A Dish Best Served Cold: The musical 'Sweeney Todd'

Tim Burtons Sweeney Todd, a wicked, bloody triumph of filmmaking, has caught the attention of both critics and audiences and has received numerous nominations and awards. There are, however, a couple of things one should know before buying a ticket. First, it is a musical, which neither the advertisements nor the in-theater teasers make clear, with but one line sung in the preview clip. The film is adapted from a play by the Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, who began his career writing the lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story. He went on to compose both the music and lyrics for more than a dozen musicals (including Follies, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Merrily We Roll Along, A Little Night Music and Into the Woods), which enjoy periodic Broadway revivals and regular productions in regional theaters. Second, the film is something of a slasher movie, in which a great deal of blood pours from the throats of Sweeneys barbershop patrons.

Students of American film and musical theater will have a special reason to celebrate this film. It signals that, after several disappointing attempts over the last 30 years, Hollywood has finally rediscovered the secret of translating a Broadway musical onto screen. The new formula has three parts: choose an inventive risk-taker for the director, give the starring roles to actors with hidden talents and reshape every scene into a cinematic narrative rather than a theatrical spectacle.


Set in Victorian London, Sweeney Todd tells the grisly tale of a barber who vows to take revenge on the wicked Judge Turpin, who had him sent to prison on a trumped-up charge so that he could seduce the barbers beautiful wife. Sweeney escapes from prison only to learn that his wife took poison after the judge had his way with her. So Sweeney re-opens his old barbershop intent on luring the judge into his chair, where he can slit his throat.

But his plans go awry, driving Sweeney over the mental brink. He determines to express his rage at the worlds injustice by slitting the throat of whoever comes to him for a shave. Sweeney disposes of the bodies by sending them down a chute to a pie shop a floor below, where they are chopped up for meat pies made by a certain Mrs. Lovett. The barbershop and the pie shop both thrive, and Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney become a bizarre romantic couple, even as he descends into homicidal madness and serial murder.

Not recommended for children, the film has a misanthropic theme, and the scenes of throat-slitting are particularly disturbing. To deal with this, both the theatrical and film versions have had to find ways to distance the audience from the slaughter. In the original 1979 stage production, a gigantic set evoking the Industrial Revolution era presented the story as a parable of the oppression of the lower classes by a corrupt legal system. The cannibalism of the human-meat pies was a grisly societal reversal, with Londons poor feeding off the corpses of those rich enough to afford the pampering of a barbers care. The actors, especially the unforgettable Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, played the whole show as macabre music-hall slapstick, with Cockney accents and bizarre attire and hairdos. The 2006 revival, starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, set the story in a madhouse, turning it into a nightmarish tableau in which the actors played all the instruments.

The film version creates yet another mode of aesthetic distance. It transforms its mise-en-scène into something resembling a video game matrix, using Dickensian London as the background for a gruesome game of revenge. Dante Ferretti, the production designer, has created an environment of grays and sepia shadings, populated by pale-faced denizens of Fleet Street whose black-rimmed eyes have grown accustomed to the sights of murder, infidelity and injustice.

Sweeney Todd is part of a new age of Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. Film versions of popular Broadway musicals were standard, popular fare from the 1930s to the 1970s, culminating in a series of classicsWest Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Olivereach of which won the Academy Award for the Best Picture in its respective year. For hits like The Music Man, Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret, some of Hollywoods finest directors used every production technique at their disposal to transfer to celluloid the stage versions of musicals with lavish sets, glamorous stars and gorgeous soundtracks. But the Hollywood formula soured in the 1970s, when putting musicals on the screen brought financial disaster and came to be considered box-office poison.

Then, in 2003, along came Chicago, a film version of the 1976 Kander and Ebb musical (which had been overshadowed during its original Broadway run by the record-breaking success of A Chorus Line). The film adapted the stage play to the aesthetics of 21st-century filmmaking, with dazzling sets, dream sequences and eye-popping editing of the song and dance. It raked in Oscars, including one for Best Picture. The phenomenal success of Chicago emboldened producers to reconsider the Broadway musical. Since then, two very successful film adaptations of Broadway musicals have appeared: last years Dreamgirls (starring the pop diva Beyonce Knowles and a singing Eddie Murphy) and this years Hairspray (with John Travolta singing and dancing in a fat suit as the heroines mother).

Sweeney Todd bears the imprint of its director, Tim Burton, who has established over two decades a body of films known for their dark visual mood and grotesque comic tone. These include Beetlejuice, two of the Batman movies, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and a decidedly darker remake of a childrens book favorite, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In Burtons hands, the Sondheim musical becomes a frightening horror film, prompting A. O. Scott of The New York Times to call it dark and terrifying.something close to a masterpiece, a work of extremeI am tempted to say evilgenius. The film revels in the bone-breaking crash of the victims bodies dropping through the chute to the grinding-house. Its Tim Burton gore set to music.

The casting is brilliant, with Johnny Depp, the foremost box-office star, as leading man. Depp has previously appeared in five Tim Burton films (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as his voiced character in Burtons animated film, Corpse Bride). But can he sing? Yes, indeed. In the 1980s Depp worked as a bass player and background vocalist for a band. His voice, thin and somewhat harsh, has an edge that fits the angry, obsessed character of Sweeney Todd. When Depp reaches for the high notes, he evokes a cross between Paul McCartney and Sting.

As Mrs. Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter provides a perfectly bizarre match for Depp. She too is a veteran of several Burton films, expanding in this new film her portrayal of a crazed depressive in David Finchers Fight Club. Bonham Carters singing improves as the film moves along, but it is her marvelously matter-of-fact approach to the proceedings, coupled with her devious romantic devotion to Mister Todd, that almost steals the film from Depp. Burton and screenwriter John Logan have pared down Hugh Wheelers award-winning Broadway book to allow the actors faces to express a complex mix of grief, desperation and anger that only a film can convey.

The cast (which includes Sacha Baron Cohen as the flamboyant Signor Pirelli) owes an enormous debt to some longtime associates of SondheimJonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the music, and Paul Gemignani, who conducted the orchestra for the films score. The lush and powerful music adds dramatic impact to every scene. Sondheim himself supervised the music cutting, especially the somber choral pieces that pervaded the original stage version and several of the romantic numbers between two young lovers, whose innocent romance provides a delicate contrast to Todd and Lovetts murderous partnership.

This film is a visual delight. Closeups of the sensuous features of Depp and Bonham Carter add eroticism. Early in the film, Burton takes the viewer on a quick trip through the streets of London, from the harbor where Todds ship lands to the site of Mrs. Lovetts pie shop, in one elongated tracking shot that resembles video-game animation. When the evil pair are shown in a crowd, they seem isolated and ignored by passersby. That device works well in the sequence in which Sweeney loses his mind, brandishes his barbers straight razors and proclaims that they all deserve to die; the crowds rush by minding their own trivial business. Burton and Ferretti provide a playful contrast to the films generally grim environment in a sequence in which Mrs. Lovett describes her and Sweeneys future married life as that of a bourgeois couple on holiday by the sea. The screen becomes a Tech-nicolor world, filled with near-cartoonish Mary Poppins images of the happy pair frolicking on the boardwalk and picnicking in the park.

The new formula works, but who would have guessed it? A musical directed by a master of the horror genre? Starring roles played by actors not known for their singing abilities? A frightening amount of blood poured out while sumptuous Sondheim music plays behind? It works because these elements serve the storys vision, a tale of a man driven to homicidal fury by injustice. Tragically, Sweeney succumbs to revenge. Though we are horrified by his behavior, we understand his pain, anger and desperation as we understand the soul of a Prince Hamlet, a Medea, a Willy Loman or the many others in our world today whose hearts are filled with sad and angry music.

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