Friday, November 8, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Sweeney Todd (Revisited)

I don't normally do this, but I figured it was appropriate for the musical that many regard as Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece.  Prior to my review, I had listened to some of the songs and watched part of the stage musical, but I wanted to post the review while the movie was still fresh in my mind.

Since then, I have watched the entire stage production on YouTube with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, purchased the 2005 Broadway version with Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, and watched the 2001 Sweeney Todd concert in front of the San Francisco Symphony, starring LuPone, Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris as Toby.  While I feel as certain as before that Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd was a very good musical adaptation, I am able to approach the transition with a more nuanced perspective.

And durn it, if I can go on and on about the changes to Les Miserables over the years, I can at least give some attention to the American Mozart's masterwork, can't I?

After watching/listening to the various versions of Sweeney Todd, I had a greater appreciation for the various performers in the role (including Len Cariou, the original Sweeney), and for several of the songs in this dense production.  Without further ado... another list!

1.  Songs That the Movie Should Have Left Intact.  The one that comes to mind first and foremost is "God, That's Good!"  Though the movie leaves in a lot of good parts ("Bless my eyes... fresh supplies!"), it really does not begin to convey the complexity of that song.  Never has such a song (or most of the musical, for that matter) left me in such awe of the singers' (1) abilities to memorize and (2) elocution.  How many times did the singers need to practice before they perfected their delivery?  How often did they lie awake at night, terrified that they would forget a line?  

The other song I would have liked to see a little of, at least, is the title song.  It's just so deliciously menacing, the movie does not seem quite the same without it.  Burton could have just had the singing over the beginning credits -- there didn't need to be an actual chorus standing and singing.  For such an artistic man, it seems like a failure of creativity.

2.  Songs That the Movie Was Right to Cut.  "Kiss Me" is as complex and layered as any of the Sweeney Todd songs, and boy was Burton right to cut it.  First, the scenario -- Anthony and Johanna sneaking around behind Judge Turpin's back -- seems like something out of a sitcom, directly at odds with the musical's dark tone.  Second, it makes Johanna seem like a ninny, which undercuts the bittersweetness of moments where Anthony or Sweeney pine for her.  Then again, maybe that was the point.

I am also glad that Burton substantially reduced the Beggar Woman's role, because I think if it were larger, it would be much easier to spot the twist.  At the same time, the movie loses the darkly comic situation where his wife is the very first person to greet Sweeney Todd in London, yet he doesn't recognize her because he is so wrapped up in the Victorian purity image of her.  

Another song I wouldn't have minded axing is "By the Sea," which sounds like it belongs in a '60s B-movie starring Frankie Avalon.  But at least it doesn't turn Mrs. Lovett into an unlikeable ninny.

3.  Songs That Sound Better in the Stage Version.  It would be tempting to say "all of them," but that's not necessarily the case.  I actually think that Johnny Depp sounds just as good singing "No Place Like London" as George Hearn (in his own way, of course), and that Ed Sanders doesn't sound much worse singing "Not While I'm Around" than his older counterparts.  However, it is only through listening to the stage versions that I noticed the particular beauty of certain songs.

Take, for example, "Pretty Women."  What seemed like a silly, passable duet between Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp becomes a delicate layering of voices in the stage version, the aural equivalent of watching a flower bloom (I'm especially partial to the 2005 version).

Another stage version that is markedly better than the movie version is "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir."  While I think that Burton made a wise decision casting a kid as Toby, and that Ed Sanders was strong in the role, his singing can't match those of the adult Tobys when it comes to the more complex numbers.  With the adult performers, you get a much better sense of the songs' humor, and the many great lines pop out more, such as:

See that chap with
Hair like Shelley's?
You can tell he
Used Pirelli's!          

Likewise, without Helena Bonham Carter's soft, monotone singing, "Poor Thing" becomes a buoyant, tragic tale:

Of course when she goes there
Poor thing, poor thing
They're having this ball all in masks.
There's no one she knows there
Poor dear, poor thing.
She wanders tormented and drinks, poor thing!
The judge has repented, she thinks, poor thing!
"Oh where is Judge Turpin?" she asks.
He was there all right
Only not so contrite!

Finally, one song that really shines on stage is "A Little Priest."  Though I'm just as glad that Burton shortened it -- like Todd and Mrs. Lovett as they exchange puns, Sondheim seemed a little too pleased with his cleverness in this song, and just let it go on and on.

4.  The Best Actors in the Roles?  I think it's accurate to say that everyone brings a little something different to the Sweeney Todd role.  Johnny Depp is soft-spoken and morose.  Michael Cerveris is probably his closest stage equivalent, his voice cracking with fatigue and sadness.  Whereas George Hearn is more of an energetic, maniacal Sweeney Todd.  I haven't seen enough of Len Cariou or Michael Ball in the role, but from what I gather, Cariou is more of a straight belter, with less menace in his tone than some of the later Todds.  Ball seems to fall in between the "sad Sweeney" and "maniacal Sweeney" in his portrayal.

I don't know if there is a "best" Sweeney Todd, but rather each one seems to have strengths and weaknesses.  As I mentioned, I love Cerveris's version of "Pretty Women," but his voice lacks power in songs like "Johanna Quartet" or "Epiphany."  Whereas I really like George Hearn's "Epiphany," bristling with rage and madness, and I am also quite partial to Michael Ball's version.  Meanwhile, I think that Len Cariou's voice may be best suited for "Johanna Quartet."  Johnny Depp sounds moving in "The Barber and His Wife," as does Cerveris, and perhaps surprisingly, Hearn.  Hearn's portrayal can be too over-the-top at times, but in "The Barber and His Wife," his voice sounds delicate and real feeling cracks through.    

As for Mrs. Lovett, between Bonham Carter, Angela Lansbury, and Patti LuPone, I prefer Angela Lansbury.  However, you can't really say that the other two are bad.  Bonham Carter offers an interesting portrayal of a woman too burnt-out by life to care about the consequences of her actions.  LuPone is similarly cynical, but zestier, while Angela Lansbury plays the role as zany, yet sympathetic.  With only Beauty and the Beast to inform me, I was amazed to learn that Lansbury could really sing.  Even more amazing, while normally I criticize LuPone for her monotone singing and slurry diction, I could actually understand her much better than I could Lansbury.  The two strikes against LuPone are her accent (she's Cockney like I'm Cockney) and the slightly obnoxious edge she gives to the role.  That makes her probably my least favorite of the three.

Regarding Toby, the only one I dislike is the actor from 1982, who displays a great number of annoying ticks.  The other Tobys seem to tone it down a bit more, and of the adults, I am most partial to Neil Patrick Harris's portrayal.

5.  Stage Version I Most Wish to Have Seen.  I would love to see the Michael Ball version if it ever comes to this side of the pond.  Otherwise, the 2005 version sounded fantastic -- all involved not only did the singing, but played all of the instruments!   


Like any great musical, Sweeney Todd grows on you after a viewing.  The mind itches to master the complex lyrics, and songs that did not register the first time become stuck in your head after another listen.  Overall, I still think that Burton's movie does the musical justice, and let us hope that the same can be said of the upcoming Into the Woods.

On that note, I think I may have run out of actual good musicals to review within the past 10 to 20 years.  There remains, however, a highly well-known musical series out there that, try as I might, I cannot ignore.  At some point, I will need to do a review.  Oh the horror...

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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