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Seattle Gay News
December 28, 2007
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
The Gleaming Darkness of Sweeney Todd
After seeing the new Tim Burton movie, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, my friend Craig and I went to dinner and were serenaded by a quartet of Christmas carolers. They were fine singers, but Sweeney’s gloomy spirit lingered, and as they sang “Silent Night,” I said to Craig, “Not silent enough.” In my head, “Jingle Bells” became “a slaying song” about dashing people’s brains out in the snow. Fortunately, I was back to normal after some hearty soup and a glass of good merlot.
Some critics ask why such a gruesome picture would open at Christmastime. But what other season could be more appropriate for a dark film set in Dickensian London?
I myself am a Stephen Sondheim fanatic and a Johnny Depp enthusiast. In confronting the film, I was afraid these two loyalties might clash, given comments by some that Depp was miscast vocally. But Depp sings surprisingly well. What is missed by those who want a concert more than a film is that a film’s greater intimacy places a premium on acting. Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (along with a supporting cast that includes Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall) deliver splendidly. To be sure, Sondheim wrote some of his most ravishing music for this show, and it is compellingly rendered here in Jonathan Tunick’s lush orchestrations.
Sweeney is as gorgeous as it is gory. Tim Burton reconceived it for film, and was aided by the composer. The film is helped by the fact that this is Sondheim’s most strongly plotted show, and is unusual for him in having a single main character. Sondheim’s contribution is much more than a collection of songs. The closeness of the collaboration is evident in scenes and techniques that emerge directly from Sondheim’s musical ideas. Sondheim scholar Steve Swayne of Dartmouth College writes in How Sondheim Found His Sound about “the early and consistent appearance of cinematic devices in his work.” The way Sondheim illuminates character through his music is a particular asset.
Burton’s crosscutting between Sweeney and Anthony singing about Johanna follows Sondheim’s own contrapuntal writing. Sweeney sings this while dispatching several customers, and the crack and thud of their bodies hitting the stone floor head first two stories below adds a visual counterpoint that viscerally brings the horror home.
An example of the different requirements of stage and film is “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the Greek-chorus narrative that was left out of the movie, but whose haunting music is retained as underscoring. The dropped lyrics include a reference to scuttling rats; in the movie, Burton can show us the rats.
Horror and humor have been blended in movies before, such as by Alfred Hitchcock, whose great collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, receives homage in Sondheim’s score. Here the humor is as dark as it can get. It starts with Mrs. Lovett complaining that she makes “The Worst Pies in London,” smashing a cockroach with her rolling pin. Later, laying out her plan to make Todd’s customers into meat pies, she tells of her rival Mrs. Mooney, “Business never better using only pussycats and toast! And a pussy’s good for maybe six or seven at the most!”
Some have called Sweeney nihilistic, but this is no more true than gruesome Biblical passages or Grimm’s Fairy Tales are nihilistic. On one level, Sweeney is a classic morality play: the miscreants get what’s coming to them. Along the way, it gazes unflinchingly into the darkest parts of the human soul. At the same time, it conveys the lost love that propels the tragic plot. Recapitulating his stunning opening credit sequence, Burton ultimately follows the blood down into the sewers while making allusions to Sir Carol Reed’s film noir classic, The Third Man.
Sweeney Todd opens with the angry chords of the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass. A four-note motive from the Dies Irae is inverted for “My Friends,” in which Sweeney sings lovingly to his razors upon being reunited with them. This reveals both the depth of his bitterness and the hopelessness of Mrs. Lovett’s affections. Her vain hopes are hilariously illustrated in “By the Sea,” where Sweeney’s brooding never lets up even amidst her sunny fantasy. Burton’s treatment is more penetrating than was possible on stage.
As a film festival buff, I have learned to be grateful to the backers of special films that are not sure moneymakers. The presence of Burton and Depp offers hope for crossover appeal. In any event, Dreamworks, Warner Bros. and producer Richard D. Zanuck deserve thanks.
Prospective moviegoers should not let themselves be distracted by the kvetching of purists (Sweeney should not be a tenor! The cast is too young and too pretty! They’re not opera singers! They cut my favorite song! The blood has the wrong viscosity!), or clever dismissals by critics (Burton has remade Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, substituting blood for chocolate). The greatest musical score of the past four decades has been lavishly adapted for the screen by a director born for the job, working closely with the composer. To those who cannot bring themselves to celebrate this, all I can say is, how about a shave?