One of the more anticipated films of the fall-winter movie season is Tim Burton’s at-long-last adaptation of composer Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, the Tony award-winning Grand Guignol musical, “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” starring Johnny Depp in the title role and Helena Bonham Carter as his conspirator in crime, Mrs. Lovett.
This is just about a perfect mating of filmmaker with
material. And it’s been a long time coming. Although filmmakers have come and gone over the past couple decades (the most notable being Sam Mendes), the film was originally announced by Columbia in January of 1992 – 15 years ago! – with Burton attached as director.
At that time, Caroline Thompson, who collaborated with Burton on "Edward Scissorshands," was mentioned in the press as the potential adapter. The finished film, due out at the end of the year, is a Paramount/DreamWorks co-production, and John Logan, who wrote Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” did the writing duties.
"Sweeney Todd" opened on Broadway on March 1, 1979, and went on to win several Tony awards, including best musical, best book, best score, actor, best actress, best scenic design and best costume. The stage version cast Len Cariou as Benjamin Barker, a barber who, unjustly sentenced to prison, escapes after 15 years and returns to London to avenge his ruined life. He changes his name to Sweeney Todd and meets up with an unstable woman named Mrs. Lovett (the role created by Angela Lansbury), who bakes and sells meat pies. The two of them cook up a plan whereby Todd murders his customers, and Mrs. Lovett bakes their remains into meat pies.
The upcoming film version already has me reeling. While we wait, let’s entertain ourselves with the Stephen Sondheim already represented on film and video (which coincidentally includes a "Sweeney Todd" video of a stage performance). Here goes:
"West Side Story" (1961 film, 151 minutes): Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins co-directed this trailblazing, Oscar-winning update of the "Romeo and Juliet" legend for which a debuting Sondheim provided the exquisite lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's equally exquisite music.
"Gypsy" (1962 film, 149 minutes): The memoirs of strip queen Gypsy Rose Lee were the basis of this sure-fire musical for which Sondheim wrote the clever lyrics for Jule Styne's memorable music. Arthur Laurents' libretto was faithfully filmed by scripter Leonard Spigelgass and director Mervyn LeRoy; choreographer Robert Tucker re-created Jerome Robbins' stage dances, and Natalie Wood as Gypsy and Rosalind Russell as her mother were definitive. (Remade for TV in 1993.)
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966 film, 99 minutes): Sondheim's first solo show - a veritable burlesque with dirty old men and pretty young women - for which he wrote both the music and the lyrics, was filmed by Britisher Richard Lester in a distinctly European manner. Zero Mostel re-created his stage roles and room was found for Buster Keaton.
"Evening Primrose" (1966 TV special, 50 minutes): An original musical written for TV by Sondheim and James Goldman, casting Anthony Perkins as a shy, repressed guy who moves into a department store to escape the world, hiding during the daytime and coming out only at night. Charmaine Carr, in her only other role following her turn as Liesl in "The Sound of Music" (1965), sings the best song here - the ballad "I Remember Sky." Never rebroascast or put out on VHS or DVD, "Evening Primrose" can be seen only on kinescope at New York's Museum of Television & Radio.
"Original Cast Album: Company" (1970 film, 52 minutes): Sondheim's legendary "theme" musical - a first for Broadway - was never filmed, but documentary director D.A. Pennebaker (Bob Dylan's "Dont Look Back") filmed the recording session of the Broadway cast album. The movie played the 1970 New York Film Festival and then went out of circulation until 1990, when it popped up at Joe Papp's Public Theater.
"The Last of Sheila" (1973 film, 120 minutes): Sondheim collaborated with his buddy, the late Anthony Perkins, on the screenplay of this popular Herbert Ross film. Both scenarists were devotees of games and puzzles, and the entire film involves a series of charades and double and triple crosses.
"Stavisky" (1974 French film, 117 minutes): This voluptuously cool French film by Alain Resnais, about a swindler-charmer named Stavisky (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), who struggles to hide his Jewish origins, features '30s art deco elegance and a wonderful neo-Gershwin background score by Sondheim.
"A Little Night Music" (1977 film, 124 minutes): Harold Prince, who helmed the stage version, directed this movie of Sondheim's musicalization of the Ingmar Bergman film, "Smiles of a Summer Night," a roundelay about mismatched lovers, set in the country. Elizabeth Taylor, although seemingly perfectly cast as an aging,
girlish actress, is pretty bleak, but she does a nice job on "Send in the Clowns."
"Reds" (1981 film, 200 minutes): Sondheim's first screen collaboration with Warren Beatty. He scored the background music for this epic about the love between American Communists John Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), with Dave Grusin providing additional music.
"Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (1984 video, 139 minutes): Harold Prince directed this startingly good filmed-on-stage video version of the show, with Angela Lansbury encoring as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearne replacing Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd. Even the TV screen can't dwarf this show.
"'Follies' in Concert" (1985 video, 90 minutes): "Follies" was Sondheim's great stage musical of 1971. Its original cast album truncates the score. So director Herbert Ross recruited a stellar cast (Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Mandy Patinkin, Andre Gregory, Elaine Stritch) for a one-performance-only staging of the entire score at a special Lincoln Center performance. (Rumor has it that Fox once planned to film this with Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds int he lead role, a genuine missed opportunity.)
"Sunday in the Park With George" (1986 video, 120 minutes): Another stage-to-video transfer, this one directed by James Lapine ("Impromptu"), with Mandy Patinkin as the pointillist artist Georges Seurat and Bernadette Peters as his model Dot. The passion is palpable here.
"Dick Tracy" (1990 film, 104 minutes): Harry Connick Jr.'s original music for this comic-strip movie was rejected by filmmaker Warren Beatty. Danny Elfman was brought in to write the background score and Sondheim to compose the songs for Madonna's Breathless Mahoney and Mandy Patinkin's 88 Keys, one of which, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," won the Oscar.
"Into the Woods" (1991 video, 152 minutes): A video version of Sondheim's wicked take on popular fairy tales (one song is titled "Agony"), again filmed on stage. It should fill the bill for its aficionados and should also please those who were fans of Joanna Gleason's and Bernadette Peters' stage performances.
(Artwork: Depp and Bonham-Carter as Todd and Mrs. Lovett in Tim Burton's take on Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd"; Roz Russell streamrolling everyone as Madam Rose in "Gypsy")
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