Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


It’s probably been a year since I first heard that Tim Burton was directing this, possibly my favorite musical of all time. That was okay, he’s certainly weird enough to handle it. Then I heard about the casting. Johnny Depp? Helena Bonham-Carter? (Who just happens to be Burton’s girlfriend?) What the fuck is this? Both terrifically talented people, no question, but my question was the one that was on the minds of millions of other Stephen Sondheim fans: Can they sing?

The answer is yes. Well enough. That isn’t meant as faint praise. A movie is a different beast than a stage play. You’re up close, you don’t need operatic voices. Sondheim had the final say in all casting decisions here, and Helena B-C wanted this badly enough that she took voice lessons for three months, and got the nod from the Big S. Sondheim himself is wise enough to know that a musical can’t transfer directly to the big screen intact, changes have to be made. (Besides, there’s an excellent videotape of the play made in Los Angeles during the national tour, starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn—who in my opinion was better than Len Cariou from the Broadway version.) Sondheim points out that, on the stage, during a long solo number, you don’t have to worry the audience will get distracted. The spotlight is on the soloist, and you listen. In a movie you have to keep things moving. And it helps if you can bring it in at under two hours. Thus, several numbers were shortened.

Sondheim also commented on his feeling that, on the stage, you need great singers who can act competently, whereas on the screen you’re much better off with great actors who can sing competently. Watching this movie, I can see he’s right. With the actors at a distance from you, nuance doesn’t matter that much, but when they’re in your face, acting is all-important, and everyone in this movie is superb at that. And they are all much more than adequate singers.

Something like 95% of this movie is sung, and the music is utterly amazing. It is thunderous without ever becoming ponderous, and yet there is time for some of the sweetest melodies Sondheim ever wrote. There are funny songs, too, and believe it or not, some incredibly funny situations. In fact, when the movie is not being bloody-minded and intense, it is a very funny show … sometimes while it is being bloody, etc. It’s hard to credit what genius it takes to make this work. I am so glad that no one said to Sondheim, Gee, Steve, this can’t possibly work … or if they did say that, he ignored them, because it does work. I remember the first time I saw it, Sweeney is serving a series of customers, singing the sweet “Johanna” along with Anthony, Johanna, and the Beggar Woman in different locations around the stage, all the while cutting throats as casually as he might sharpen his razor. The audience gasped as the blood flowed, then laughed, then didn’t seem to know what to do but sit there with jaws hanging open. But they knew they were seeing something they’d never seen before, and how rare is that?

Every element of this show worked for me, from the wonderful set design and make-up, to the beefed-up orchestrations, to the spot-on acting. Burton made several changes, and none of them jarred. The story of Johanna and Anthony was downplayed to focus more sharply on Sweeney. I approve. Mrs. Lovett is now prettier—though ghoulish, like something out of Burton’s Corpse Bride. (Most of the movie is virtually black-and-white … and red. Oh, so much red.) Toby the barber’s apprentice is a child now, rather than a simple young man. That works very well.

One element that has been talked about a lot, and that may not work for some of you is, of course, the blood. It really flows, spurts and gushes like a fountain. When the bodies are dropped to the basement meat grinder and oven, they go head-first, and the heads splatter. Absolutely no punches are pulled. For me, it was so gloriously over the top … but some of you will find it hard to watch. I just think of it as stage blood, and a means to ramp up the intensity of the scenes. And I’m remembering that Sondheim had a choice in the original staging. He could have had Sweeney discretely drag the blunt razor over the exposed neck, and then let the audience accept it as a stage convention that no blood spurted, you were supposed to imagine it. He was having none of that. The prop razor squirted blood on the throats, and I get the feeling that if it wasn’t so hard to do on the stage, he’d have had it this bloody in the original. His model, after all, was the super-explicit predecessor of the slasher flick, the Grand Guignol theater of Paris. However, if blood makes you queasy, you’d better skip this. I feel sorry for you for the glories you’ll be missing, but I can understand. (Although you might try covering your eyes during the slashing parts, so you can at least hear the glories of this movie.)

Addendum for those of you who live in Los Angeles: If you’re thinking about going to one of the multiplexes to see it on the big screen … don’t! Go to the Vista, at the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset. This is a little gem of an independent theater, refurbished inside and out, with an Egyptian motif. It is a medium-sized venue, not a “movie palace,” but well-done on a smaller scale. There is plenty of legroom and the Dolby sound and projection is as good as you’ll get anywhere. If you go before 6 PM it’s only $5, as opposed to $11 at some other places. The popcorn is fresh, and there’s never a long line, you don’t have to get your tickets from Fandango. If that isn’t enough for you, when we were there the ticket-taker had gone to considerable trouble to dress up as Sweeney Todd himself, white streak, white face, razor in a case, the whole schmear. Are you likely to find that at Mann’s, or Regal? I think not. And you won’t be giving your money to one of the giant, soulless chains.