Comparative Analysis Of Les Miserables And Sweeney Todd

Throughout the 20th century, many new musicals were written and debuted. The new musicals consisted of a variety of differences, including composition, genre, choreography, storyline, and many other key components needed to create a successful show. Along with the great diversity, there were also some similarities within shows. Two shows that show great resemblance towards one another are Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd. In both musicals, the stories consist of similar messages and details, many characters can relate to another, and many songs have similarities.

Les Miserables first premiered on Broadway in 1987. The story is set in France during the 19th century, and centers around a man named Jean Valjean, an ex-convict. Valjean escapes prison, and is being searched for by a man named Javert. After leaving prison, Valjean attempts to redeem himself. He meets the Thénardiers, a family taking care of Cosette, a deceased factory worker named Fantine’s daughter. Jean buys Cosette from the family, and together they flee to Paris. There, Cosette falls in love with a young law student, Marius. Marius associates with a group called the Friends of the ABC, and together they fight for democracy and head to the barricades. As Marius gets injured, Valjean continues to manifest greatness, and saves his life. Once Marius reaches a full recovery, him and Cosette get married. There, Valjean confesses his criminal acts to Marius and Marius prevents Cosette from having contact with him. Due to loneliness, Valjean awaits his death, alone. Once Marius hears of the news, he confesses to Cosette that her father saved his life at the barricades. They rush to the bedside of Valjean, and he dies in peace.

Sweeney Todd debuted in 1979, and tells the story of a Barber who returns home to 19th century London after being convicted. He was sent to jail on a wrong charge and was supposed to be imprisoned for life because the Judge wanted his wife. Upon arrival, Todd found out that the judge seduced his wife, and soon after she died. His goal is to take revenge on the Judge for ruining his life. While attempting to seek revenge, Todd comes upon Mrs. Lovett, the owner of a failing pie shop, known to have “The worst pies in the world.” As his plan to reach revenge slowly plays out, Todd is unable to maintain himself. He turns against the human race, and goes on a killing rampage, killing a great number of people. Mrs. Lovett the bakes the bodies into pies and sells them to customers.

There is great similarity within the storyline of each musical. The two main characters, Jean Valjean and Sweeney Todd are both ex-convicts, albeit for different reasons. When both of them get released from prison, they continue to behave mischievously. Jean Valjean, although looking for redemption, lies about his identity while Sweeney Todd does the unforgivable and murders many people. The storylines also consists of strong character development. Drastic changes occur throughout the stories that alter Jean Valjean and Sweeney Todd’s personalities. In the beginning of Les Mis, Valjean is released from prison after 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Soon after his departure, he steals silver from from Bishop and enters a new town under a false identity, and his life changes for the better. Sweeney Todd was sentenced to prison for life due to a false charge. The judge that gave him his sentence wanted to ruin Sweeney’s life for his wife. After getting out of jail, Sweeney decided to seek revenge and committed multiple crimes. Both musicals show drastic change in character development. Les Mis’s portrayal goes from criminal to good guy and Sweeney Todd displays good guy to criminal.

Another example of a similarity is that each character represents a vital part of society and delivers an important message to the audience. Both stories touch on serious topics, such as class, gender, power, good, evil, and many more. Both Jean Valjean and Sweeney Todd represent mistreatment of those in need. When Valjean originally gets released from prison, he isn’t welcomed back into the community. After being dismissed for once being a convict, when he finally is accepted into a home for a night, he continues to misbehave. Once he changes his identity, he is treated kindly by others which is when his life begins to transform. On a larger scale, those disadvantaged, oppressed, or in poverty should be treated with love and respect. An ex-convict is more likely to continue to act up when treated like a convict rather than a human being. When Sweeney Todd was released from prison, he committed multiple murders due to a feeling of anger and sadness after losing his wife. This is an example of the mistreatment of men in today’s society. There are many stigmas regarding men, their emotions, and how they are “supposed” to deal with them. Evidently, Sweeney Todd had or developed a mental illness, and instead of acknowledging it, it continued to get worse. Both of these examples portray the idea that both musicals incorporated a similar message into their characters regarding societal issues.

Another similarity between the two musicals is the effect that the shows had on the audience. Although the effects differed, both shows produced a new type of feeling that audiences haven’t felt before. Les miserables, “was the first mega-musical with any dramatic merit” (Musicals 101.) The audience was awed by the life changing story Jean Valjean and the characters that helped his development. Sweeney Todd had touched upon one of the darkest sides of humans and that created a unique feeling amongst audiences. It “explored emotional territory no musical had ever touched before.” 

Both of the musicals originated and were adapted from another story consisting of the same main character or plot. Les Miserables is a musical based on the famous novel “Les Miserables” written by Victor Hugo. “French songwriter, Alain Boublil, had the inspiration to adapt Hugo's novel into a musical while at a performance of the musical, Oliver!, in London”. The show was originally written and sung through in French until Cameron Mackintosh decided to translate an English version. The show was originally debuted in Paris, but only showed for around three months. In 1987, it first premiered on Broadway with 6,680 performances. The character Sweeney Todd also originated from a story called, “The String of Pearls.” In 1973 Christopher Bond added more of a psychological and creative storyline to the character and developed a play out of it. Stephen Soundheim felt as if adding music to the play would create an even more dramatic feel, and that’s what they did. Both musicals went through adaptations to get them to their final destinations.

The two musicals also have similarities in terms of the music aspect. One factor that makes Les Miserables somewhat unique is that all of the dialogue is recited through song. In comparison to this, the majority of the lines in Sweeney Todd are also recited through song. The musicals also consist of two songs that are similar to one another. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and “At The End of The Day’ both have many similarities in terms of meaning and composition. Both of the songs have similar sounds. The lyrics in both of the songs are clearly enunciated, yet quickly spoken. Another similarity between the two songs are they both help in giving the audience an understanding of the story and background behind what is happening.

Both of the musicals take place in countries other than the United States. Les Mis takes place in France during 1832. Two years prior to 1832, the July revolution put the “Orléanist monarchy on the throne, under the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe”. After this, the income gap widened and the conditions for the working class had become significantly worse. General Lamarque did actually die, and those in mourning and those who wanted to protest, did. Victor Hugo at the time was writing a play, and heard gunshots. He decided to follow the sound and came upon the infamous barricades. Sweeney Todd is also believed to be an actual person. It is believed that he was born in 1756 to an impoverished family. He embarked on a life a crime after his parents disappeared and ended up in prison at 14. There, he met a barber who shaved heads of condemned men. Overall, both stories are or are believed to be based off of true incidents that took place outside of America.

Both musicals were also written by composers with great talent. Stephen Sondheim who composed for Sweeney Todd, “has proved to be the most original and innovative force on Broadway since the late 1950's, when he first attracted attention as the lyricist for some of the songs in Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story”. Les Mis was composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, who also composed the famous musical, Mrs Saigon.

Although the two musicals are ultimately quite similar, there are also a variety of differences. One major difference between the two musicals are the popularity outcomes they produced. The, “1980s was a pivotal time period for musical theater in the United States”. Musicals played a part in the entertainment industry, but it was shows like Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis that introduced mega-musicals into the 80’s. Les Mis originated in Paris, but also showed in the, “West End and was the second longest-running show on Broadway”. The show also won many awards including three Tony’s and Drama Desk awards. The show continues to amaze audiences as it is currently touring around the United States. In opposition to this, Sweeney Todd was unfortunately unable to turn a profit. Fortunately, the show, like Les Mis were also granted multiple Tony Awards. In 1979, when Sweeney Todd mades it Broadway debut, most Broadway musicals cost $1,000,000 or more to produce, and weekly operating expenses were so high that even a two year run could not guarantee a profit.

Another difference between the musicals is the overall type of musical they were. Les Mis had more of a drama genre while Sweeney Todd was more of a thriller. The endings of the musicals also differed greatly. The ending of Les Mis was more heartwarming and quite the opposite of the ending of Sweeney Todd. Les Mis ended with Valjean ascending to death alongside Marius and his beloved Cosette. On the other hand, Sweeney Todd experienced an awful death, along with the majority of the other characters in the musical.

Overall, the two musicals, Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd have many similarities. The overall theme is a vital part of a successful story, and both musicals share multiple similar messages. The storyline of the characters in both musicals represent greater societal issues being faced today. Both Valjean and Sweeney go through various changes throughout the story leading up to an overall development of their characters. The dialogue is primarily recited through song in both of the musicals and some of their songs sound quite similar. These musicals tell the story of two men seeking revenge and redemption all while teaching lifelong lessons, creating a compelling storyline, and most importantly perform great music. 

16 August 2021
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