Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Sweeney Todd

Now I've done it.  It's bad enough that I put Mamma Mia! on the Right list, but a Burtonized Sweeney Todd?

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), directed by Tim Burton, was well-received upon its release, but has apparently received mixed reviews from fans of the stage musical.  The stage musical was written by the legendary Stephen Sondheim and premiered on Broadway in 1979, then in the West End in 1980.

Based on 19th Century legends, Sweeney Todd is the tale of a London barber who just finished serving a long sentence for a crime he did not commit.  He was sentenced by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who lusted after his pretty young wife.  After Todd -- then known as Benjamin Barker -- was shipped off, Turpin invited his wife, Lucy, to his home under false pretenses and then raped her.  Lucy took arsenic afterward, and the judge took her and Barker's young daughter, Johanna, as his ward.  Flash forward 15 years, and Todd returns to his old home to find Mrs. Lovett's "worst pies in London" shop in its place.  Turns out that she saved his barber blades for him, and Todd resurrects his old career with a new twist: he will use the blades to cut the throats of his enemies, including Judge Turpin.  The corpses then slide down a chute to the floor below, where Mrs. Lovett bakes them into pies.

Sondheim's score is at turns whimsical and haunting.  The singing flows at a fast clip, like a spirited conversation, and can be at times difficult to follow.  Much of this was preserved in the transition from stage to film, so let me address the biggest criticisms about the transition.

The movie is shorter than the stage musical (a version of which can be viewed here) by a good hour.  It has cut several songs, most notably "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" which bookends the musical (instead, the instrumental version plays over the opening credits), as well as the chorus, which add to much of the stage musical's dreary humor.  Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Helena Bonham-Carter (Mrs. Lovett) do not have strong singing voices compared to stage performers in the roles, including Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.  In fact, no one apart from Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony) appears to have a trained singing voice.*

As much as I like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," I don't think that Burton's choice to remove it and other songs hurt the movie.  Of course, it's easy for me to say, as I don't have a long-standing passion for the musical, and I'm not a huge Sondheim fan.  I can only judge the movie as a basic newcomer.  As someone new to Sweeney Todd, who viewed the stage musical only after I had seen the movie, I think the movie works very well.  In fact, it's one of the better recent movie musicals I've seen.

The Good

1.  The Sondheim Effect.  Much that is good about the movie can be traced directly to the source: the Stephen Sondheim score and lyrics.  Sondheim manages to mine all of the humor and pathos that one can mine from a story where people are killed and baked into pies.  His word choice and rhyme schemes are often quite clever:

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.

The songs range from buoyant duets to soulful ballads.  From listening to the soundtrack, I gather that Sondheim much preferred the former to the latter.  There are times when Sondheim's songs feel more like an extended dance than like self-contained songs that you remember in their entirety afterward, but it's a case of Your Mileage May Vary.  Even if most of the songs do not feel self-contained, there are plenty of lyrics that stick in your head hours later, such as the ones above, and:

There was another man who saw that she was beautiful
A pious vulture of the law
Who with a gesture of his claw
Removed the barber from his plate
Then there was nothing but to wait.

The music deserves as much credit as the lyrics -- Sondheim fills the score with eery inflections that remain in the brain even during lighter, more rousing scenes.  Despite the variety of the score (compare "Johanna" to "God, That's Good!" to "Epiphany"), it is the dark, haunting parts that seem to predominate, and resonate.           

2.  The Burton Effect.  Tim Burton has a basic black-gray scheme that he seems to fit to every film he directs.  In the case of Sweeney Todd, it feels entirely appropriate.  His 1846 London is black buildings scraping a foggy gray sky, where a pale moon strains to break through.  The cobblestones are always wet.  The people look like the "ghosts" and "vermin" that Todd speaks of early on.  The atmosphere manages to do the work of numerous songs in establishing the mood.

Even though Burton cut a lot of material, he did not scrimp on gore, nor back away from the macabre humor.  Who would have guessed that watching numerous people meet their doom could be so fun?

3.  Good Casting Choices.  Some have criticized Depp and Bonham Carter for being too young for their parts, but I don't really see it.  Yes, George Hearn was 48 during his 1982 portrayal, but Depp and Bonham Carter were in their 40s as well -- not exactly kids.  Yes, it gets a bit tiring that they are cast in every Tim Burton movie, but at least here they fit for the most part.  Depp is more toned down and somber than some of the stage Sweeney Todds, but still delivers maniacal energy when required.  Admittedly, he does look a bit like an aging Edward Scissorhands.  Bonham Carter is probably the weakest link musically, but she brings an oddball misfit quality that works for the character.  You could believe that this Mrs. Lovett would have no trouble embracing cannibalism.

The secondary characters are also well-cast for the most part, including Alan Rickman as the sinister Judge Turpin, and Timothy Spall as his slimy sidekick, Beadle Bamford.  The most inspired casting, though, might be Ed Sanders as Toby Ragg, the assistant of a disposed-of rival who views Mrs. Lovett as a mother figure.  Apparently the Toby character is normally played by adult men, and in the case of the 1982 version, the character was just... odd.  Here, he is just 10 years old, so it's easier to feel more pathos for the character -- mistreated by his master, thinks he's found a better situation, only nope.  Sanders is a strong actor with a grim face that works particularly well, especially toward the end.  

4.  Sometimes Less Is More.  As someone who tends to be very protective of every lyric of musicals she loves, I understand how fans of the stage musical could take umbrage at what was cut.  But I will say that in some instances, the cuts appear to be an improvement.  For instance, the devastating final scene is extended in the stage version, so that it loses some of its impact.

The Bad

1.  Hmm... Yeah, the Singing's Not So Good.  As mentioned, it sometimes feels like Sondheim sacrificed memorable songs for clever wordplay.  Your Mileage May Vary in terms of how much it bothers you, and it does bother me to an extent.  Ironically, the most memorable song of the musical, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," was sacrificed.  However, the general lack of memorability may have more to do with the singing than the songs themselves.  Depp could be described as an "adequate" singer, while Bonham-Carter is passable at best.  "The Worst Pies in London" is a pretty humorous song, but coming from Bonham-Carter, it sounds soft, monotone, and difficult to understand.  Likewise, if Depp had a stronger voice, "Epiphany" might be more of a show stopper.

2.  Some Characters Marginalized.  The shorter running time means that certain characters and relationships have less time to develop than in the stage musical.  For example, in the stage musical, we learn that Anthony got to know Todd after he saved his life during a shipwreck; whereas in the movie, we don't know what connection Anthony has to Todd other than that they were on the same ship.  Why does he keep showing up at Todd's shop?

Likewise, although Johanna is a central character, she feels oddly marginalized, as does her romance with Anthony.  Maybe it's not such a bad thing -- their romance is the most blandly conventional thing in this movie -- but still worth noting.    


Over the top, yet restrained, this is the best film that Tim Burton has directed in at least the past 10 years.  It is worth watching and enjoying for the atmosphere and music, and will hopefully serve to get more people interested in the full stage musical.

* Rumor was that Campbell Bower was the first to be offered the Enjolras role in the Les Miserables movie, but turned it down.  Don't know if there's any truth to it.  

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Dreamgirls, Les Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENT, Across the Universe, Rock of Ages, Hairspray   

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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