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Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd

Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd

Ladies and Gentleman, may I have your attention please? Are you looking for cinema bloody yet wise with a hero and heroine you should despise?

Ladies and Gentleman, may I have your attention please?
Are you looking for cinema bloody yet wise with a hero and heroine you should despise?
I can see in your eyes
How, ladies and gentlemen, this proposal must seem like a tease,
How a movie with music could be such a thing;
A bloody endeavor with actors who sing!?
Gentleman, you won’t believe that a story that seems so depraved
is the movie you’ve craved!

The tale of Sweeney Todd is long and bloody; The story of the murderous London barber whose victims are baked into meat pies literally dates back to the turn of the 19th century. As the grime-soaked days ground by and the industrial revolution choked London’s skies, the story of Sweeney Todd began appearing in print, most likely in the “penny dreadfuls” of the era and probably as an urban legend (although claims have been made by some that Todd was a real criminal who was hanged at the Old Bailey in 1802). The story took hold in the popular imagination when it was presented in the novel The String of Pearls in 1846, which itself was adapted for the stage as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street the following year. The play was made into a film in 1936 and despite earning popularity for the film’s star, Tod Slaughter (the perfect name, no?), the story of the demon barber slowly faded in and out of the collective consciousness, popping up here and there until 1973, when the playwright Christopher Bond took the tale and made a few radical changes, the most important of which was the transformation of the Todd character from the thieving criminal of the 19th century tale into a man seeking revenge for his unjust imprisonment; It is Bond who invented Benjamin Barker, the barber banished to Australia by a powerful judge who covets his beautiful wife and child. Suddenly, the killer becomes a person with whom we empathize.

Bond’s play caught the attention of Stephen Sondheim, one of the 1970’s most popular Broadway composers and lyricists. Sondheim took Bond’s re-imagining of the Victorian tale and in 1979, his musical version of the story, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened on Broadway. While the show won numerous Tony Awards, I have always thought of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as an opera, and probably one of the most important pieces ever written for the American stage. For me, Sweeney Todd is Sondheim at the height of his powers as a lyricist and composer; The work in its entirety is so rich and complex, so revolutionary in terms of bringing structural detail to such grim, “low” subject matter, that I could spend thousands of words trying (and probably failing) to tear it apart and reassemble it. There are, however, some very important points to be made about Sondheim’s craft in this score.

Sondheim himself is said to be a lover of games and puzzles, and the brilliance of Sweeney Todd above all that came before it (and frankly, since) rests squarely in Sondheim’s almost mathematical understanding of dramatic structure and how, using a musical score, that structure can be manipulated, twisted and bent, into a captivating story. But what really separates Sondheim from the pack is that his structural rigor in the score is matched by his lyrical gifts. When listening to Sweeney Todd, it seems almost impossible to believe that the same man who wrote its score, with its moody swings from horror film music to Stravinsky-like pulsations to kitschy 19th century operetta, could possibly be the same person who wrote the lyrics, which are at once hauntingly confessional, full of longing and desire, and yet so horrifyingly funny and hilariously terrifying. The effect is staggering; Throw in a heavy dose of bloodshed, a little sprinkle of cannibalism, that soaring score, the lyrical precision and Sondheim’s achievement becomes remarkable.

Which is why Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd has to stand as an equally towering achievement, a near-perfect cinematic interpretation of one of the theater’s most staggering compositions. Burton’s work to this point suddenly seems, in retrospect, to be both a thematic and stylistic progression toward Sondheim’s opera, and nothing in Burton’s preparation for Sweeney Todd has been more important than his long-term partnership with the brilliant Danny Elfman. Burton’s use of Elfman’s music in films like Batman, Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands, sweeping scores that articulate the unspoken emotional complexity on the screen, has always been one of the definitive tools in the Director’s arsenal; The mood and feeling of Burton’s films seems impossible to imagine without Elfman’s essential contribution. But while the use of Elfman’s scores is evocative in many of Burton’s films, it is Burton’s collaboration with Elfman on two films in particular, Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton produced) and the Burton Co-Directed Corpse Bride, that laid the groundwork for Sweeney. These two films, each of which utilize the tropes of the musical to tell their stories, feature a narrative concision that is pure poetry; The films don’t get too bogged down in the fussy cinematic trickery and narrative drudgery of a film like Batman. Instead, the animated musicals allow the music and story to flow naturally together, using song to reveal their character’s desires and lyrical poetry to deliver the story.

Swing Your Razor Wide, Sweeney: Johnny Depp As Sweeney Todd In Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd

Of course, the suspension of disbelief in an animated film like Corpse Bride is a much simpler achievement than pulling off a film like Sweeney Todd, which is why the film is so rare and wondrous; Burton has translated the expanse of Sondheim’s piece by stripping it of its theatrical scope and recasting the movie in close-up. Instead of arm-swinging jigs and blowzy operatic gestures that have been a feature of most stage productions of the play, Burton’s film is the first to understand the intimate nature of the character’s pain and longing, and his decision to cast Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the leads is a masterstroke; Their faces, writ large on the big screen, bring us inside of the character’s minds in a way that the theater cannot. Almost magically, this decision also transforms Sondheim’s score; Instead of having his characters thunder their feelings to the heavens with operatic grandeur, Burton’s Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett become all whispered threats and hushed longing, which then allows the score’s biggest moments, particularly Sweeney’s Epiphany and the film’s final ten minutes (wherein Sondheim reprises the majority of his songs, revealing their bloody, ironic meaning in full) to have the power of lightening bolts ripping across the screen. The score itself becomes an almost ironic comment on the sad, anonymous lives of its characters, lending a heroic muscle to the murderous intrigues of the working-class barber and the baker whose love forever remains unrequited.

Sweeney (Johnny Depp) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) Get Reacquainted In Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd

Visually, the film echoes Sondheim’s structure in several important ways. First, Burton uses pastiche, particularly the history of gothic horror, to great effect; There isn’t a frame of this movie that would be out of place in a Hammer Film, a Poe story or an Edward Gorey book. The story is pure 19th century melodrama, with orphans, murder, incest, blackmail, buckets of blood, lovers separated, imprisoned virgins and judicial corruption all mingling together, as black as billowing chimney smoke. So is the story’s bleak view of humanity as divided between the vain and insane; Is there any other story that proposes that the city is “a hole in the world like a great black pit/ and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit/ and the vermin of the world inhabit it?” Burton ties his gothic mastery into the score’s own self-references; More than any other theatrical composer, Sondheim’s score for Sweeney utilizes a modernist’s understanding of leitmotif to tie his dramatic moments together, usually ironically, to devastating effect. Burton follows suit, and the results work; The teeming streets of London are boiled down to a cast of roughly nine characters whose lives are interwoven by circumstance. This allows Burton to visually echo Sondheim’s musical leitmotifs in brilliantly constructed ways; Sweeney’s enchanted gaze into the mirrored blade of his razor during My Friends is rhymed with his psychotic breakdown in a shattered mirror in Epiphany, the duplicitous barber Pirelli (played to perfection by Sasha Baron Cohen) not only doubles Sweeney’s own secret identity, but his death at Sweeney’s hand will echo the dread experienced by Johanna when, disguised as a boy, she is uncovered by Sweeney in the trunk that served as Pirelli’s coffin.

For every dissonance in the score, Burton assembles a visual to match; The ghastly upstairs/downstairs relationship between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett provides counterpoint to the innocence of the relationship between the imprisoned Johanna and the smitten young sailor Anthony, her image eternally hovering in the windows just out of Anthony’s reach. Or the way in which Sweeney’s muddy reflection in the blade of the razor, his own face obscured by madness, is the equivalent of his view of life on the streets outside of Mrs. Lovett’s shop the moment the couple decide to utilize a new ingredient in her meat pies. Of course, when these visual rhymes are echoed in the score (other songs and musical motifs are constantly drifting in and out of the songs being sung), the harmony and dissonance are perfectly manipulated; The film is as dramatically precise as it is palpably alive.

Much has been made of the actor’s singing, from doubts about the strength of the voices to criticisms that the film’s distributor removed the songs from the promotional campaign in an effort to sucker young people into a musical they wouldn’t otherwise go see, but having seen the film on Opening Night, these points seem moot. In the age of heart-felt sincerity and High School Musical, Sweeney Todd may seem like an improbable candidate for success, but the opposite is true. Audiences are more open than ever to the musical form, and they seem to be looking for emotional thrills; Sweeney Todd delivers them in spades. Again, credit is due Tim Burton here because his relationship with Johnny Depp, one so seasoned and sympathetic (Burton just seems to inherently know how to shoot Depp’s complexly comic deadpan gaze), allows the actor to utilize his voice to the benefit of the score, but importantly, his face to the benefit of the film. Is Depp as powerful a singer as Len Cariou or George Hearn? No, but his Sweeney is different from theirs; In the dark of the movie theater, his voice can be amplified to near rock-concert intensity (as it was in the theater in which I saw the film) while being mixed perfectly with the orchestra, allowing his singing and the music to be in perfect balance for every note. It works; All of the actors come off admirably as singers and actors, which lends the film the dramatic credibility it needs to succeed with any open-minded audience. But it is the intimacy of those well-known faces, here beaten and battered by life, confessing their heart’s deepest desires in song, that makes the movie so profound. Sweeney is Burton’s masterpiece, a bloody, beautiful evocation of madness and need that honors the source material in form and function. I can think of no higher praise than to say that this is an adaptation is worthy of Sondheim’s score, the cinematic equal of the composer’s masterpiece of revenge and its terrible costs.

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