Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around”: A Chilling Take on the Soaring Ballad

Today marks the 94th anniversary of the birth of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away in 2021.

Sondheim’s multifaceted songs were always conceived with a dramatic situation in mind. Taken as stand-alone works, they become vignettes of character and drama.

Not While I’m Around comes from the second act of Sondheim’s 1979 musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which a vengeful barber gives multiple victims the ultimate close shave, after which their corpses become inexpensive filling for Mrs. Lovett’s neighboring meat pie shop. The song is a duet between Mrs. Lovett and Tobias Ragg, a homeless youth who has become her helper. Tobias’ suspicions have been aroused regarding Sweeney’s grisly enterprise, and he vows to protect Mrs. Lovett, whom he has adopted as a mother figure.

Tobias’ music is tender at first, and then lushly soaring and heroic. Still, there is an underlying uneasiness. Emerging from an icy vamp in the harp, Not While I’m Around delivers razor-edged suspense. Mrs. Lovett’s response is accompanied by a syrupy, dissonant solo violin obligato. Stephen Banfield notes that the melody begins with an inversion of the Dies irae, a motif which occurs throughout the score. Additionally, the end of the first phrase contains a (perhaps coincidental) motivic echo of Jule Styne’s Distant Melody, a comforting lullaby from the 1954 musical, Peter Pan. 

Evoking a flood of contrasting emotions, Not While I’m Around is an ironic tour de force. The original Broadway cast album features a performance by Ken Jennings and Angela Lansbury:


  • Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Broadway Cast Album) Amazon

Featured Image: Ken Jennings and Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” photograph by Martha Swope

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around”: A Chilling Take on the Soaring Ballad”

  1. Ken Jennings’s version is stupendous. It’s a perfect example, an apotheosis even, of a style of singing sadly disappearing from the earth: the Broadway musical voice, projected from the diaphragm, operatic in its production but not of course the style. He has such a wonderful voice, powerful, confident, sweet.


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