Friday, January 18, 2008


Each version I've seen of the mad barber musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues to be more pared down than the one before it, but I've still enjoyed them all. In the new movie version, director Tim Burton and screenwriter John Logan slice and dice the Stephen Sondheim original to such a degree that I'm not surprised that gallons of blood are spilled in the process. If you can stand the blood and you have any interest at all in Sweeney Todd, I encourage you to give the movie a whirl while it's at the Ziegfeld or a similarly large and well-outfitted theater.

I still remember what it was like to see a new movie musical at a big plush theater such as Radio City Music Hall or the now bemoaned Cinema 150 in Syosset, Long Island. It was an "event" that was somehow like going to an opening night of a real Broadway musical. And that says something about how atmosphere, anticipation, and enthusiasm help to make such events memorable (though it also helps if the musical happens to be any good).

These days you can still get that special "opening night" feeling at the Ziegfeld, which has a sound system that enabled even the organ music accompanying the opening production credits of Sweeney Todd to make a strong impression. Now and then there was some distortion, but the projection of the images was wonderfully crisp throughout.

As director, Burton infuses Sweeney Todd with morbid despair, furthering the recent trend that emphasizes the grimness of the story while downplaying (but hardly eliminating) its potential for giddy gallows humor and even some moments of vital optimism. He makes the mood visible in the production design and audible in the reduction of certain lyrics to the equivalent of mad mutterings. On stage, the great number "A Little Priest" gives the leads a golden opportunity to "work the audience" with exquisitely timed delivery of some of Sondheim's cleverest lyrics, but on screen it is easy to not even notice the wordplay as Burton abandons the theatrics and hews to his very cinematic approach. That approach works, but don't leave with the impression that Burton's take on Todd is the only one possible, as the video clips below should illustrate.

Seeing Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as the grotesque leads (pictured, with Depp resembling Susan Sontag), I couldn't help but reflect on how far they've come from their early days as a teen idol and a Merchant-Ivory ingenue. Good for them! I don't know who's responsible for the moment in Sweeney Todd when Carter's Mrs. Lovett moves her feet this way and that on a beach blanket, but I love that little touch. It's also amusing (to me, at least) to think of her and Alan Rickman (who plays Judge Turpin) and Timothy Spall (who plays Beadle Bamford) in terms of their nasty alter-egos from the Harry Potter movies. Hermione ought to do some research to learn if Voldemort's hordes had anything to do with the Sweeney Todd affair.

And now, here's "A Little Priest" with Angela Lansbury, Broadway's original Mrs. Lovett, and George Hearn as the barber.

Source (8:23)

And here is a rare view of Lansbury with the original barber, Len Cariou. The quality of the video is poor, but just listen to the interplay between the performers and the audience, which laughs all the way through. That's not likely to happen with the movie version.

Source (8:02)

No comments: