'The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend'

THERE is seemingly nothing on the subject of the tale of Sweeney Todd -- from its roots in reality, to its finding its way into folklore and subsequently literature, and then onto innumerable stages and the screen -- which Robert L. Mack has not explored in "The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend." It is an immensely detailed and far-reaching book that might be considered the last word in program notes to Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's stage musical and its movie version directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, which opens Friday.

"Todd's story has been told by many different people and in many different forms, but the essential outline of his narrative is straightforward enough," writes Mack, who, despite his wide scope of inquiry, has a gift for crisp exposition in a nutshell:

"Driven by motives ranging from simple greed in most early versions, to a complex scenario of carefully exacted revenge in subsequent retellings, Todd is a barber who routinely murders the patrons of his Fleet Street shop -- on some occasions slitting their throats, on others stabbing, strangling, or bludgeoning to death with his bare hands, but almost always making use of his ingeniously constructed barber's chair in the process. After dramatically hurling his chosen victims head-over-heels into the dank and inescapable basement . . . he then disposes of their bodies by transferring them to the nearby premises of Mrs. Lovett, who turns the fresh corpses into succulent meat pies (veal, her customers are often told)."

This book not only tells you all about the real Todd -- yes, there actually was such a barber executed in 1802 -- and the various literary and stage versions of him, but all about barbers, pies and cannibalism. ...

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