The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sweeney Todd

December 3, 2007,
         Dreamworks/Warners   116 minutes
Are we required to revere all acknowledged artistic genuises? Is there a hard & fast rule of taste? I can't deny the high cultural status of Stephen Sondheim. As a lyricist he's second to none; but as a composer, to my ears he falls short of the likes of Rodgers, Porter, Kern, Berlin, Styne, Loesser or Stouse. Not that he doesn't know how to take my breath away. Take "Lovely" from Forum--it's almost pastiche yet so solid, so melodically sweeping, so, well. . . lovely. But it's not the kind of Sondheim tune that pops up in his songbook concerts. Or "Me and My Town," the "Kay Thompson" number from Anyone Can Whistle. Thrilling. And who would dispute Follies' "Beautiful Girls" as every bit the equal of Berlin's "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody." But this isn't really Sondheim's metier--his true voice--the new music--which often takes on a sardonic or bitter harmonic line, to match his chosen subject matter. Challenging or improbable themes for a musical; grown-up themes that demand grown-up attention; artistic chores that earn, nay demand our admiration. But not our glee.

My New York years were concurrent with Sondheim's renaissance, and I traveled thru Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and even caught Merrily We Roll Along in its two week run. But the one that got away was Harold Prince's production of Sweeney Todd. To be sure, some of that was proximity. I'd left NY for San Francisco the year before, but tho I visited twice during the show's Bway run, I wasn't inclined to see it. The truth was from the moment I played the OCR upon its release, I just hated the score.    I could barely stand to listen to it. Not that either Night Music or Pacific Overtures had been in frequent play on my turntable, but at least they had some appeal. Sweeney Todd both assaulted and bored me. Whatsmore, by this time, a year into my transition to SF I was listening to all kinds of music other than Bway musicals, tho of course that deep vein could still be tapped with some fresh melodic heroin (as On the Twentieth Century proved the year before); Sweeney Todd was painful to my ears. And so it stayed on the shelf. But if Sondheim was increasingly turning me off, his stature was exponentially growing, and in very short order Sweeney was considered by many to be his masterpiece--not to mention a classic of musical theater. An opinion that only persists with time. The show is essentially an opera--tho Sondheim prefers to call it a "musical thriller" And he's right, for the show is not in fact sung-thru, yet even the dialogue scenes are underscored in the rich tradition of old Hlwd movie scores by composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner & Bernard Hermann. It has in its two leads, Todd & Mrs. Lovett, roles of great substance attractive to actors of stature (Imagine great duos of the past in these roles: Lunt & Fontanne; Tracy & Hepburn, Cronyn & Tandy, Steve & Eydie.) And a supporting cast--young & old--of rich characters as well. But the beating heart of the piece is its compliance with the Grand Guignol tradition--naturalistic horror, often graphic and amoral; the shock effect. You can decide what this says about Sondheim's psyche; that of all his works this is the one that he himself initiated. But as Walter Kerr once pondered (about Pal Joey, no less), can you draw sweet water from a foul well?

Over a quarter century passed as my initial aversion faded into apathy, then reluctant acceptance and finally a little curiosity. Enuf, at least to take in John Doyle's celebrated 2005 Bway re-imagining, which came thru SF's venerable ACT company two years later. This was the production that dispensed with a chorus and had the actors double up as the orchestra. (Come see Patti Lupone on tuba!) The concept was more impressionistic than literal--Grand Music Hall more than Guignol. (Judy Kaye played the tuba in SF.) I found it less abrasive but not much more appealing. And while I couldn't entirely hate the score anymore, neither was I any closer to loving it. Only two months later the movie musical hit the screen. Or should I say, slashed? Tim Burton's 13th feature was one of the first he ever imagined. Long before he had a toe-hold in Hlwd, he was enthralled since he first saw the show--3 nights in a row--in London, 1980. Burton approached Sondheim about a potential movie once his film career took off, but distracted by other projects, didn't follow thru. When years later, a long-developing film version by Sam Mendes fell apart, Burton eagerly stepped in--as tho it were destined all along. And so it probably was.

It seemed a perfect match of man & material. Burton having long since proven himself a master of dark content and visual panache. I was a fan from his first weird feature, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, both for his surrealist style and offbeat humor; a technique he developed thru Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorshands, and perfected in my absolute favorite Burton film: Ed Wood. But Batman bored me to the point of leaving midway thru; and thereafter I wasn't often in thrall: Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. Eh. Still, if anyone could make Sweeney Todd proud, it figured Burton was the one. First off, this wasn't to be the filmed stage play--Tim's imagination was beyond that from the start. Besides which, Prince's staging was filmed for PBS, preserving much of the original cast, including Angela Lansbury--in her crowning (& 4th Tony-winning) musical role. 25 years later, Burton quickly cast his longtime ally, Johnny Depp as Todd, and his then-spouse Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett--an act of nepotism that might have rankled some.  Both might  have  seemed  a  bit  young  at first,  but  in  fact are
more appropriate than the 50-60 year-olds who often play the roles. Todd's absence from London was only 15 years, which would place him at most in his 40s. With this trio of names on top and a gothic vibe & subtitle (The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) the film was broadly advertised with little hint of its musical nature. A singing serial killer!? Inevitably there would be a number of walkouts.

Burton was less concerned with enbalming a by-now well-established Sondheim opera, than making a Tim Burton interepretation of the piece. And this would entail a great deal of editing and shortening of the score. I have no complaints on that front. To my taste the show is far too serious and lacking in humor. What there is comes from the razor wit of Sondheim's lyrics, but that is in short supply too; most prominently featured in "A Little Priest"--which, let's be honest, is awf'ly clever for these working-class characters, don't you think? It's Sondheim showing off, pure & simple--which I'm not disparaging, for it provides some genuine dark-comedy into the melodrama. But the show is operatic in the Sondheim key, and that feels so off-key to the material on display--particularly this palette of naturalism; so dismal & dirty. The narrative is at odds with the music--it's an artsy imposition not a natural, or even ironic counterpoint--a Music Hall style by a Lionel Bart say, would feel more natural. Sondheim's rapid patter songs, "The Worst Pies in London," "By the Sea" ""God, That's Good," are a chore to absorb and the ballads dreary. "Pretty Women" sounds like some jazzy thing from an entirely different musical, a contemporary show, or French new wave movie; the sort of song Charles Aznavour or Tony Bennett might record. Or Michael Buble. It feels so odd in this scene, in this musical. Todd might as well be singing Sammy Davis's "Too Close for Comfort"--which lyrically would be more on target. But Burton, smartly doesn't coddle the score; he cuts to the chase; dispensing right from the start with the choral opening, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd..." and just getting on with it. Do we need an invitation?

The film actually opens with a spectacular credit sequence, in photographic animation, tracing the flow of blood from attic to sewer. The story proper pricks thru the London fog as a ship arrives in the blue night bringing our protagonists, Todd and young Anthony into town. Their abrupt break into song is a bit jarring, but the verses are kept short and we're off to London. Here's another cinematic amuse-boche, Burton's sped-up zoom thru labyrinthine streets (which must be model sets of extraordinary atmosphere & detail) coming at last to Mrs. Lovett's  pie  shop  and  the  atelier  upstairs  where  Todd
once plied his trade as barber. It's a tracking shot that may be the best thing in the entire movie. (Throw it in the bin with Burton's Greatest Hits.) He's also refreshingly unfussy about the musical segments, content to film them without flashy editing or dizzying camerwork--not that these numbers would suggest such an approach. Depp wears his usual restrained intensity as expected--with a healthy dollop of his Edward Scissorshands; and Bonham Carter overcomes initial discomfort (both hers and ours) to give a surprisingly warm performance. Watching their entwining unfold makes the movie look promising. The opposite effect is generated by the secondary love-interest, Anthony & Johanna. Even allowing for the Love-at-first-sight musical trope, few are as insipid as this one. Burton doesn't help; it happens thru a closed second-story window, as Anthony first spots Johanna singing thru a closed second-story window, a song, "Green Finch & Linnet Bird,"  unlikely to draw anyone near. She too is instantly smitten (tho admittedly she might be looking for anyone to release her from this prison--her guardian's home.) Thus without even so much as hello Anthony is propelled into committed pursuit. It's... "Maria, I've just met a girl named Maria..."--yes, but he hasn't really met Johanna yet--he's told her name by a passing madwoman--whose claims might well be questionable; and instead of Bernstein's soaring symphony we get Sondheim's dour ballad, "Johanna," with its studied "wrong" note every third bar. And the kids in these roles: Jamie Campbell Bower & Jayne Wisener--are real teenagers so bland they almost seem like animated Disney   characters.  Alan  Rickman,   who'd  made  a  rich
career by now playing villains, relished this one with a nasty gleam; his Judge Turpin ruthlessly sentences a child to a hanging; locks up his ward, Johanna, even as he contemplates marrying her--after raising her from infancy; stealing & seducing her mother while banishing her father (Todd). As his co-conspirator, The Beadle, Timothy Spall's looks  alone  make  you  shudder.   As the fake-"Eyetalian," Pirelli, Sasha  
Baron Cohen brings a surreal intensity to what's little more than a cameo role. His amusing sartorial getup suggests a trans Eleanor Bron. As his orphan slave, Tobias, Ed Sanders could've come fresh over from Oliver! Oddly, the former stage Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly played the haggard Beggar Woman--She was then 26--which would suggest she was a wife and mother at age 11? A curious casting choice.

Maybe it's my advanced age but 15 years doesn't seem very long; certainly not long enuf to render Todd so unrecognizable. OK, Lovett & Perelli catch on soon enuf, but what about Judge Turpin? When Beadle brings Turpin for a shave how could either not recognize this man, this barber in Benjamin Barker's old flat, who looks just like Barker? The man whose life Turpin destroyed and whose wife & child he stole. The child he still owns, but whatever happened to said wife? If she was worth stealing, why was she so (quickly?) discarded? That's one piece of the puzzle never explained. Of course it turns out--Spoiler Alert!--she's the Beggar Woman now haunting the streets. When Anthony asks her whose abode Johanna resides in, she responds, "the Great Judge Turpin" without a trace of a suggestion she had anything to do with him other than knowing his name. A real false note. Seen barely under a hood, it's forgivable Todd doesn't recognize the Love of his Life, the Motive behind his Vengeance; but is Lucy really so daft as to not recognize him--even if only his voice? Yes, she does occasionally ponder, "Don't I know you?" But hard to believe she doesn't put it together. I can only assume Barker's return was a mere 15 years later so as to place Johanna at her prime virginal bloom; as bait for Judge Turpin and young Anthony--and fuel even greater paternal rage for Todd. But is that really long enuf to eviserate their memories?

After a well visualized "A Little Priest" (with Todd & Lovett scanning street traffic as they jokingly speculate on the quality of meats), the movie descends into the truly gruesome. Burton spares no blood in showing Todd's murders, and as if it weren't enuf to view a parade of throat-slittings  (set to music!)  as graphic  as any  slasher 
film, we see each victim fall thru a trap door, to land a storey below on their heads with a curated sound effect that's guaranteed to make us cringe. Meanwhile Lovett is running a suddenly thriving beer garden serving plates of Todd's victims--tho how so many are killed without anyone but the Beggar Woman noticing is a mystery. Blind to Todd's single-mined  mania,  Lovett  imagines a  domestic bliss in "By the Sea"
which Burton smoothly transitions to fantasy and back (the bathing costumes are adorable); and nurtures her maternal instincts in protecting her new ward, Tobey--who puts the final snuff out--slashing Todd's throat after Todd has killed the Beadle, Judge Turpin, his own wife, Lucy, and Mrs. Lovett as well (throwing her in the furnace, letting us watch her burn alive--arguably an even more disturbing image.) Don't bring the kiddies.

In my current immersion of Sweeney Todd I finally got around to viewing the original Harold Prince production, which has long been available since its initial PBS broadcast in 1982. Filmed at LA's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the cast features George Hearn as Todd, and original cast members Lansbury, Edmund Lyndeck (Turpin), Ken Jennings (Tobey) and understudies sprung to stage: Cris Groenendaal (Anthony) and Betsy Joslyn (Johanna). Filmed for TV with well-placed cameras allows for the intimacy of close-ups. But this visual upgrade isn't taken into account by the director, for the cast is aiming for the balcony with their emotions and facial contortions. Lansbury, who had an entire career of subtle performances seems unusally hammy and broad here, where she might seem fine from the second balcony of the Chandler. Of interest too is the (fabled?) physical production of Eugene Lee, with its industrial scattershaw purged from a Rhode Island foundry. But mostly I saw a central rustic box which twisted and turned (with stagehands) to serve as the pie house and barber shop, among other locales. You can see where Burton's mind went wild with ideas for filling these spaces to the max. What's apparent too, is how all of the cast seems 10-20 years too-old for their roles, especially Tobey who comes across less a child than a mentally defective adult. Which reinforces how much of a correction Burton's casting makes. Depp is so obvious a choice (given their long-time collaboration); not least for the Edward Scissorshands connections; both masters of razors--Sweeney even looks like an older Edward, his single white hair streak (like Susan Sontag's) the sign of a hard-lived life. He doesn't sing his arias in full-throated opera, but he goes a long way in making a convincing Todd. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is equally varying from the Hal Prince template (which led to the likes of Dorothy Loudon & Imelda Staunton), by being less of harridan; softer and more perfect a match for Depp's Todd. And with Burton's approach of naturalism over the cartoonish performances on the stage, Helena proves the film's biggest surprise.

Altho Sweeney Todd opened at the end of December, 2007, I didn't see it until it was released on disc in April. Apparently content to confine that experience but once until now, I had other factors to deal with the last half of '007. Five years after his catastrophic accident, my longtime partner, Greg began developing new and serious maladies, in part from his insistence on holistic remedies over prescription meds. A growing abscess on his backside resulted in another lengthy hospital stay--which left me a solitary home life up on Twin Peaks. With medical coverage up in 100 days, and Greg still not ready to return home, we struggled to find a board & care facility that would take him, given the stage of his wound (which nonetheless was healing well). In the end, a prophetic and expedient solution was found to park him at my 86 year-old mother's home in San Jose for a month or so. This, I figured might also allow her to get used to having a live-in nurse, which was something she was already close to requiring, but fiercely resisted. It proved considerably less than a good idea, but provided Greg an inside view of this woman, who was soon to become consumed by an entity not her own; which ultimately makes him the only other person I know who got insight into Valentina (The Demon Mother of Greengate Drive), my strange, pathetic & ultimately tragic maker.

My nights alone at home were now filled with new treats, such as the discovery of Bluegobo, one of the first musical-centric websites coming thru with previously cold-storaged clips of many a Golden Age Bway musical from vintage TV shows like Ed Sullivan, with such archival treats as the entire opening of Do Re Mi, a multi-song slice of Flower Drum Song, and Alice Playten knocking it out of the park for Henry, Sweet Henry. Aside from the internet, watching TV became practically a vocation; between a good many serial dramas there were the competition shows of cooking, designing & traveling. I'd also fallen into a steady diet of MSNBC, now more fascinated/consumed/disgusted with national politics than anyone would ever have predicted of me. And tho I no longer ventured out to the cinema, I kept up with films as they came to Netflix, altho fewer new movies than ever interested me. One of my life's pleasures is discovering a vintage picture that hits a core emotional nerve. It was during that autumn that I came upon Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse on TCM, which fed some primal wanderlust for another time & place. Deep into the movie at a busy outdoor cafe, the populace breaks into spontaneous song a moment so genuine and enchanting it brings me to tears of joy. But no such emotion has ever swayed me in any of Sondheims's score for Sweeney Todd, other than--at best--an academic appreciation.

Burton's mise en scene is so masterful and the Oscar-winning art direction by Dante Ferretti so breathtaking I found myself reluctantly surrendering to what I've long resisted, at least for awhile. But after Todd blows his chance to kill his nemesis, Turpin (by indulging in a lounge rendition of "Pretty Women") he curdles into indescriminate evil, all of humankind gone to hell and he's out to kill those who cross his path. Among the strongest, most shocking (to me) opinions Ethan Mordden has ever put to paper declares this "one of the ugliest, most life-denying pieces of evil shit ever perpetrated as a Bway musical." Well, I'd certainly concur with that, if he was writing aboout Sweeney Todd--for surely all that & more applies. But no, he wrote that of Zorba (!) Yes, that Stein, Kander & Ebb musical offends Ethan, "Not least because it pretends to be beautiful and life-affirming." Sweeney doesn't pretend nor aspire to being either, and (to me) that makes it all the more despicable. I felt similarly about Silence of the Lambs--which disgusted and angered me for its gratuitous exercise in depravity, whose sole reason for existing is to terrify. That may well be the whole point, but such a purpose is pointless to me--at least or especially in musical theater. Mordden defines it as "a unique masterpiece." Do people come out of Sweeney Todd feeling thrilled? Entertained? Aroused? Contented?  I come out feeling bludgeoned, pummeled, depressed. This was Sondheim's passion project. After such bloody passion, I need me some Hairspray.

Next Up: Mamma Mia

Report CardSweeney Todd
Overall Film:  B--
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  26
Songs Cut from Bway:  7
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers: "A Little Priest"
               "By the Sea"
Casting: A generation younger
Standout Cast: Helena Bonham Carter
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction: As distinctive as the material
Choreography:  Not exactly
Scenic Design:  Exactly & perfectly so
Costumes: More so
Titles: Trail of blood from attic to sewer
     (a masterful animated sequence)
Oscar noms: 3, Johnny Depp, Costumes
               1 win: Art Direction

No comments: