Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Slashing Sweeney Todd

Well, the web seems inundated with reviews of Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd, some smart, many stupid. A friend in NYC said a bunch of goth kids came into the bookstore where he works and they'd just seen Sweeney. When they heard that the original Mrs. Lovett was created by Angela Lansbury the darling goth tykes responded, "Eeeww! That dumpy old woman! Was she the best they could get?"

Kinda makes a fella wanna move to France. . .

The original Stephen Sondheim Sweeney Todd opened in 1979 and it was my very first Broadway show. I got my chance to see it on a family trip to NYC when I was sixteen. It was only a couple months after Sweeney had opened and it still had the original cast of Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury, and Victor Garber. It really was extraordinary.

I have seen most of the important Sweeneys since: the New York City Opera version circa 1987 with Timothy Nolen and Joyce Castle, the 1989 Circle in the Square Broadway revival with Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler, the 2005 Broadway revival with Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone. And the video version of the Lupone/Hearn SWEENEY concert, and of course the Lansbury/Hearn video. Heck, I've even seen the old black and white non-musical British film The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), starring the amusingly named Tod Slaughter. I also designed a large-scale production of Sweeney for Skylight Opera in Milwaukee in 1997. Click Here for Pics and Blog.

Ok, now that my throat-slitting creds are established ...

I saw Burton's Sweeney on opening day and found it very enjoyable for the most part. I think it is probably Burton's best film since Ed Wood. I really wanted to like it and at the time I managed to convince myself that I did. I thought it looked really good. The smog-choked London of the 1840s was made quite real. Johnny Depp is certainly the right age and has the intensity to play Sweeney well, as does Helena Boham Carter to play Mrs. Lovett.

Burton has heavily cut the score for some unfathomable reason. At first I thought it was due to length, but on checking running times I found Burton's film runs about fifteen minutes LONGER than the full-length stage version does. Perhaps Burton truly wasn't up to directing a musical. I understand the reason for cutting the "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd" chorus parts. They are a theatrical conceit, and a stronger opening could be created for the film without it. But omitting the Act I quartet is bizarre. It's crucial to the development of the score. And paring down "A Little Priest" makes it seem like Burton simply didn't know what to do with the song. Or perhaps Depp and Bonham Carter simply weren't putting it over.

Spoiler Warning!

In the film Depp's and Bonham Carter's voices seemed fine. But as I've listened to the soundtrack since, they both sound very tentative and like they are at an early read-thru of the score. There is just not enough character in their singing, especially Bonham Carter's. In her opening number, "The Worst Pies in London," she should be chewing the hell out of the song - yet it has so little energy, it is so flat. Somehow Burton has stripped all of the comedy from the song. It needs to be lived and felt and made spontaneous. Mrs. Lovett is a very poor woman trying to get by selling meat-pies. She is supposed to be delighted that Todd--"A customer!!"
--has just walked in the door. Instead, Bonham Carter gives us a Mrs. Lovett that is so underplayed it becomes confusing. On the one hand she should be trying to make a schilling by selling Todd a pie and on the other she wants empathy as she admits her pies are disgusting and gross. This slightly schizophrenic point-of-view is essential to Mrs. Lovett's character. It is what enables her to rationalize her way into serving cadavers as entrées. This multi-dimensional quality is largely missing from Bonham Carter's performance. And to top it off, the lyrics are simply hard to hear and understand.

Alan Rickman makes a wonderful Judge Turpin. Indeed, he would have made a great Sweeney. Sascha Baron Cohen (and his manhood) ably play Adolpho Pirelli. Though again a comedic moment goes for naught when Cohen switches from his over-the-top Italian accent to his Irish accent. Why is nothing funny in this movie? Jamie Campbell Bower sings beautifully as Anthony the young sailor, but he looks so pretty and girlish that it's hard to believe he serves any purpose on a ship other than butt-boy to all the "real" sailors, and it seems more likely Johanna should be rescuing him.

Burton made an interesting choice in the casting Ed Sanders as Tobias Ragg. Toby is most often played as a rather dim-witted young man/teenager. Burton cast a little kid who comes across as about eight years old. He has a lovely voice and makes "Nothing's gonna harm you" sound really wonderful. This is no reflection on Sanders abilities, but a kid that age simply can't act well enough to carry his weight in the drama. An genuinely little child has no real chance of "protecting" Mrs. Lovett from harm; and in the final scene when Toby is exposed to the horrors of the bake-house and meat grinder we need to hear a cry of terror and pain that makes our blood grow cold. Young Mr. Sanders just yells, "Mrs. Lovett, let me out," like maybe he has to go to the bathroom really bad.

You may have guessed that I am not a big Tim Burton fan. I think he has a wonderful imagination and a strong personal style, but I have always felt he needed to be more tightly reigned in, that his ideas were too often brilliant first drafts that were never refined enough or thought through, that often his ideas were simply there because they were "cool" and if they made hash of the story-telling or characterizations, it seems Burton thinks, "Who cares, it's cool"! Here are a few of the most disturbing "Burtonisms" in the film:

The Opening Credits
It seems hard to believe that Burton will blow his wad in the opening credits by showing the audience the barber chair, the chute, and the meat grinder full of body parts. A good story teller would make the audience wait and build up the suspense. Why enact the plot in mediocre CGI animation before the film has even started?

The Tower Bridge
Moments into the film Sweeney goes sailing down the Thames under the Tower Bridge. The film appears to be set circa 1840, but the Tower Bridge wasn't built until 1894, some fifty plus years after the film takes place. Whether this was Burton's idea, or Production Designer Dante Ferretti's, it was a stupid mistake and makes both men look unprofessional. I have seen several other blogs online talking about this goof and a number of people seem to argue back: "But it's a musical! Since when does a musical have to be accurate? People don't sing in the streets either!!"

Well, that's not the point. It's bad because I wanted to be paying attention to the story and music and not be jarred out of my seat by architectural anachronisms. I don't want to see the Eiffel Tower on a backdrop for Les Miz either! Science Fiction films don't HAVE to be historically accurate, but if Peter Jackson had put the World Trade Center in his 1933 period-correct KING KONG because he thought it looked cool - well, it would have been stupid!

Passing Sentence and Key-hole peeking
To show the quality of Judge Turpin's character there is a scene where the Judge passes a sentence to "Hang by the neck until you are dead" on some poor prisoner in the dock who has committed a petty crime. In the show it's a young man and the severity of the sentence to the crime is considered sufficient to show the Judge's character. Burton ends the scene by pulling back to show the condemned prisoner is a little kid, possibly six years old, weeping hysterically. Ahh, subtlety.... In another scene the Judge watches Johanna through a secret peek-hole. It's in the original show, it's creepy, and helps define character. Yet for some odd reason Burton explicitly has Judge Turpin watch Johanna sitting in her window, engaging with the sailor and throwing a key to him. Yet later on when Judge Turpin hears Johanna has made these plans he seems to have no idea he watched it all himself earlier that day. The scene could have been solved by having the Judge simply quit peeking before Johanna throws the key. Go figure.

Little Bald Boys
Casting little kid Ed Sanders as Toby seems like a good idea when he's singing. But his big solo number is about his job selling a hair growing tonic and how he went from being completely bald to having a full head of hair. Hmmm .... I don't know many bald little boys, do you? It makes no sense.

The Meat Grinder
Mrs. Lovett's meat grinder is so over the top it seems ridiculous. It stands about seven feet high with an opening many feet across. Why? Where did she get a several ton cast-iron meat grinder? Huh? Also, Burton as usual must throw subtlety to the winds. In the show Toby finds some hair and then a fingernail in a meat pie, he puts two and two together, and figures out what's going on in the horrific bakehouse. In Burton's scene Toby finds a whole finger. It's just crass and doesn't allow the audience to make the journey and see the horror grow as Toby figures it out.

End Credit Music
The film ends with a bloody tableaux of Sweeney holding Lucy, both dead and bloody. Then the credits roll and we get an unimaginative jumble of music from the film. This would have been such a perfect place to hear "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd." At the end of the credits Depp and Bonham Carter could even have risen from the dead, like they do in the show, for a post credit "Gotcha!"

It isn't a bad film. I will certainly buy the DVD. But it could have been so much better. Burton doesn't seem to understand that the comedic moments are there to let the audience catch their breath, to relax the audience, so he can scare them all over again. Sweeney needed to be a roller coaster ride of giggly gruesome humor and stark terror. Burton's Sweeney is very one-note. Burton has put his imagination into everything from the little bald boy to the six-ton meat grinder. It's in the CGI smog-filled London and the cockroaches in the pie shop. It's in the squirting blood and in the whole finger that Toby finds in his pie.

But here, perhaps, is the rub ... Burton's vision is so "imaginative" that nothing is left to the audience's imagination, and it's a shame Burton doesn't understand that that's where true horror lies.

Copyright © 2008 D. H. Maxine