Sweeney Todd probably ranks amongst my favorite musicals, and Stephen Sondheim is one of my favorite musical composers. His music is lush and challenging, and his lyrics are ever clever and surprising. After seeing it staged for the first time in the early 1980s, I memorized the libretto, learning how to sing every part, frustrated that my dramatic soprano voice could never quite reach Johanna’s highest notes.
I also like Tim Burton and have enjoyed most of his collaborations with Johnny Depp. Edward Scissorhands never fails to make me cry, due in large part to Depp’s sensitive portrayal of the fragile and tormented young man. And Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite films ever; the combination of musical theatre and bizarre surreal animation is pure Burtonesque genius.
So it was with all of this pre-existing knowledge and great expectation that I went to see Burton’s new film version of Sweeney Todd. There is much to like in it, and, sadly, much about which to be disappointed.
Dante Ferretti’s brilliant production design gifts us with an intricate blending of gritty, realism and the surrealism that is so much the Burton signature. The dreary London of the mid-19th century, complete with rats, roaches (huge roaches, actually), dust and grime seems to be lifted straight from a Charles Dickens novel. Even the upper-middle class figures like Judge Turpin (and his dwellings) seem consumed by the dankness of the age and place.
Unfortunately, the main characters of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett seem (at times) taken out of Kabuki theatre. Depp especially, as Sweeney Todd, seems almost marionette-like in white makeup and careful, wooden movements. That is not to say I didn’t like Depp’s performance. He is a terrific actor who, when he underplays, broods with the best of ‘em. And brood, he does. For there is hardly a more miserable character in all of musical theater than Sweeney Todd. But the highly stylized performance of Depp (and to a lesser degree Helena Bonham Carter) failed to make me weep for the tragedy of our anti-hero. I think I see what Depp and Burton were trying to do with the character, portraying him deeply in shock, immovable because of his grief, but I’m not sure that it works (at least not for me).
As I said from the outset, the stage production of Sweeney Todd is one of my favorites, and I’ve listened to the recording so many times that it’s nearly impossible to objectively comment on the musical aspects of the film. But inevitably, the film will be compared to the stage version. So, with that in mind, I will comment, with the understanding that I am biased.
The gorgeous, rich orchestral arrangement of the film score very much remains faithful to the stage version. And perhaps that is part of the problem. I listened to those wonderful lead-ins to the vocal and instead of Len Cariou’s (Sweeney Todd) booming and emotional baritone, I heard Depp’s thinner and quieter voice; instead of Angela Lansbury’s (Mrs. Lovett) dynamic and bubbly danse-macabre I got Bonham Carter’s breathless breathiness. The coloratura of Johanna’s “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird” comes through at once thin and strident. It's not that any of the actors sing badly. They all sing reasonably well, and if vocal music were a minor aspect of the film, or even a co-dominant aspect of the film, it might have worked better. But Sweeney Todd is essentially an opera. There is very, very little that is not sung. And when the two lead's voices are not musically up to the task, there is something not quite right with a film like this.
Johnny Depp is a star. He will pull in the customers and put “bums on seats,” as they say in London. And he is a mainstay (along with Burton’s partner, Bonham Carter) in Tim Burton’s creative stable. But I wonder if Burton could not have found someone with equal star power who possesses a voice equal to the incredibly difficult vocal task of Todd. The other option for Burton was to have pulled back on the orchestral score to not create such a stark contrast between the power of the instrumental arrangements and then thinness of the voices. Those big lush lead-ins should lead into lush singing. They did not, and the drop-off from instrumental to vocal was jarring. Simply put, the music and voices do not match. At least not for me.
Several of the voices are excellent, some surprisingly so. Ed Sanders is fabulous as the boy, Toby. He’s a terrific young actor with a great voice. And the young man who plays Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) clearly also can sing well. Surprisingly (although perhaps not, given his gloriously sonorous speaking voice), Alan Rickman does justice to the evil Judge Turpin; Sacha Baron-Cohen is a delight as Pirelli (although they cut one verse from the “Contest” song). In general musical adaptation works pretty seamlessly, however, I did miss the narrating chorus of the stage version, who told the “Tale of Sweeney Todd.” I think the addition of the Greek chorus would have worked well as the mobs, the crowds, the customers. I especially missed them in the “More Hot Pies” sequence in the pie shop.
The other complaint was that I felt that less could have been more in the gore and guts aspect of the film. I had to cover my eyes every time Sweeney slit a throat and the blood started gushing out. It was unnecessary and took me out of the story. Especially at the end, when we really need to feel Todd’s pain, the excessive blood detracts from the tragedy of it and the emotional impact of that moment.
As I’m typing this, I realize how critical I’ve been of the film, but I did like it. And I believe that people who haven’t been exposed to the stage version of Sweeney Todd will like it a lot more than I did. My daughter (a confessed Johnny Depp fan) thought it was great, but she’s never seen the original and she loves Johnny Depp… because he’s Johnny Depp. And I understand. Anything she sees that stars Johnny Depp will be viewed through that filter.
Go see this movie. Enjoy it. But if you’ve seen the stage version, go in with limited expectations.