"Pretty women" : urban crisis and female objectification in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeny Todd

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2013-05

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Pribyl, Ashley Marian

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Abstract

Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 award-winning musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was produced during a time of great political and economic uncertainty in New York City. Although not overtly political, the themes of urban crisis and class inequality that birthed the original legend of Sweeney Todd in Industrial Revolution London continued to play a large role within the modern musical, reflecting leftist political concerns at large. The main political argument within the work is the critique of class hierarchies created by capitalism and how the upper classes abuse the lower classes, ie. how Judge Turpin uses his power to abuse Sweeney Todd and the grave consequences of such actions. Less obvious, however, are the importance of gender hierarchy and the objectification of women within this anti-capitalist critique. This paper focuses on the character of Johanna and the three songs sung about her by the three main male leads. These songs provide a case study of how gendered objectification and commodification play a significant role in the overall Marxist critique intrinsic to the musical and the Sweeney Todd legend overall. The work’s rootedness in the anti-capitalist critique of the New Left in the 1970s and the concurrent rise of Marxist and socialist feminism provide clues to understanding the context and meaning behind the violent treatment of women within the musical as an extension of the anti-capitalist critique that is fundamental to the work.

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