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  • "The reason Sweeney Todd has endured for a hundred and fifty years," says Stephen Sondheim, "is that it's a really good story, a gripping tale. It's a story about revenge and how revenge eats itself up. In that sense, it's a tragedy in the classic tradition about someone out for revenge who ends up destroying himself."

    Sondheim, of course, is the composer/lyricist of the acclaimed Tony and Drama Desk Best Musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, with book by Hugh Wheeler. Sondheim and Wheeler also won Tonys and DDs for their score and book. The 1990 revival at Circle in the Square won Tony and DD noms for Best Revival The 2006 revival was Tony-nominated in the Revival category and won a DD.


    Could the show's popularity through the years be because it has one of the best scores of any musical in last 50 years. Another might be, putting all the blood-letting and revenge aside, that it's the story of lost love.

    The story might not be fiction. Many in the U.K. attended the tale of Sweeney Todd, a.k.a. Benjamin Barker, claiming he was responsible for 160 murders in 18th century London. But the barber first came to prominence in a story called The String Of Pearls: A Romance, written by Thomas Peckett Prest and published in 1846. A year later, Prest's story was adapted as a play subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The play came to Broadway in 1924. By that time, Todd's notoriety almost eclipsed that of 19th century London serial killer, Jack the Ripper.

    Sweeney inspired many stage shows and film. British playwright Christopher Bond's take on the legend became a 1973 West End play. In 1979, Sondheim and Wheeler used Bond's script as their template.

    What's not so well known is that Sondheim was also greatly influenced by an atmospheric 1945 film that starred Laird Cregar, George Sanders and one of the screen's great beauties, Linda Darnell. The movie had a score by Bernard Hermann, whom Hitchcock hadn't discovered yet.

    "I've always liked melodramas and suspense movies," admits Sondheim. "I was fifteen when I saw Hangover Square, this Edwardian melodrama about a composer who goes crazy when he hears a certain sound and goes out and murders the nearest girl. I loved Hermann's score and thought it would really be fun to scare an audience and see if you could do it while people are singing."

    Now that is being accomplished, through the dark, Gothic mind of director Tim Burton [Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Batman, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride]. It reaches the screen December 21 starring Oscar nominees Johnny Depp, frequently a Burton leading man [six films], and, as piemaker Nellie Lovette, Helena Bonham Carter [who also happens to be Burton's longtime fiance].

    The much-anticipated screen version of Hal Prince's acclaimed Grand Guignol original production is rated R for graphic bloody violence, and Burton delivers that commodity in great quantities. In fact, not even a Hammer film could come close in the blood-letting department. There is buzz, pro and con. Will it be the type of film audiences will flock to in order to be totally removed from holiday festivity? Could it be another Dreamgirls or a Rent or The Producers, both of which were captured pretty literally for the screen?

    Sweeney Tood just received Golden Globe nods for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy, with Depp, Carter and Burton also nominated. The trio will surely be in the Oscar running.

    Sondheim, now firmly established as one of greatest theater composers, is no stranger to awards. He's in that rarefied theatrical category of being the recipient of an Academy Award [Best Song, Dick Tracy], multiple Tony Awards and noms, multiple Drama Desks and noms, an Emmy, Golden Globe nom, Grammy nom and a Pulitzer Prize.

    That said, why can't be nicer to those outside his inner circle? It was very sad to see a female fan approach him for an autograph at one of the City Center parties for the Gypsy summer revival. Maybe it wasn't the most appropriate time to ask, but from the way he reacted, scaring the poor woman to no end and reducing her to tears, you might have thought she was a stalker. Okay, so you don't like to give autographs; but you could be polite - if there's a polite way to refuse a devoted fan an autograph. Most in this business would be flattered to know someone thinks enough of their work to buy a hundred dollar ticket and shell out more money for one of their works.


    But, to get back on track, the setting of the blood-drenched tale of Sweeney Todd is bursting 17th Century London, where he returns after escaping 15 years false imprisonment in Australia, to exact the deaths of those who sent him off on trumped up charges: the lecherous Judge Turpin and his nefarious henchman Beadle Bamford. Their plot was to steal his wife and baby daughter.

    Appearing as Turpin is one of filmdom's best villains Alan Rickman [the Harry Potter series, his Hans Gruber in Die Hard], who's no stranger to theater. In another area of perfect casting is Brit Timothy Spall, best known for his grimy, boorish, dysfunctional character roles in Mike Leigh films, as the repugnant Beadle.

    Todd goes back to his old trade as a barber above Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, which could never have passed health department muster even back then [be prepared for a couple of stomach-churning moments], and is told by her that his wife poisoned herself after the judge took, shall we say, advantage.

    Soon a rivalry begins between Todd and a flamboyant, colorfully-clad, child-abusing barber, Adolfo Pirelli, claiming to be a barber to kings and a pope. In some unusual casting, the role is played by Sacha Baron Cohen. He doesn't have a lot of screen time [the film zips along in less than two hours], but he's memorable - sporting huge curls and clad as if he's a world-class toreador. [It appears he ratcheted up the size of a particular body part with a few socks.] When he threatens to expose Todd's identity, things happen and he's gifted with a "necktie." Todd and Lovett then hatch a plan that provides a boon to her pie business.

    "We got him before we saw Borat, and before he became a household name," notes Zanuck. "He asked to come in. We met in a recording studio. I didn't realize how tall he is, about six-five or six-six, and very handsome. He told us he always loved this show, and that he had sung early on in choirs . He wasn't prepared to sing from Sweeney Todd, but he sang practically all of Fiddler and in such a way that Tim and I were buckled over on the floor. He was so funny, but despite the laughter, we realized he had a great voice. He had the part then and there as far as we were concerned. And he's wonderful."

    The setting is such environs as the Old Bailey, an asylum in Bedlam, Blackfriar's Bridge, Fleet Street and a unique pie shop.

    Burton captures bleak London in all its gloomy glories with great help from director of photography Dariusz Wolski, production designer Dante Ferretti [who's worked with Fellini, Pasolini, Gilliam and Scorsese] and costume designer Colleen Atwood. There's rarely a hint of color. Chimneys belch smoke. A large population of rats run amok in sewers, not to mention a lively bunch of cockroaches in the pie shop. In the sound effects department, the loud thuds as bodies drop into a cellar equipped with a gigantic meat grinder might shake you up a bit.

    "The key to Sweeney Todd," notes screen adaptor John Logan [Oscar winner, Gladiator], "is its passion. A man has been wronged and seeks revenge, and in the process goes mad. And there's a love story. Mrs. Lovett yearns for Sweeney but can't get past his revenge scheme to make a connection. Then, it's about a young girl, raised by a brutal stepfather, trying to find love and happiness. All these emotional through-lines collide in Sweeney Todd, making it all the more lushly romantic."

    The Broadway musical, which originally starred Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, was given an Industrial Age staging in the behemoth Uris Theatre [now the Gershwin]. While tragic and more than a bit scary, with blood spurting from an ingeniously-designed stage razor, it was moving and the score was rapturous.

    Producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes were so taken by it that when they headed production at DreamWorks they made it their goal to secure the film rights.

    "There's a strange kinship that exists between the lovers of Sweeney Todd that borders on the fanatic," laughs Parkes. "It's almost an instant barometer of a shared sensibility."

    Burton saw the production while a student in London on its transfer to the West End. "I'm not a big musical fan, but I loved it," he recalls. "I was a student there and didn't know anything about Stephen Sondheim. The poster looked kind of cool. It was interesting to see something bloody on stage! It was like an old horror movie. What made it stand out was the music. It was an interesting juxtaposition, all that horror imagery against the gorgeous score. I liked it so much, I went back again."

    Screenwriter Logan saw the Broadway original three times. "It was a defining moment in theater. I'd never seen anything like it. I fell in love with it and it's stayed with me until now."

    Sondheim had approval over cast and director. "He's a formidable character," notes Burton, "very intelligent, very passionate. He's a genius at what he does. The thing I respected and felt grateful for is his letting it go. It's not a stage thing. It's a movie. He said 'Go for it.' I felt very supported by that.

    Sweeney was a much sought-after role. There were eight others in contention [Colin Farrell? Brad Pitt?], however Burton had only one actor in mind.

    "Johnny's performance is quite remarkable," says Sondheim. "Sweeney's desire for revenge and the simmering anger and hurt that he feels carry the story forward, and Johnny finds the most remarkable variety within that narrow set of emotions. The intensity is at a boil all the time and he never drops it. It's real anger."

    "He plays Sweeney as only Johnny Depp can," reports producer Richard Zanuck, who knows a thing or two about film. He grew up on the Fox lot where dad Daryl was a long-time kingpin and went to to produce a slew of award-winning blockbusters.

    "Johnny's going to impress you," Zanuck says. "Talk about a risk taker. The bigger the risks, the more attractive a role is to Johnny. He's built his whole career on pictures and roles most actors would turn down. He's the master of disguise. He's the master of doing something unique every time out. He has a different look, a different personality, and in this case, he'll have a voice that people will be absolutely astounded by."

    Astounded? Time will tell how audiences respond, but Depp acquits himself quite nicely, even over some powerful overorchestration; and is especially strong on sustaining notes.


    "I've always admired Johnny because of his choices as an actor," says Bonham Carter, "and because he's never done anything according to any sort of formula or to create a career; or rely on his looks. We're a bit similar, in that we don't have much respect for what we look like. We rather like camouflaging and getting away from ourselves."

    "They practically read each other's minds," says Zanuck. "Johnny looks to Tim for guidance and Tim looks to Johnny for taking what he has outlined and pushing it further. It's more than a deep friendship. They love each other. Their combination is wonderful in terms of freshness and inventiveness."

    As often as they've tried to do something different, they've never tried a movie where the lead sings a lot. "Johnny and I always want to stretch ourselves," explains Burton, "and this was a perfect outlet for that."

    In late 2001, before Burton was even attached to direct, he visited Depp at his house in the south of France and gave him a CD of the stage musical. "I gave it a listen," recalls Depp, "and thought, 'It's interesting.' Then, five or six years later, Burton pops the question 'Do you think you can sing?' I answered, 'I'll see if I can.'"

    "I knew he was musical," quips Burton, "because he was in a band. I saw Johnny so clearly as Sweeney and I just knew he could do it."

    To find out whether he could sing, Depp booked a studio and performed "My Friends," Sweeney's sweeping love ballad to his always-sharp razors. "That was the first song I ever sang," Depp explains. "It was pretty weird and scary." But he pulled it off, discovering he had a nice timbre.

    Bonham Carter calls his singing voice "very sexy." She says he sings from the gut, "so it's raw, touching, brave, soulful and beautiful."

    For Depp, the key to Sweeney was to think of him not as a killer but as a victim. "He's obviously a dark figure," he reflects, "but quite a sensitive figure, maybe hyper-sensitive. He's experienced something dark and traumatic, a grave injustice. I saw him as a victim. Anyone who's victimized to that degree and becomes a murderer can't be all there. I saw him as a little bit slow. Not dumb, just a half-step behind."

    Mrs. Lovette is Sweeney's connection to the real world, and has as much if not more singing than he does. It was a pivotal role. Bonham Carter, in production notes, explained that she wanted to play Mrs. Lovett since she was a teen, "but," she says, "I didn't know if I could sing the role. I've always wanted to be in a musical but, except in the bathroom, I never sang.

    Though Burton had worked with her and thought she'd be ideal, it was a bit trickier. "I didn't want to give the perception I was giving Helena the part because she was my girlfriend. I was nervous about it, because it's a big role. It was Sondheim who had to okay it."

    Bonham Carter threw herself into three months for intense preparation, including coaching from "an amazing teacher quite famous for making actors who aren't singers sing." She explained that 90% of what he did was build confidence and a self-belief "that makes you able to open your mouth and produce a sound."

    She learned the score, but "I thought my only chance was to act it as well as I could. I knew Sondheim loved Judi Dench's performance in A Little Night Music because it was the most well-acted. I thought 'If you go for the truth of the lyric, that's your only chance.'"

    "Despite the close relationship between Tim and Helena," insists Zanuck, "he was absolutely unbiased. I'd never seen anyone deal with someone he's so close to and be as objective as he was."

    Sondheim watched candidates' audition tapes and also opted for Bonham Carter. "He said, 'I think she is far and away the best,'" recalls Zanuck. "Not voice-wise, because there were some real skilled singers, but voice and personality and look and everything, she was Mrs. Lovett."

    "She's very brave," says Depp. "Without question, Mrs. Lovett is the toughest part and she beautifully made it her own. She's vulnerable and horrific, funny and sweet. She brought a lot angles to the role that weren't there."

    Bonham Carter, especially as made up in the film will remind audiences of a certain age of Bette Davis - those eyes! As soon as she recognizes her old neighbor, there's a twinkle in those eyes as she hatches a plan to get him to the altar [presented in a color-drenched dream sequence] to the tune of "By the Sea." She's unstoppable in her quest, but Sweeney is so single-mindedly focused on his plot he doesn't have time for romance.

    Adapting a three-hour stage musical into a two-hour movie meant changes. Some songs were exorcised completely, others merely truncated. "We cut out verses," Logan explains, "but also expanded certain areas."

    "There's always a possibility it might upset the purists because it's not the show," observes Burton. "I'm trying to be as pure to it as possible. A film like this is a strange gamble because it's an R-rated musical, it's got blood in it and people that go to Broadway shows don't usually go to see slasher films and people who see slasher films don't usually go to Broadway shows."

    According to Logan the plan was to keep it tightly focused on Sweeney's journey, "so some secondary elements fell away. For instance, in the musical, Johanna, who turns out to be Todd's daughter, sings a lot more; she and the lovelorn sailor Anthony are more musical characters. I felt the focus needed to be on Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, and, to a certain extent, on Toby."


    Those roles are played, respectfully, by newcomers Jayne Wisener, who as a member of Music Theatre 4 Youth appeared in a Summer 2006 production of West Side Story, Jamie Campbell Bower and angelic-voiced Ed Sanders, who as Toby has some poignant moments with Lovett and the burden of bringing the story to its inevitable, yes, bloody conclusion.

    Logan spent six months studying Sondheim's score, "to be absolutely familiar with what the beast was." He also read the Bond melodrama and compared it to Wheeler's libretto. "When I knew the music backwards and forwards, I went to New York and Stephen and I worked through it."

    Storywise, too, he made substantial changes. "'Sweeney's had a long, successful career onstage, but," noted Logan, "we've never had the opportunity to get emotionally close. It's the nature of the stage. You don't have close ups. But when you bring Tim, and particularly Johnny, to the mix, you have an opportunity to get inside emotionally. It almost redefines the way you look at the play."

    Onstage, Todd and Mrs. Lovett have been played by actors in their 50s and 60s. Burton wanted the cast younger for his film.

    The music was recorded over four days in London with a 64-piece orchestra, the largest ever to have played Sondheim's score. "We had thirty violins," points out Higham, "added more horns and a tuba to give it a bigger sound."


    The recording sessions were overseen by Sondheim and conducted by his long-time musical supervisor Paul Gemignani. "To sit there with Tim and Stephen was fascinating," observed Zanuck. "Stephen can hear a flute that's slightly off, the same way that Tim can see out of the corner of his eye an extra one hundred yards away down the street."

    Most people find Sondheim the hardest thing to sing, what with the different tempos, changes and the lyrical melodies. Some people try for years to do what the film's lead just did naturally.

    Burton was determined to remove anything that smacked of being too Broadway in terms of the orchestration or the acting. "On Broadway you're sitting in an audience and a song ends with a ta-da, cue for applause," he points out. "You don't do that in movies. On one level you say you're doing a silent movie so there's a certain amount of acting style that you might say is a bit broad, but at the same time you try and cut out completely any Broadway kind of singing, although there are a couple of moments. So it was a weird dynamic to find. Being broad like you might be in a silent movie or an old horror movie without being Broadway."

    "This is not a recording of a Broadway show, this is a movie," says Logan. "Tim has been hyper-conscious of anything that smacks of being too emotive, too presentational, too 'cute' in terms of the actors over-performing or playing to the back balcony, because there's a certain amount of scope to the score that could allow a performer to overact, to play too large. It's a large story with very sweeping emotions and full-bodied music.

    "Tim has been wonderful about keeping it real, keeping it honest," Logan continues, "and making sure these are real people going through this terribly difficult story and not shying away from the really harrowing emotions. As a theater fan and a movie fan, I think he's doing the perfect thing, saying, 'We respect the stage play, we love the stage play, it will always be there in our hearts, but this has to be first and foremost a work of cinema.'"

    Sondheim says that the film adaptation offered the opportunity to change some lyrics as well as to write new ones "that tally with certain structural and narrative changes imposed by the script. Stage time and movie time are different. You accept onstage somebody sitting and singing for three minutes about one subject, but in film you get the idea quickly and suddenly you have two and a half minutes too much. The problem was how to keep the integrity of the score and yet cut things. John maintained much of the score and still kept the cinematic value of the songs going."

    "The other thing that impressed and immediately made me like him," Burton continues, "was that when I first met him, he was talking about how he wrote the show like a Bernard Herrmann score. As soon as he said that I thought, 'I'm in, completely.' And, as we discovered doing the orchestral recording, when you take away the singing, it's like a Bernard Herrmann score -- it's really amazing."

    Zanuck said that Burton was the director for Sweeney Todd. "There's such an affinity between the subject matter and Tim's style and sensibility. At heart he's a dramatist who wants to tell a simple, human love story."

    "He was a perfect fit," says Sondheim. "In many ways it's his simplest film, his most direct film, but you can see that he's telling a story he really likes. It's a story that has enough incident so he doesn't have to invent extracurricular stuff. He had enthusiasm for the piece and went - forgive me - straight for the jugular."

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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