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Boz versus Bos in Sweeney Todd: Dickens, Sondheim, and Victorianness

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Abstract:

The 1979 Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd derives (through Christopher Bond's 1973 melodrama) from the anonymously authoredThe String of Pearls (1846–47). The novel is often attributed to Thomas Peckett Prest, who so blatantly copied Dickens that he frequently wrote under the name “Bos.” Certainly The String of Pearls imitates some identifiable characteristics ofDickens's writing—outrageous characters, Pickwickian humor, and a sensational Newgate plot, like Oliver Twist's. Yet Prest crucially leaves out Dickens's powerful social critique. In contrast, Sondheim's adaptation reinserts the kind ofsocial criticism viewers associate with Dickens. It is from Dickens—and later adaptations of Dickens—rather than from the Victorian novel from which Sweeney Todd descends that Sondheim receives and assembles the traits that we interpret as Victorian. Sondheim intensifies the Victorianness ofhis play not by closely following the nineteenth-century source but by inserting details chiefly inherited from Dickens's Oliver Twist and, perhaps more surprisingly, from the 1960 musical adaptation Oliver!. Examining Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (on stage and in the 2007 Tim Burton film) in relation to The String of Pearls and Oliver! provides a potent vehicle for considering how we have come to understand Victorianness through what we read as Dickensian.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7756/dsa.042.003.55-76

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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  • Founded in 1970, the centennial anniversary of Dickens's death, DSA has been published since 1980 by AMS Press in cooperation with the Ph.D. program in English of the City University of New York and in association with the Graduate Center, CUNY and Queens College, CUNY. Besides presenting articles exploring the wide range of Dickens''s interests and talents, DSA also includes essays on other mid- and late- nineteenth-century authors and on the history and aesthetics of the period's fiction. In addition, each volume contains a substantial review article examining a prior year's scholarship on Dickens, and DSA occasionally publishes surveys of work on other Victorian writers, as well as review essays considering specialized studies of subjects in Victorian fiction. The editors seek to offer essays of "the most diverse kinds," those employing innovative as well as traditional approaches.
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