETT, restaurateur: We used to have the worst pies in London. But then I gave him the idea of putting his victims into his pies. It’s really about respecting the whole human and not wasting any plump parts.
REICHL: Before Sweeney, meat pies weren’t that trendy — they were just boring old meat. But Sweeney changed the game: He’s not just selling you a meat pie, he’s giving you a story of how a nefarious judge kidnapped his wife and held his daughter hostage, and how he won’t rest until everyone is murdered and encased in dough. And he’s doing it all on his own terms.
TODD: I just wanted to make honest food, the only way I knew how: by strapping customers to a barber chair, slashing their throats and sending their bodies through a meat grinder. It wasn’t easy at first. I couldn’t get the pastry-to-human ratio just right. But from failure grows creativity.
REICHL: He started experimenting with new methods. He developed a chute that would take his victims from the barber chair to the nightmare basement where they’d be chopped and baked. In terms of innovation, he’s up there with Wylie Dufresne.
WYLIE DUFRESNE, chef: I guess we’re similar. I do molecular gastronomy, and Sweeney Todd straight-up kills people.
TOM COLICCHIO, chef/“Top Chef” judge: Okay, so he’s both a barber and a baker — and a serial killer. But that’s not what makes him unique. What really makes Sweeney stand out is his dedication to quality. He’s constantly tweaking his methods. Sometimes he’ll slash a throat at one angle. Other times, he’ll use the other angle. Sometimes he doesn’t even use shaving cream.
CHANG: He doesn’t stop until he gets it just right or his blade gets dull from all of the murdering.
REICHL: But then tragedy strikes. Sweeney kills a crazed beggar woman, only to realize that it was his beloved wife all along. But you know what? That just makes him more dedicated to his craft.
COLICCHIO: Sure, his methods are controversial. But he takes risks. You’re not called “the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” unless you’re pushing boundaries.
DUFRESNE: Am I the only one who finds this disturbing? How is his bakery still in business?
CHANG: With Sweeney, food is not just about flavor. His food is about nostalgia and stomach-churning violence. You can really taste the emotions in his food.
TODD: I won’t stop cooking until the demons in my mind stop singing the sweet melodies of revenge. Or I get tired of rolling dough. Until then, I just want to keep making food that allows me to connect with people. By murdering them.
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