Johanna sings of her resentment and envy towards her caged bird in a pivotal scene near Sweeney Todd‘s beginning. The song illustrates her desire to break free from her lavish confines or, failing that, at least learn how to accept her fate. Johanna doesn’t know much about the world outside, having lived as a ward to Judge Turpin for most of her life, yet she still understands–or at least forces herself to believe–that the direction of her life is not set in stone, that she can define her future the way she chooses. Ultimately, though, the alternative of learning to be content with what one has, while depressing, is the easiest reality to accept.
The choice between learning to fly and learning to sing plagues the cast of Sweeney Todd, a group of people all singularly driven by a promise of some specific thing–or more often, person–that could end their misery and begin a better life. For the titular Todd, it’s vengeance–having devoted so much of his life fantasizing Judge Turpin’s murder, the idea that anything else could give him purpose is as utterly hopeless as it is unrealistic. In other words, Sweeney will never sing.
This doesn’t deter Mrs. Lovett, who remains determined to carve a life out with her business partner/tenant/pseudo-love-interest by any means necessary. In “By the Sea,” Mrs. Lovett envisions a happy existence with Sweeney and their adoptive son, Toby, filled with vacations and parties and a cringeworthy wedding. Even amidst all this fantasy, however, Mrs. Lovett still can’t bring herself to picture Sweeney as anything other than what he is and always will be: a miserable, apathetic psychopath more likely to sulk and scour than enjoy the little things she so desperately craves. Mrs. Lovett is selective about her delusions, creating an interesting compromise between her best-case scenario future and the one she reasons is most likely to occur.
Judge Turpin, on the other hand, shares no such consideration. Johanna is to marry him and that is that. His mind works so linearly, leaving no room for needless distractions like other people’s feelings or the law–the latter being an institution he basically owns and runs singlehandedly. Turpin’s tunnel vision makes him a formidable judge with an ironclad (albeit wildly misconstrued) sense of morality and justice, while simultaneously giving him gigantic blindspots towards the nature of his surroundings. Turpin throws Johanna in a mental asylum after she refuses his proposal; then, when he’s told she has seen the error of her ways and wishes to reconcile, he blithely stumbles into the most obvious trap imaginable. The idea of Johanna rejecting his advances was so ludicrous to him that Turpin likely believed she was in fact seriously ill, which made it even easier for Sweeney and Anthony to dispose of him. If Turpin had even a modicum of self awareness or took his mind off his obsessive “prize” for only a moment, he would have realized Johanna–a girl he’d forced to live in solitude for her entire life and then subsequently threw in prison–would want nothing to do with him. Instead, the judge realizes too late that he’s been had, and the scales drop from his eyes upon the realization that his authority does not extend to the passions of the human heart.
Which leaves us with Anthony, likely the best candidate for the story’s true “protagonist” given his righteous determination and unrelenting optimism. His vision for a brighter tomorrow begins and ends with Johanna, whose beauty is so captivating he goes to extreme lengths just to have any fleeting contact with her at all. Johanna sees Anthony as symbolic of her vaguely defined better tomorrow: a dashing sailor who’s seen the world and wishes–nay, demands–to take her with him. When Anthony does finally rescue her from the asylum, however, her outlook has changed dramatically. When he drops her off at Sweeney’s apartment to hide while he hails a cab, Anthony happily observes that she’s finally safe. “Safe?,” Johanna remarks, “So we run away and then all our dreams come true?” Anthony tries to console her, stating the ghosts of her past won’t follow her. Johanna matter-of-factly replies, “No, Anthony. They never go away.”
Anthony is too idealistic and naive to understand Johanna’s sentiment, but to the audience it’s all too clear: Johanna has been shuffled from caretaker to prison, from padded cell to dingy apartment, all under the watchful eye of some male “guardian” wishing to exploit her. Anthony may have better intentions than Judge Turpin and the asylum’s master, but it will only be a matter of time before Johanna will have to make another grand escape. Her realization is indicative of the inevitable demise of each of the other major characters, who all fail to notice that their illusions are insubstantial because the objects of their desires are often fleeting and unreliable. Even birds who can fly must learn to survive the wilderness, and Sweeney Todd shows that in the long run, “happily ever after” often leads to an unsatisfactory, dangerous tomorrow.