Monday, December 24, 2007

Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd"



First, full disclosure.

I saw the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” 13 times between 1979 and 1980. (I’m dating myself here, I know.) Yes, 13 times. And that doesn’t include the piece’s various incarnations on the road and in concert form.

To say that I was obsessed is putting it mildly. I still am. I also feel a strong, unnatural propriety towards it. Consequently, I awaited Tim Burton’s new film version with a combination of heated anticipation and debilitating dread.

I mean, I’ve waited nearly 30 years for this film.

Finally, it’s here. Finally, a show that is perhaps the single most cinematic stage musical of all time has made it to the screen - three decades late/later. The inexplicable nature of the situation is actually easily explained: “Sweeney Todd” got caught in the plight of the film musical, a venerable genre that has been allowed to die a slow, painful, humiliating death because (1) there are virtually no film-musical advocates among New Hollywood’s ranks and (2) the general moviegoing public has become terminally masculinized (women included) and homophobic (again, women also included). No self-respecting modern man would admit to enjoying a film musical. That would imply a testosterone deficiency. Exactly when did the film musical become so seriously taboo for men? My father loved musicals (as well as Westerns, war films and comedies) and it was always a big event for the family to go to big, lavish roadshow musicals. It’s called entertainment.

Frankly, I never thought “Sweeney Todd” would make it to the screen – I had no faith in the process – and it’s a miracle that it actually got made. In the ‘80s, I thought that only Stanley Kubrick would have knack or the clout to pull it off. When Columbia announced way back in January of 1992 – 16 years ago! – that it was negotiating to produce a film version, Burton was attached as director. And he seemed like a good fit, too. But that idea fizzled out, until it was reborn a couple years ago with Sam Mendes on board to direct John Logan’s adaptation. Russell Crowe was Mendes’s choice to play Sweeney and a good one it was.

But all speculation and fantasy is over. Burton delivered a more-than-satisfying film that works as a triumph of fidelity and compromise. The first thing he got right: He retained the full title – “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” (I’m sure there were powers who wanted to shorten it.) Also, Burton, being who he is, took large risks here, some of them quite radical, and, against all odds, just about all of them work. Burton got to make the film according to his own, idiosyncratic vision and also one that honors its legendary source material.

He has deconstructed and redefined “Sweeney Todd,” creating a film that beautifully compliments its stage predecessor. His “Sweeney Todd” is at once different from the play and yet not different at all. It’s a unique achievement.

Given my status as a foremost “Sweeney Todd” expert (indulge me here!), I’d like to extend and comment on ideas already expressed in the film’s pre-release publicity and the subsequent reviews. Here goes…

-The film’s running time. It’s been mentioned on more than one occasion that scenarist John Logan whittled a three-hour stage play down to a two-hour movies (117 minutes, to be specific). To the best of my knowledge, the stage “Sweeney” never ran three hours. In fact, the Warner Bros. DVD recording of a 1982 stage performance at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn) runs 139 minutes, sans intermission break. That’s two hours and 20 minutes. The actual performance probably ran closer to 150 minutes with the intermission.

-Eliminating the show’s chorus. Much has been made of Burton’s decision to cut the crucial chorus number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which not only bookends the show but is strewn throughout it. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the film has no chorus at all. It was eliminated also from “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and, most glaringly, from “God, That’s Good!” The latter has been cut back so much that its title no longer even figures into the lyric. The bulk of the show's singing is now carried by the two leads, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, with the five supporting players getting one or two songs each. Along the same lines, the film also eschews dancing, even though Francesca Jaynes is listed as choreographer.

-Cut songs. Burton has been amazingly faithful to Sondheim's epic score. There are 20 tracks on the Nonesuch soundtrack album. He has estimated that his film consists is 75% singing. That’s a lot. Still, realistically, some songs had to go. In addition to the aforementioned "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," also missing are "Ah, Miss," "Kiss Me," “Wigmaker Sequence.” "The Letter" and "Parlour Songs." A third version of "Johanna" - yes, Sondheim wrote three separate songs titled "Johanna" - that was sung by the Judge Turpina character when the show when it originally opened, was eventually cut and has had the tendency to come and go from the various productions of "Todd" that I've seen over the years.

Also, the second half of “The Contest,” which also appeared and disappeared in different productions of the show, is not in the film. And like “God, That’s Good!,” another number, “Ladies in their Sensitivities,” was cut in such a way that it’s title is no longer mentioned in its lyric. Its middle section has been cut.

-“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Burton has never fully explained his decision to cut this song which many believe to be the heart of Sondheim’s show and the key number in his score. It’s in John Logan’s shooting script, strewn throughout the story as it was on stage. The official word is that the song was dropped when the set had to be closed down for two weeks while Johnny Depp was away tending to his sick daughter, Lila-Rose. That makes sense, I guess. But wasn’t the song recorded in advance of filming, along with the rest of the score, and, if so, why isn’t on the soundtrack album? Reportedly, half-a-dozen actors were hired to sing the song as ghosts in the film, including veteran actor Christopher Lee. Lee, who can sing opera, told Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk, "It would have been worse if I had done the scenes, but I never got to film them. It's a shame as the lyrics were wonderful, but these things happen."

Also in Logan's script is the full "God, That's Good!," replete with the responses from the chorus. Again, I would love to know Burton's rationale for eliminating the chorus from the piece.

-Excision of the show’s humor. On stage, Sondheim’s show was a prime example of Grand Guignol, mixed with musical comedy. As a result, it was very, very funny, albeit in a sick way. The “God, That’s Good!” number being a prime example, with the chorus pounding on tables and demanding “More pies! More hot pies!,” while juices run out of their mouths. Burton, however, set out to make more of a horror movie in the tradition of Hammer Films. He opted for chills over laughs.

-Toning the cannibalism. The film of “Sweeney Todd” attracted immediate pre-release interest when the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America awarded it an R rating for its rampant blood-letting. While Burton gleefully bathes his film in blood, it’s curious that he downplays the cannibalism aspect of his story. True, Mrs. Lovett still bakes the remains of Sweeney’s victims in pies, but we never really see her customers devouring them. Again, this was plainly socked across in “God, That’s Good!” in its full, original form.

-The main Broadway connection. Despite the various tweaks, Burton’s film is amazingly faithful to what Sondheim originally attended. The filmmaker honors his composer by having recruited two of Sondheim’s house players to handle the movie’s score – Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the music (cleaving close to his original stage orchestrations) and Paul Gemignani who conducted the 78-piece orchestra. Both are long-time associates. Burton may have made his horror film but it comes with some exhilarating Broadway bombast.

-The stage recording versus the soundtrack. “Sweeney” on film sounds great, never better, thanks to that huge orchestra, and non-singers Depp and Bonham Carter are more than impressive in their interpretation of Sondheim. But the original stage recording with Lansbury and Len Cariou remains the definitive recording of “Sweeney” (even over other stage recordings of the score). While Depp’s and Bonham Carter’s voices both come across as too small and too quiet on the CD soundtrack, perhaps a little too moody, their renditions soar on the big screen. It’s a case where the actors’ faces and their expressiveness add to their reading of Sondheim’s intricate lyrics. As a result, I enjoyed their voices much more during the performance than on the recording.

With that said, it will be interesting to see if the public accepts this very demanding film musical. As the New York Times so handily put it, "it's not 'Hairspray.'" I think "Sweeney Todd" will be the litmus test for the film musical and its future as a marketable entity.

Note in Passing: The tale of "Sweeney Todd" has been filmed twice in the past decade for major, songless TV productions - Dave Moore's "Sweeney Todd" (2006), starring Ray Winstone and Essie Davis, and John Schlesinger's "The Tale of Sweeney Todd," starring Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley. There are also two antique versions - George Dewhurst's "Sweeney Todd" (1926) and George Dibdin Pitt's "Sweeney Todd" (1928).

(Artwork: Depp and Bonham Carter in the "My Friends" number and singing "A Little Priest"; Sondheim's hand-written lyric and music for "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," excluded from the film; Depp and Alan Rickman duet on "Pretty Women," and Depp as Todd)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

5 comments:

Barry said...

"Sweeney" is the drop-dead hit of the year, if you ask me. It explodes on screen with vigor and brightness even though it is dark and about death. Quite an achievement!

Barry said...

"Sweeney" is the drop-dead hit of the year, if you ask me. It explodes on screen with vigor and brightness even though it is dark and about death. Quite an achievement!

chris schneider said...

I don't come close to your repeated exposure to the material, Joe, have owned the Lansbury/Cariou album and and I have seen it on stage (Hearn and Lansbury in Los Angeles).

I like the new film a lot, although there's stuff that I miss. The "Kiss Me" duet, f'rinstance, which was one of the first things on the album that I fell for.

The pallid nature of the new film's singing ... strikes me as, if nothing else, making dramatic sense because of the film's picture of a beaten-down and exhausted urban proletariat. Funny, though, that this wasn't thought necessary for the "Little Shop of Horrors" movie. If the trio in that movie can be vigorous, why can't the characters in "Sweeney"?

And has anyone mentioned, by the way, the similarity between Mrs. Lovett's "By The Sea" and Audrey's "Something Green"?

John K. said...

I finally saw the movie and loved it. From Johnny Depp's growls and Carter's baby voice to the body's entering the basement head first ( a very gruesome touch ).

jbryant said...

Loved it. I'm no expert like you, Joe, having seen only the taped version of the Hearn/Lansbury production and owning the LP of the original cast recording (also met Len Cariou at LAX once!), but I thought it was a superb adaptation.

It's great that Sondheim himself and lovers of the original such as you are enthusiastic about Burton's take. My only fear is that the studio's odd release schedule is hurting the film. Though the mix of Broadway and blood-letting was probably always going to be a hard sell to the average moviegoer, a more confident, wide release might have pulled more people in.