It’s somehow both bizarre and understandable that Hollywood, which has plundered musical theater since the inception of synchronized sound, has almost completely ignored Stephen Sondheim, the greatest artist that medium has ever produced. Bizarre, of course, because it’s as if the movies had somehow overlooked Shakespeare or Dickens—but understandable at the same time, given the formidable complexity and uncompromising audacity of Sondheim’s best work. It’s a truism that nobody ever leaves a Sondheim show humming any of its tunes; indeed, of all his many songs, only A Little Night Music’s “Send in the Clowns” has become a standard. So I’m exceedingly curious about the commercial fate of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton’s ferociously bloody adaptation of the 1979 Broadway hit. Will general audiences, accustomed to the frothy likes of Hairspray and The Producers, lured to the theater by Johnny Depp’s name on the marquee and the promise of grand guignol, recognize that they’re seeing a bastardized version of one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements?
It doesn’t hurt that the basic story, which has been kicking around since the mid-1800s (a nonmusical film of the same title was made way back in 1936), packs an irresistibly grotesque wallop: Demented barber slits the throats of his customers, who are then ground up and baked into meat pies by his equally amoral accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. Christopher Bond, whose 1973 play inspired Sondheim’s production, concocted an empathetic backstory in which Sweeney Todd is the alias of a man named Benjamin Barker, who was falsely imprisoned by a corrupt judge with designs on Barker’s lovely wife. Freed from prison some 15 years later, Barker/Todd returns to London seeking revenge, only to be informed by Mrs. Lovett, whose mingy bakery is just downstairs from his former home, that his wife is long dead and his daughter is now the judge’s ward. She also mentions, just in passing, that she’s been saving his collection of silver-handled straight razors, just in case he might one day turn up and have some particularly urgent use for them.
What Sondheim does with this lurid material is nothing short of miraculous, encompassing everything from low burlesque to the grandest operatic passion. Purists will carp that many numbers have been cut from Burton’s film—a completely faithful adaptation would run well over three hours—but speaking as someone who’s committed the ’79 cast recording to memory, I wasn’t much bothered by the omissions. What’s far more important is the way that Burton’s morbid sensibility dovetails perfectly with the tale’s ghoulish amalgam of black comedy and agonized melodrama. “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it,” sings a disgusted Todd of 19th-century London, and Burton conjures up a magnificently stylized backdrop of urban filth and squalor, through which his camera skulks with a degree of assurance unseen in movie musicals since Vincente Minnelli died. The film veers back and forth between intimacy and extravagance, and the juxtaposition of Sondheim’s lyrical melodies and intricate wordplay with Burton’s great geysers of arterial blood—this is decidedly not a film for the squeamish—produces a delectable cognitive dissonance.
So much do I admire what Burton’s accomplished here, and so much do I love every stray note of the original musical, that I’ve been reluctant to state the obvious, which is that Sweeney Todd would have been a truly fantastic movie if any of its name actors could sing worth a damn. Outfitted with a shock of white hair and caked in cadaverous chalk-white makeup (save for the pitch-black circles under his eyes), Depp gives Todd a brooding intensity, but his soft, undistinguished baritone can’t remotely do justice to the character’s impassioned mania. And while I rather enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s unusual interpretation of Mrs. Lovett, who isn’t usually this hilariously blasé, listening to her stumble and hiccup her way through several of Sondheim’s most notoriously tricky numbers—in particular, “The Worst Pies in London,” which demands a professional singer’s command of phrasing and tempo—is often a painful experience. Alan Rickman (as Judge Turpin) and Timothy Spall (as Beadle Bamford), fine actors both, fare no better. Nor is this a minor, niggling problem, given that roughly 90 percent of the dialogue is sung. But it’s a testament to the genius of both Sondheim and Burton that it almost feels niggling.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall
Directed by Tim Burton