Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

Let me start by saying that the stage play Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of my all time favorites; dark, macabre, twisted, and filled with gallows humor -- my kind of play. Plus, the music is amazing. So it was with great anticipation and trepidation that I awaited the release of the motion picture version. On the encouraging side, Tim Burton is one of the few directors out there with a sensibility dark enough to capture the spirit of Sweeney; on the worrisome side, as much as I respect Johnny Depp as an actor, his lack of vocal training and relative youth made it difficult for me to picture him as the deep voiced, mature Sweeney epitomized by George Hearn. But at the same time, I knew that Stephen Sondheim, the mastermind behind the play itself, had signed off on all casting decisions, so I struggled to give the film the benefit of the doubt.

I was surprised to find that the movie would be playing at the Hickory Creek Rave, which is about 15 minutes outside of Denton, and quickly made plans with Li'L Random, my fellow dark and twisty movie lover, to go see it. We got to the theater a little early, and had to wait for the earlier showing to let out. I had joked to Li'l Random that we should eavesdrop on the people leaving to see what they thought of it, but I'm afraid such a plan would have been totally in vain, as almost every single person exiting the theater did so in a state of morose, shell-shocked silence; after the third or fourth couple passed by us with stoic faces of grim determination it was all Li'l Brother and I could do to stifle our laughter. By the time the theater had emptied out, we had not seen a single person bearing a smile, which was odd, and had not heard a single person remarking on the film in one way or another, which was even odder. I remarked that it was too bad we were going to the last showing of the night, otherwise we could agree that, regardless of how we felt towards the film, we could leave it jumping up and down, high-fiving, chanting "Sweeney rules! Sweeney rules!" or the like. Why oh why did we have to choose the 9:45 showing? *sigh*

The showing before us had been pretty sparesely populated, so I was expecting a pretty empty theater for us as well; this was not to be the case, as the theater filled up rather quickly. The guy who sat down right next to me was quite vocal during the trailers, making me wonder if I could use my bag of M&Ms as a gag if his oh-so-witty commentary of such high caliber remarks as "Dude, that looks gay" and the like continued once the film started. As the film itself started up, I leaned over to Li'l Random and said "Okay, start the stopwatch to see how long before someone yells out 'Wait, is this a musical'?" Sure enough, there had barely been a full verse of the introductory song sung before the vocal guy next to me proclaimed "Is the whole thing going to be like this?" I must admit, I enjoyed the tone of discomfort in his voice, even as I was silently mouthing along with the lyrics -- almost as much as I enjoyed his discomfort as he cried out in disgust and squirmed violently in his seat every time Sweeney dispatched someone, sending Kill Bill worthy torrents of fake blood cascading across the screen.

Let this be a lesson to one and all: do a bit of research before you go to the movies, folks, it can save you some mental anguish.

As I mentioned on Monday, both Li'l Random and I enjoyed the film quite a bit, he as a newcomer to the world of Sweeney and I as an old hand. And, as an old hand, it's hard for me to be objective on the film without drawing comparisons to its source material; no matter how many times people have defended the film by saying "it's a movie based on the play, not a movie of the play," the fact remains that any adaptation must be able to not only stand on its own two feet, but also withstand the expectations and comparisons that are sure to arise in regards to the original.

Luckily for me, I had read enough reviews by other Sweeney fans beforehand to know two very importants facts: first of all, that while the movie still incorporated enough music to maintain the feel of an operetta, the score had been made a bit more "pop" in its orchestrations; and, second of all, the play's ubiquitious Ballad of Sweeney Todd was excised. It was this second fact which bothered me the most; while the music of The Ballad was kept in as part of the score, every time it would swell up I couldn't help wishing that we got to hear the following at least once during the film

In the play, "The Ballad" serves as a bit of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action of the play periodically. I understand why it was cut from the film overall; meta-textual pieces like this generally work better on the stage than on the screen, and with the nearly claustrophobic, personal atmosphere Burton cultivated having other characters swing in to comment on the action instead of allowing the action to unfold naturally most likely would have proven distracting. In fact, I noticed that all of the instances in the play where the crowd joins in on the song have had the crowd's participation removed; it was quite strange to hear "God That's Good" done without the title ever being uttered.

As for the tinkering with the orchestrations, well, just take a listen to the difference between George Hearn's version of "Epiphany"

versus Depp's version in the film*

I have to admit it was hard at times for me to accept Depp's less, shall we say, robust vocal stylings; there were numerous times in the film where a certain lyric or phrase would lose some of its punch for me due to the more pop-friendly interpretation, but it's difficult to say how I would have reacted to it I hadn't listened to the Broadway version countless times since I first saw the show over 10 years ago.

A smattering of things missing from the film caught my notice, primarily the reduced role of the beggar woman (in particular the removal of all of her bawdy solicitation attempts) and the removal of "Kiss Me," a song which would have helped to flesh out the anemic Anthony/Johanna relationship.

Of course, there were some changes from the stage to screen that were, if not improvements over the original, then at least interesting variations that added to my enjoyment.

First there was the younger cast; by having a younger Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, it required a downward shift in the ages of other characters as well. The sailor Anthony, often portrayed as a strapping, dashing young man, is here instead portrayed as a willowy, long-haired youth who looks like he could still be waiting on puberty to hit, which has the interesting effect of having his sudden infatuation with Johanna and subsequent romantic idealism more understandable. Meanwhile Toby, usually played as a lame teenager who's a bit slow in the head, is here played as a precocious little kid, which adds a certain poignancy to his ballad "Not While I'm Around," as well as making his final fate in the film more chilling.

Although some songs suffered a bit in the transition -- most notably "A Little Priest," which had much of its vaudevillian charm and structure removed, hamstringing its humorous effects -- I must admit that one of my least favorite songs of the play became one of my favorite numbers in the film. "By the Sea," a bright, cheery number that highlights how deluded Mrs. Lovett really is, never really gelled for me in the play, but in the movie Burton is able to use the power of cinema to transport us into Lovett's mind, giving us a tour of the picaresque vignettes she has shoehorned Sweeney, Toby, and herself into, to great comedic effect. True, it's a bit odd to have "By the Sea" garner more laughs from the audience than "A Little Priest," but for me, making "By the Sea" something I enjoyed more than tolerated was worthy of admiration, and has actually given me a bit more appreciation for the number. Fancy that.

Despite the numerous changes mentioned above, I have to say that, on the whole, the movie is incredibly faithful to the play. Yes, many songs were removed, and most of the ones which remained had lines chopped from them, but the intent of the songs remained intact. And, while there was a bit of juggling of scenes here and there, I had very few qualms with them because they served to strengthen the flow of the story; by moving Sweeney's version of "Johanna" before "God That's Good," the film organically shows the rise of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's new enterprise, a rise that happens off-stage during intermission in the play, a sweeping change that's easy to accept in a play but difficult to pull off in a film without clumsy "three months later" style captions. Some people might feel that the watering down of the Anthony/Johanna love story weakens the film, but to be honest, despite providing some memorable songs, their romance was always more of a distraction from the central idea of the show to me than anything else. And what is that central idea? An exploration of the dark road that a desire for revenge leads a man down; for me, all other themes (class struggle, abuse of power, hypocrisy, etc.) pale before that one.

*Yes, that's a Lego version of the number; sue me, it's the best I could find.


Anonymous said...

Even though I have unfortunately never seen the broadway show with Angela Lansbury (I'm 14 sorry) I've tried to get as much of the play as I possibly can on the internet and found it on youtube. I admit that after seeing the movie that it is not a better experience its just a different experience. Helena Bonham Carter will never have the vocal power of Angela Lansbury, but Alan Rickman puts Edmund Lyndeck away.