Mrs. Lovett, Practical as Always

By Jay Greenspan

What are we to make of the Demon Barber’s best gal, Mrs. Lovett? We can certainly respect her entrepreneurial spirit and her unflinching self-assessment of her culinary skills. But beyond that, it’s hard to know how exactly we should feel about this enabler of a serial murderer.

I think a credible argument could be made that she’s simply despicable, lacking any sense of morality whatsoever. After all, she is the one who  has the “bright idea” to make unwitting cannibals of her customers.  But there are also moments when she seems pitiable in ways that evoke sympathy. When she speaks of her simple hopes — for a companion, for some leisure time on the beach — your heart goes out to someone whose life is lonely and joyless.

This range of appropriate emotional reactions to Mrs. Lovett is harnessed by the actresses who bring this character to life. Happily, the two most famous Mrs. Lovetts — Angela Lansbery and Patti Lupone — offer very different takes.

Establishing the Character

Sweeney Todd needs levity, a relief from the gloom, and from her first moments on stage, Mrs. Lovett supplies great comedy by singing The Worst Pies in London.  Angela Lansbery’s comedic chops are fantastic. As you watch her rendition of the song,  focus on her Kramer-esque physical comedy as she chases an imaginary bug down the counter. Also, listen to how she bends the sustained note when singing “Did you come her for a pie, sir? ” We know immediately that Mrs. Lovett might elicit a smile or provoke a laugh when she’s on stage.

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Contrast this with Patti Lupone’s interpretation. Lupone sells the punch lines with aplomb, but this Mrs. Lovett isn’t goofy or comically demonstrative. Look at how she treats the dough when singing, “With the price of meat what it is….” There’s a rage within her. And she seems positively angry and jealous of Mrs. Moody’s feline-based success.

Before moving further into the play, I’ll take a moment to admire Sondheim’s brilliance in this song. He manages to cram a number of laughs while still offering plenty of exposition. Then at the end he plainly raises the questions I’m focusing on in this post: Just how much should we “Pity a woman alone/With limited wind” when “Times is hard/Times is hard?”

Thank you, Mr. Sondheim. Thank you very much.

Extolling Patience

If you told me I could listen to only one song from Sweeney for the rest of my life, I think I’d pick Wait. I adore how, with the altering of just a few words and the changing of a few chords, the song would appropriate for a Mary Poppins sequel:

Slow, love, slow.
Time’s so fast.
Now goes quickly–
See, now it’s past!
Soon will come.
Soon will last.
Wait.

Don’t you know,
Silly man,
Half the fun is to
Plan the plan?
All good things come to
Those who can
Wait.

Lansbery’s Wait is maternal and sincere. You feel in her performance that Lovett is desperate for someone to care for and nurture. Her desire to find the flower that will make his killing chamber less austere may be little crazy, but her concern is genuine.

Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be video of Lupone’s reprisal of Mrs. Lovett from the 2004 Broadway staging, so we can’t see her acting. But we can hear plenty in the original cast recording of the song.

In this version, particularly in the second half, you’re hearing a more manipulative Mrs. Lovett. When Todd asks about the judge, her concern turns to her deceptions. She replies:

“Can’t you think of nothing else? Always broodin’ away
on yer wrongs what happened heaven knows how many
years ago!”

At this point she turns angry and a little desperate. If Todd is entirely obsessed with the past he’ll be of essentially no help to her at all. Eventually he’ll discover that the mad woman of Fleet Street is actually his wife.

Finishing The Character
In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim call Lovett the “true villain” of Sweeney Todd. And that may be the case. She gleefully sends many innocent men to the meat grinder. But great characters can and should be interpreted by directors, actresses, and audiences. There’s no reason you couldn’t find a little love for this former resident of Fleet Street.