By Caldwell Titcomb
Stephen Sondheim has written the music and lyrics of at least a half dozen of the twentieth century’s greatest works for the musical theater. One of them is – to provide its full title – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It has now been turned into a movie, which opens nationwide today.
Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter confer in Sweeney Todd.
Two earlier films were made of Sondheim’s scores: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and A Little Night Music (1978). Neither was a success. So it is a pleasure to report that, on a third try, we have a winner.
Nobody knows whether there ever was a real Sweeney Todd in the eighteenth century. But his tale was put on stage by George Dibden Pitt in 1847. This was adapted and fleshed out by 23-year-old Christopher Bond in 1968, and Sondheim was captivated by a 1973 production on a visit to London. Enlisting Hugh Wheeler to write the book, Sondheim fashioned what he designated a “musical thriller.” He originally envisioned it as a chamber piece, but the original Broadway production (1979) was a mammoth affair in the cavernous Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre – and he has now conceded that it can work well no matter the scale.
Todd, after being sent away by lecherous Judge Turpin on trumped-up charges, returns from 15 years of exile vowing to find his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna, who is now Turpin’s teenage ward. Told by his widowed landlady Mrs. Lovett that his wife had poisoned herself, Todd vows to revenge himself on the judge and becomes so unhinged that he turns into a serial killer, whose victims (like Tamora’s sons in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus) wind up in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
The stage work runs about three hours, and it was decided that the film version should last about two hours. John Logan wrote a screenplay that permitted substantial cutting. Sondheim himself was involved in the extensive trimming – sometimes quite ruthless. Gone is the framing choral “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Gone too are “Ah, Miss,” “Kiss Me,” “The Letter,” “Parlor Songs,” “City on Fire,” and portions of other numbers.
Directing the movie was Tim Burton (b. 1958), who had fallen in love with the work decades earlier and won Sondheim’s approval. Cast as Todd was Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter got the composer’s nod as Mrs. Lovett. Sondheim knew that Depp had played guitar in a rock band and didn’t ask to hear his singing. As it happens, this was the sixth film on which Burton and Depp collaborated.
Burton lays his tale in a Victorian London that sees precious little sun. The inspiration comes from black-and-white horror films of the 1930s. The prevailing tones are black and white and gray, except for the copious red blood especially toward the end. The only bright colors come in brief snippets of Todd’s younger days and of Mrs. Lovett’s imagined marriage to Todd with picnic or beach excursions. Most of the time we are kept indoors and provided with innumerable close-ups that would be impossible in stage performances.
Todd and Mrs. Lovett are usually played by much older performers than here. Depp is now only 44 and Bonham Carter is 41. But with makeup their sunken eyes and pasty faces are sufficient. It was an inspired idea to have Depp’s black hair sport a strange shock of white hair (which Time magazine tells us is technically called poliosis, and which my medical dictionary also terms canities).
Depp’s performance, with his piercing eyes, is superlative throughout. And like the entire cast, he does his own singing. His voice is higher than other Todds, but his singing is effective even if clearly not professional like that of Len Cariou, George Hearn, or Brian Stokes Mitchell. Bonham Carter is acceptable, though she is not in a class with the Mrs. Lovetts of Angela Lansbury, Dorothy Loudon, Patti LuPone, or – best of all – Julia McKenzie (in the 1993 London production at the National Theatre). But her rhythm of pie-making in her roach-infested kitchen is accurate.
Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman talk about what’s for dinner in Sweeney Todd.
The film has one sly self-homage. At one point we see Todd hold his arms out with a gleaming straight razor in each hand. This is an echo of the first Burton-Depp movie, Edward Scissorhands (1990), in which Depp pushes forward arms that end in shiny shears.
Alan Rickman is splendid as the villainous Judge Turpin, and Timothy Spall is deliciously Dickensian as his slippery sidekick Beadle Bamford. Sacha Baron Cohen makes the most of his small role as the phony huckster Adolfo Pirelli. In a superb bit of innovative casting, Pirelli’s helper, Tobias Ragg, who is later taken under Mrs. Lovett’s wing, is performed by a real Artful Dodger-like youngster (Edward Sanders) whose voice has not yet changed and who thus pipes his songs as a boy soprano. The youthful lovers, Joanna (Jayne Wisener) and sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), get rather short shrift in the compressed film. The 27-person orchestra of the stage original has here been enlarged to 78 players.
In sum, this Sweeney Todd, with all its Grand Guignol gore, is a cinematic treat. But don’t throw out your double-CD recording with George Hearn, Patti LuPone, and the New York Philharmonic.