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by Michael Portantiere

Swing Your Razor Wide, Sweeney!


    Johnny Depp in SWEENEY TODD, photo by Peter Mountain

    Tim Burton's film version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is like a magnificent meal that leaves one feeling slightly disappointed due to minor problems with the presentation. Still, in sum, the movie is a triumph worthy of great critical and financial successs.

    Anyone who has seen The Nightmare Before Christmas and other Burton films won't be surpised that Sweeney is visually stunning in a wonderfully dark style. The director's vision is certainly appropriate to the tone of Sondheim's musical theater masterpiece. Praise also to production designer Dante Ferretti and director of photography Dariusz Wolski, who give us a darkly oppressive vision of 19th-century London that makes the milieu of the film Oliver! look like Disneyland by comparison. Add in a generally superb cast of singing actors and you've got a film that engenders strong feelings of fear, pity, and terror while preserving the beauty of Sondheim's music and the expertise of his lyrics.

    For the benefit of those new to Sweeney Todd, it's the story of a barber (Johnny Depp) seeking bloody revenge on the evil, lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who destroyed his family. Denied revenge just at the moment he's about to exact it, Todd goes insane and begins indiscriminately dispatching all of his customers, who then serve as fodder for the horrendous meat pies created by his landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter).

    No doubt, fans of the original stage work are already well aware that a significant amount of the score has been excised for the film -- roughly 30 percent, I would guesstimate. Gone completely and sorely missed from a musical standpoint is the "Kiss Me" ensemble, but this cut does serve the purpose of making the young sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Todd's long-lost daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) more consistent as characters. Other wholesale cuts ("City on Fire," "Parlor Songs," etc.) do the film no harm whasoever. Most of the internal edits in the remainder of the score have been done seamlessly, though Sondheim's condensation of "Poor Thing," in which Mrs. Lovett recounts the evils of Judge Turpin, is a bit sloppy. (This is suprising, given that he's usually meticulous about such things.)

    The much-publicized elimination of all choral/ensemble singing from the score will be disconcerting to those who know Sweeney well in its original form. Indeed, the title of this review is misleading in that the words "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney" are never sung in the film. It seems that the decision to excise the chorus was made at the last minute; a handsome book that has been published as a tie-in to the film leads off with a page containing the lyrics to the excised "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which was at one time intended to have been sung by a group of ghosts. Oddly, the orchestration for the ballad remains pretty much as originally written by Jonathan Tunick, with no new instrumental parts to replace the eliminated chorus and soloists. As a result, the melody of the song is never heard in the film. On the plus side, the orchestrations sound more thrilling than ever as played by a huge orchestra under Paul Gemignani, Sweeney's original Broadway conductor.

    Another caveat is that the tragic story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street now ends too abruptly. (SPOILER AHEAD!) As played on stage, the final sequence of Sweeney Todd begins with the title character dispatching the "half-crazed beggar woman" who's been haunting the neighborhood, unaware that she is in fact his beloved wife Lucy. When he realizes what he has done, Sweeney tosses Mrs. Lovett into the oven as her just deserts for keeping Lucy's identity a secret from him; then he grieves over his wife's dead body, only to have his throat slit by the youth Tobias, whom Mrs. L. had taken under her wing. This is followed by a brief scene in which Anthony, Johanna, and a police officer discover the carnage and react in horror as Tobias, driven mad by what he has witnessed, reveals the gruesome secret of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies. The film, however, ends with a slow fade-out after Tobias kills Sweeney, thereby failing to provide a sense of closure. (At a recent screening, several audience members who had no previous experience of Sweeney Todd were heard to ask, "What happened to the sailor and the girl?")

    Though these miscalculations are significant, they don't severely mar the film, which is filled with enough great ideas to balances its flaws. For example, in this telling of the tale, Sweeney himself puts together the fiendishly efficient barber chair that he uses to dispose of his freshly slaughtered customers, rather than having a chair delivered and then making "a few minor adjustments." The grayish palette of 95 percent of the film makes all the more effective the warm, glowing, primary colors of two sequences: a flashback to Todd's abduction at the behest of Judge Turpin, and Mrs. Lovett's daft fantasy of a relaxing life spent "By the Sea" with Todd and Tobias. The reordering of two songs, "God, That's Good!" and the second version of "Johanna," makes perfect sense, since we now get to see exacly where Mrs. Lovett is getting the meat for all those pies. And screenwriter John Logan has provided a new dialogue scene between Anthony and the Judge that does an excellent, creepy job of pointing up the latter's silky-smooth depravity.

    Depp scores a qualified triumph in the role of Sweeney; he sings very effectively in a sort of pop-rock voice with a thick Cockney accent, at times calling to mind Mick Jagger. His physical appearance, most notable for his pale skin and hair that resembles a fright wig, is properly disturbing. From an acting standpoint, Depp is near perfect except that, for some reason, he avoids expressing deep sorrow. His Todd is alternately haunted, seething, calculating, and filled with rage, but never -- even in his final moments of life -- do we see him weep. It's an odd acting choice, and I'm curious to know his rationale for it.

    Carter's dark, downbeat Mrs. Lovett is galaxies away from the great Angela Lansbury's outsized comic characterization in the original Broadway production of Sweeney, which never would have worked on film. This far more subtle approach is valid on its own terms, and Carter's sexuality in the role is welcome, but the fact that there is almost no personality contrast between her Mrs. L. and Depp's Sweeney is another of the film's flaws. As for Carter's performance of the songs, her voice is thin but her vocal acting is right on the money.

    Bower and Wisener are an earnest, attractive pair of young lovers, though his singing voice could be fuller and hers a bit less wobbly. Rickman is ideal casting as the Judge; Timothy Spall is appropriately gross and sycophantic as the Beadle; and Sacha Baron Cohen is hilarious as the "barber" Pirelli, who comes to a most unfortunate end when he tries to blackmail Todd. Edward Sanders, the pre-adolescent who plays Tobias, charms us with his sweet boy-soprano rendition of the gentle, beautiful song "Not While I'm Around." Throughout the film, the lip-synching skill of all the performers is so remarkable that you'll swear their singing was recorded live.

    One unforgettable night nearly 29 years ago, I sat enthralled in the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin) for a performance of Sweeney Todd, which had just opened to rave reviews. Though it's impossible to fully appreciate such a complex work upon first encounter, I could tell that I was in the presence of greatness. Bravo to Tim Burton and company for their stellar achievement in bringing Sweeney to the screen, thereby ensuring that this masterpiece will gain millions of new fans.

    P.S. For those who are irked by certain details of the film, there's a terrific video of the first national tour of the original Hal Prince production of Sweeney Todd, starring George Hearn and Lansbury -- not to mention a video of the San Francisco Symphony's concert version of the musical (with Hearn and Patti LuPone) and three recordings of the score featuring (1) the original Broadway cast, with Len Cariou and Lansbury (2) the recent Broadway revival cast, with Michael Cerveris and LuPone, and (3) the New York Philharmonic concert cast, with Hearn and LuPone. In an age when works of artistic genius tend to be viewed as "uncommercial" and are often given short shrift, it's gratifying that Sweeney Todd has been so well documented.

    Published on Friday, December 21, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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