Doodad Kind of Town


"Sweeney Todd" On Screen At Last!!! – My Review
December 22, 2007, 3:30 pm
Filed under: Musicals, Stephen Sondheim

It’s been an odd sort of a Christmas season for me, musically. Oh sure, I’ve got the usual collection of holiday CDs rattling around in my car. There’s “Christmas with the Rat Pack,” “Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You a Swinging Christmas,” “The Barbara Streisand Christmas Album,” “Charlie Brown Christmas” – all my annual favorites. But in between the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” “jingle all the way” and Vince Guiraldi’s tinkling piano, there are some other refrains blasting from my dashboard. Like:

“We all deserve to die
Tell ya why, Mrs. Lovett, tell ya why”

Or the eminently memorable:

“There’s a hole in the world like a great, black pit
And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And it goes by the name of London”

Not your average Yuletide fare, but then, this isn’t your average Christmas season. This is the Christmas when Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterwork “Sweeney Todd” will at last be seen on the big screen. And I am among the Sondheim-o-philes who have been breathlessly, anxiously awaiting this moment in cinema history.

So, of course, I’ve had the original Broadway cast recording in my CD player regularly over the last couple of weeks. And every time I listen to it, I’m filled with as much giddy good cheer as if I’d been swigging rum punch and snogging a cute boy with candy-cane breath under the mistletoe.

Yep, I swoon for “Sweeney Todd;” it’s long been my favorite stage musical. I even performed in the chorus of a Indianapolis production of “Sweeney” in 1993. Its combination of Grand guignol horror, dark wit, and indescribably beautiful music have haunted me for years. Lest the above-quoted lyrics scare you off, be assured that there are lush, romantic ballads and lively comedy numbers to offset the darker musical interludes.

For the uninitiated, “Sweeney Todd” is rooted in a London legend about a barber who “shaved the faces of gentlemen” and then slit their throats. In Sondheim’s musical telling, there’s a back story in which a judge, who coveted young Sweeney’s wife, sent him to prison in Australia, the better to get to his missus and young daughter. The story opens as Sweeney returns to London, by which time his wife has poisoned herself, and his daughter has become the ward of the judge, who now intends to marry her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett -the widow who runs the meat pie store below Sweeney’s old barber shop (and “always had a fondness for him”) recognizes Sweeney and moves him into her flat. Eventually, Sweeney’s barber chair victims end up under the crusts of her pies.

It’s all a bit sick and twisted for musical comedy (not to mention for the holiday season), so who better than director Tim Burton to bring it all to the silver screen? Burton has solid credentials in the realm of the weird and macabre (start with “Beetlejuice” and go right through his entire career), plus some demonstrated affinity for musicals (in his animated films “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride”). And he had both Sondheim’s blessing and active participation. So I came to the film version of “Sweeney Todd” with an open and optimistic mind.

Or at least, I thought my mind was wide open. Turns out, my love of the source material is so strong that I have a very hard time judging Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” solely on its own merits. Had I never seen a stage version of “Sweeney,” I think I would have found the film version to be satisfying, even brilliant. But as a devotee of the original work, I find the heavily edited score and the uneven casting to be major disappointments.

My love of “Sweeney Todd” is all about my love of its rich, complex, challenging musical score. That a large portion of that score has been jettisoned here in the interest of moving the story along for restless cinema audiences is understandable – but the result is that Burton’s film is not the same “Sweeney” I love so much. And I tend to question if all the cuts were really in the interest of storytelling economy, or were necessitated by the singing limitations of the actors.

Which brings me to one of my personal cardinal rules for filmmakers: NEVER cast a musical with non-singers!

A corollary of this rule: Directors should not cast their non-singing girlfriends in leading musical roles. Peter Bogdanovich learned this last lesson the hard way 30 years ago after letting his paramour, Cybil Sheppard, loose on Cole Porter tunes in “At Long Last Love.” Unfortunately, Helena Bonham Carter is already getting a lot of acclaim – and probably tying up an Oscar nomination – for a performance my friend accurately described as “an abomination.”

I’ll concede that Bonham Carter has some fine moments of tenderness and slatternly humor. But Mrs. Lovett is not the kind of character role you can pull off without a real singing voice. It’s a vocally demanding role that requires a two-octave range and the ability to sell two big comedic solo numbers. Bonham Carter has maybe four good notes, and her weak, breathy, trying-to-be-a-Cockney-sexpot voice suggests that no one taught her how to sing from her diaphragm. She can barely get enough air to make it through one phrase. Her big numbers -“Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea” only manage to work because Burton, stages them in a manner that actually takes the focus off Lovett and milks laughs from Depp’s reactions to her. The humor in the lyrics is all but lost.

While Johnny Depp is not really a singer, either, I was far more satisfied with his performance. He acts the hell out of the title role, of course -you really wouldn’t expect any less. Depp has a pop/rock timbre, not the ‘legitimate’ voice that you normally associate with Sweeney. It isn’t powerful, but it’s expressive and shaded with the perfect amounts of anguish and rage for a character teetering on the brink of madness and obsessed with revenge. In his major duets with Bonham Carter (“My Friends” and the first-act closer “A Little Priest”), Depp carries the day brilliantly. In fact “A Little Priest” is probably the musical highlight, virtually the only song in “Sweeney” that generates the same mad, electric thrill on celluloid that it did on stage.

Among the supporting cast, there are also delights and disappointments.

Sascha Baron Cohen is a hoot as Pirelli, a faux-Italian dandy hawking his miracle hair-growth elixir (and he can sing!) The role of Tobias, a lad who works first for Pirelli, then for Sweeney and Lovett, is usually portayed as a simple-minded young man, possibly in his early twenties; in the film, he’s played by a pre-pubescent boy (with the the prematurely middle-aged-sounding name of Ed Sanders.) Sanders has a beautiful voice, and his extreme youth underscores the poignancy of his mistreatment by Pirelli. He has the show’s best ballad, “Not While I’m Around,” and he delivers it beautifully.

Alan Rickman plays the Judge with a delicious, restrained depravity. He’s given considerably more lines in the film, which is appropriate since his big song, “Johanna,” is gone. Rickman frankly doesn’t have the pipes to pull off the song, so his new dialogue establishes the depths of his evil in a way the song did in the stage version.

Timothy Spall is all you could hope for in a Beadle (the Judges’ slimy, sycophantic sidekick) – except a countertenor, which is the vocal range this part was written for. Spall, while he can sing well enough, is a baritone, and so the Beadle’s numbers are almost completely gone. The snippet of “Ladies and their Sensitivities” that remains made me wonder how the entire song would have sounded without the high notes; I doubt it would be as good.

There is a subplot involving a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter and tries to rescue her from the Judge. Bower, with his long, wavy hair, big eyes, and fine features looks more like a 16-year-old girl than a young man who has “sailed the world/beheld its wonders.” However, he does justice to the show’s other big ballad, “Johanna” (not to be confused with the judge’s “Johanna” or another “Johanna” sung by Sweeney later – I told you the music was complex.) The young lovers are cute enough, but their roles have been severely reduced for the film; they’re not onscreen enough for us to care what happens to them, and we don’t find out anyway.

Some other changes, most of which I didn’t care for:

– The Beggar Woman, a major supporting character in the original, has been effectively reduced to an extended cameo in the film The cryptic clues to the surprise, twist ending that she delivers throughout the show are virtually gone.

– The chorus is gone, too. I didn’t really miss the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd;” it ‘s used as instrumental underscoring throughout the film, anyway. But the omission of the chorus parts in big numbers like “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “God, That’s Good” make those songs a whole lot less fun.

– My favorite scene in the play was Act 2, Scene 2 – in which Sweeney sings his “Johanna” while methodically doing away with the men who sit in his barber chair, while the sailor sings his “Johanna” in juxtaposition to Sweeney while wandering the dark streets of London in search of his lost love. It doesn’t work nearly as well in the film, and that’s because a third voice is missing, that of Johanna herself, singing of her hope that the sailor will “marry me one day.” That song has been cut from the film altogether.

– Big “duh!” here, but the film is about fifty times gorier and more graphic than the stage version. On stage, when Sweeney wields his razor, you see maybe a trickle of raspberry syrup across the victim’s throat. In the film, there are great, gushing spurts of preternaturally red blood spurting from severed arteries. Be warned, it’s a little hard to watch.

If you’re still reading at this point, you probably are also a devotee of the original “Sweeney Todd,” and I’ve told you more than you needed to know. I will repeat my original point: if you are not particularly connected to the source material, and you like Tim Burton’s movies in general, you are likely to love this film. But we Sondheim-o-philes have some serious getting-over-ourselves to do if we want to embrace it.

A couple of final points: I would be seriously remiss if I did not mention that “Sweeney Todd” is – like all Burton’s films – visually stunning, with sets that perfectly evoke the creepiness of London’s Victorian East End. And although much of the original music is gone, that which remains is beautifully orchestrated. The Oscars for Art Direction, Set Direction, Costume Design and Adapted Musical Score are pretty much wrapped up here, I think.

And now –

I must wish you all a happy holiday! I will be out of the blogosphere for the next several days, gone to spend Christmas with family (including my elderly parents who don’t own a compute, let alone have an internet connection.) Please travel safe this season, and enjoy your holiday. I will be back next week.

(all photos are from imdb.com)

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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi P-Great review. I look forward to watching this. My friend sent me the CD and it is haunting.Happy New Year!

Comment by Parisjasmal

Wonderful review. Insightful, a great read. I hope some lucky paper picks you up as a reviewer and pays you very well. They will never regret it.You have reviewed a production that I have loved since the 1979 broadway version.Many thanks,Leil LowndesAuthor of “How to Talk to Anyone”

Comment by Leil Lowndes

Hi Jen! Hope you’re enjoying the “Sweeney” CD! Leil – Thank you for your kind comments. I hope you’ll keep coming back. It is always nice to hear from another “Sweeney Todd” appreciator.

Comment by Pat

Did you know it was Stephen Sondheim himself that casted Helena Bonham Carter? Burton didn’t want her in the role, Sondheim gave it to her without him knowing it.
Actually he had a lot to say about the casting – and also about the ‘way’ the actors should sing =)

Comment by Anton

Anton ,

First of all, thanks for stopping by, reading my old post, and taking the time to comment. I appreciate your input.

I actually read a lot about film’s casting while it was in process, and while I have read that Sondheim liked her performance, I’ve not read that he actually picked her. In truth, many of the people who’ve done Sondheim on stage have been less than stellar singers. But every other Lovett I’ve seen (Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Judy Kaye) has a robust voice, and Bonham Carter’s wan, breathy, little girl voice is extremely hard for me to take. Just my take. I suppose it’s pretty arrogant of me to disagree with the composer, but I freely admit, these are my personal preferences.

Incidentally, I just watched “Sweeney” again last night on BBC America, so I’m speaking from recent experience of the film here.

Comment by pat0105




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