Why Johanna from Sweeney Todd is Totally a Princess

Previously, I wrote a little about why Mulan is a Disney Princess even though she doesn't have the actual title of "princess." Now, I'd like to talk about one of my favorite live-action movies with another unofficial cross-dressing princess, Sweeney Todd. This macabre musical strikes a perfect balance between dark themes of cannibalism and murder with romantic ideals of true love and faith (or lack thereof). Johanna is the naive daughter of the title character, which technically makes her the princess of the story. That's not the only reason I consider her a princess, though. Let's take a look.


Like Cinderella and Snow White, Johanna was raised as an orphan by an abusive parent. It wasn't until she fell in love with Anthony, the sailor who had rescued her father at sea, that she saw a hope of escaping her unfortunate situation. She spent most of her days locked in her room under close watch like Rapunzel, singing to the birds about her desire for freedom. "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" is quite possibly the most princessy song I have ever heard. I don't know what other image could possibly come to mind from a soprano number about wishing to fly away like the birds while resorting to song to forget her misery for the time being. All of the songs in Sweeney Todd were quite breathtaking, but this one particularly spoke to me as a princess lover.

Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd came out in 2007, but it was based on a Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim in 1979. This was the very same composer who penned Into the Woods, which featured the literal character of Rapunzel, so it's little surprise how much the two have in common. Sondheim's musical version of Sweeney Todd was inspired by a penny dreadful written in 1876 entitled The String of Pearls. In it, Johanna was introduced as "Johanna Oakley," and appeared to have no relation to the demonic Sweeney Todd. In Sondheim's version, she was revealed to be Johanna Barker, the daughter of Sweeney's alter ego, Benjamin Barker. Sondheim humanized Sweeney by turning his villainous deads into a vengeful plot against Judge Turpin, who had presumably raped and murdered his wife, Lucy, and stole his daughter, Johanna, as his ward when she was only a baby.


Johanna certainly has the look of a fairy tale princess, with her iconic yellow locks, ruby red lips, and porcelain skin. Her off-the-shoulder dress, full skirt, and corset are fully on par with princess fashion. Though these were also common of the time period, Tim Burton stated that he was not trying to recreate a specific era in the movie as long as everything felt Victorian and blended in. Therefore, Johanna's clothes were more of a reflection of her personality than the era. She 16 years old in the movie, which tends to be a "magic" age for princesses. Tim Burton initially thought that the actress, Jayne Wisener, who was 19 at the time, was too old for the role, but changed his mind when she sent him pictures of herself with no make-up. Considering her flawless performance, I don't think I'm alone in saying that he made the right decision in the end.

The 2007 movie was my first introduction to Sweeney Todd, but I instantly fell in love with it and quickly became obsessed with the musical that it was based on. I was disappointed to learn that of all the characters in the movie, Johanna's suffered the most cuts. The cut scenes the play made her less ethereal for sure, but they also made her more human. Like many animated princesses, Johanna had a duet with her love interest called "Kiss Me." It was far more neurotic than anything you might hear in a Disney movie, but it's a terrible shame that it got cut from the film. The song demonstrated her fear of the judge, which was mostly overlooked in the movie, as well as solidifying her feelings for Anthony. The ending of Johanna and Anthony's story was cut from the film entirely, in which they discovered all of the horrible acts that Sweeney Todd had committed and run away to live happily together without ever learning the terrible truth that Johanna was really his daughter. I definitely felt the absence of this scene in the movie as their role in the story was left unresolved at the end.

In Tim Burton's version, Johanna is more of a concept than a person. Her name is used as the title of two of the most significant songs for both Anthony and Sweeney. Anthony sings about stealing her away from the judge's evil grasp, and Sweeney sings a gorgeous ballad about his worst fear of never seeing his daughter grown up while he simultaneously murders countless people and symbolically smears some of their blood over a portrait of Johanna and her mother. Though this could never be a children's movie, Johanna's role as a princess is very important. She is the perfect goddess who everyone wishes to obtain for themselves. It's no wonder she wishes she could fly away and become her own person. The play gives her more flaws, showing that she went a little crazy during the time she spent in the insane asylum. Fortunately, Anthony got her out of there before she was beyond help. Her father was less fortunate, as it took him fifteen years to escape, but by then it was too late. The asylum had turned him into a monster.

There is so much that I love about Sweeney Todd despite its admittedly gruesome themes. At its core, it is very much a love story. Love is so powerful that it can make people go crazy if it gets taken or if it is left unrequited. Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett represent relationships of the past, which are complicated and messy with the potential to become twisted into something entirely different over time. Johanna and Anthony represent new love for the future, which is pure and untainted, giving them an opportunity to live happily ever after if they choose to use it wisely.

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