Wednesday, September 12, 2007

 

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd


Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
He served a dark and a vengeful god.
What happened then — well, that's the play,
And he wouldn't want us to give it away,
Not Sweeney,
Not Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

By Edward Copeland
I love Stephen Sondheim and Sweeney Todd is my favorite musical of his. I admit that I have great trepidation about what Tim Burton will do to it in his upcoming film version, that's why I chose this date to pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of the first U.S. airing of the television version of the original Broadway hit. I beg all of you who haven't seen this version to seek it out before Burton's version hits the big screen.


The Los Angeles production of the original Broadway tour was filmed for a defunct entity known as The Entertainment Channel, but I saw it when it aired on Showtime. There were cast differences from the Broadway production: George Hearn replaced Len Cariou in the title role, Cris Groenedaal took over the role of Anthony from Victor Garber (known to you kids as Sydney's father on TV's Alias) and Betsy Joslyn played Johanna instead of Sarah Rice. However, most of the other roles were played again by the Broadway cast, most importantly Angela Lansbury re-creating her triumphant Tony-winning turn as Mrs. Lovett, seen to the right with Ken Jennings, the show's original Tobias. If you are only familiar with Lansbury as crime-solving mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher on TV's Murder, She Wrote or as the malevolent manipulator Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, you owe it to yourself to watch Sweeney Todd. Lansbury sings, Lansbury dances and Lansbury wows. Her Mrs. Lovett is a hard act for anyone to follow.

There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth
What a pig can spit
And it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole
Sit the privileged few,
Making mock of the vermin
In the lower zoo,
Turning beauty into filth and greed.

For the uninitiated, Sweeney Todd is set in 1846 London where an escapee from Australian captivity has made his way back to London after 15 years with revenge on his mind. The television rendering of Harold Prince's original Broadway staging was directed by Terry Hughes and begins with the same opening screech those familiar with the original cast recording will know well. Todd, whose real name is Benjamin Barker, was imprisoned by an evil and corrupt judge who had designs on Barker's wife. Now that he's escaped, Barker aka Sweeney Todd is determined to learn what has become of his wife and then-infant daughter as well as Judge Turpin. Helped by the young sailor Anthony, Todd finds his way to his old stomping grounds on Fleet Street, where his former barber shop remains vacant above Mrs. Lovett's meat pie store where she makes what Lovett herself calls "the worst pies in London." Lovett figures out who Todd is and lets him know what's transpired during his exile: his beloved wife poisoned herself following an attempted gang rape by Turpin and his friends and the judge now raises Barker's daughter Johanna as his own. Todd is understandably livid at the news, but is eager to figure out a way to start making money. Lovett brings him a surprise: She saved his barber utensils and Todd lovingly embraces his former tools, proclaiming that "his arm is complete again."

They all deserve to die!
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett,
Tell you why:
Because in all of the whole human race Mrs Lovett,
There are two kinds of men and only two.
There's the one staying put
In his proper place
And the one with his foot
In the other one's face
Look at me, Mrs Lovett,
Look at you.
No, we all deserve to die,
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett,
Tell you why.
Because the lives of the wicked should be
Made briefFor the rest of us, death
Will be a relief —
We all deserve to die!


What's so remarkable about Sweeney Todd, aside from Sondheim's miraculous score, is its ability to shift between so many tones, often within the same sequence. In one particularly brilliant musical setpiece, a mournful medley of murder and romantic longing even has time for some dark-humored laughs within it. The book by Hugh Wheeler perfectly joins Sondheim's score to cross from musical comedy into musical tragedy to dark farce and back again. It even tosses in plenty of suspense and commentary about class struggles for good measure. Even the simple act of Sweeney wetting his shaving brush in a cup of water can prove ominous. Of course, most discussions of the show and the forthcoming film version reveal the dark twist at the heart of the show. I thought about trying not to discuss it in this piece, but since it will undoubtedly become known to those who don't already know, spoilers be damned. As Sweeney's revenge plot begins to pile up a side effect of corpses, Mrs. Lovett hits upon a bright idea to dispose of the bodies and to shore up her flailing meat pie business: Yes, Sweeney Todd is a musical that involves unwitting cannibalism and the number that introduces this dark-comic turn, "A Little Priest," is the Act I closer that will leave you laughing through much of the intermission if you see the show staged or on DVD.

Falling in love with the show as I did when I first saw the television production, I eventually got the original cast recording and was able to see the cuts made for the TV version. Nothing too bad, but the contest between Sweeney and the snake-oil salesman Pirelli is cut to one contest for TV instead of the three in the stage version. Pirelli is being played in Tim Burton's film by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame. Though they knocked down the stories that Cohen couldn't sing the role and was allowed it to do it "rap style," it's another example of why I don't have much confidence in the upcoming film. I also noticed other minor cuts in the television version, such as one of the songs the evil Judge Turpin gets. Still, the TV version is spectacular and is as close to seeing the original Broadway show as I'll ever get. George Hearn is great and though I've only heard Len Cariou's Tony-winning performance as Sweeney, I imagine he was just as good or better. My love of the musical runs so deep that it really concerns me what will happen in Burton's hands. Even though Johnny Depp is probably old enough to play Sweeney, he still looks younger than he is. Helena Bonham Carter just seems all wrong for Mrs. Lovett. Even more disconcerting is their acknowledgment that neither of them had much singing experience before beginning to make the film. That makes me nervous, since Sweeney Todd is one of Sondheim's most difficult scores and nearly the entire show is sung. It's probably the closest a Broadway musical has come to being an opera and I worry about how they will pull it off.

Josh R has been fortunate enough to see both Broadway revivals of the show, so he can expound on how the Bob Gunton-Beth Fowler and Michael Cerveris-Patti LuPone versions stacked up. Of course, my concerns may be a bit paranoid. I've seen two productions of Sweeney Todd myself, one put on by college students and one by a professional community theater and while the casts of neither approached the image of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett that I have in my head, both versions did the show well. Perhaps the material is strong enough that it's hard to sink it. Heck, Sweeney Todd even provided one of the best parts in Kevin Smith's otherwise limp Jersey Girl, when Ben Affleck and his young daughter perform a number from the show for an elementary school talent show, complete with blood and rightfully shocking the audience of children, parents and teachers. Maybe alcohol should be involved before I see Burton's film since, as Sweeney and Lovett advise in "A Little Priest," Everybody goes down well with beer. I'll reserve judgment, but I still recommend that everyone try to see the George Hearn-Angela Lansbury version, if for no other reason that if you are unfamiliar with the show, it will get you prepared for what's coming.



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Comments:
I haven't seen this in at least ten or fifteen years, but I still think it's one of the best musicals ever produced in any medium. While I have some faith in Tim Burton's visual abilities, I, too, wonder if the movie will be near as good. I'm still really looking forward to it.

Still, I wish they'd do these live audience TV versions more often. Television/video is a better analog for theater than movies. I'm sure a TV version like this of "The Producers," for example, taped/filmed in front of an audience, would have been vastly superior to the unimaginatively stagy film version. I can think of lots of others...

Anyhow, just added "Sweeney" to my Greencine queue. Can't wait to hear how it sounds in 5.1 Dolby. (Stereo?)
 
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If I were you, I'd be more afraid of Burton's casting choices than the fact he's directing it. I think the subject matter fits Burton perfectly; what's scary is him doing a Brian DePalma and casting his wife in an unsuitable role.

I haven't seen the version Ed reviewed. I did, however, see Lansbury's performance on Broadway, as well as the revival with Patti LuPone. I don't think anyone can approach Lansbury's performance, but I'm not so in love with the material that I'll fall to pieces if Burton's version sucks. (Aside: I did have this problem with Sunset Blvd., but my hatred of Andrew Lloyd Webber was alive and well long before he massacred my second favorite movie of all time. Props to Glenn Close, though, for trying to save it.)

Sondheim is feast or famine for me. Every time I remember he wrote the lyrics to my favorite Broadway musical, I'm reminded he also wrote Send in the Clowns, a song they will be playing on endless loop in Hell when I get there. He also wrote that catchy Madonna song, More, which was the best thing about Dick Tracy. I know Sondheim fans don't like being reminded that he wrote songs (and won an Oscar) for Dick Tracy, but that's just too damn bad. He did.

Angela Lansbury will make an appearance in Burton's Todd version, playing Jessica Fletcher. She'll sing a new Sondheim ditty about how the Cabot Cove folks she murdered were made into lobster bisque. Sondheim will find a clever way to put "Bisquick" and "bisque" into the same lyric.
 
My concerns about Burton's version is primarily about the casting. When they were bragging in the EW fall movie preview how none of their leads sang before starting the film, that got me worried. As for "Send in the Clowns," Judy Collins' awful version ruined the song, but when you hear it in context by real musical theater performers, it's a great song. I have never had a chance to see a stage version of "A Little Night Music" but I've always wanted to since I do love the score, even though it's based on one of my favorite Bergman films Smiles of a Summer Night.
 
Bob: Still, I wish they'd do these live audience TV versions more often. Television/video is a better analog for theater than movies.

I agree.I recall watching several of them over the years on PBS. The last one I can recall was, oddly enough, Sondheim's Into the Woods.
 
As for "Send in the Clowns," Judy Collins' awful version ruined the song

What about Liz Taylor's version? I've never heard it sung by theater folks, but I've heard it plenty of times by Ms. Collins. Unless the theater folks changed all the lyrics, it's not going to get any better.

Remember when they had Judy Collins singing it on The Muppet Show? It made my skin crawl.
 
Thankfully, I've avoided the Liz Taylor movie and version, but Judy Collins was my first exposure and I hated it. It was only later when I heard it in the context of the cast recording that the lyrics and the song's greatness became crystal clear to me.
 
I saw this version in a high school drama class, along with a couple other Sondheim musicals (Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park w/George). Since then, it's been one of my favorites, and my boyfriend was equally impressed when I made him watch it a few years back.

I'm equally reticent about the upcoming Burton adaptation. He can definitely handle the visual and atmospheric aspects; my real worry is the singing. When I first heard about this and saw the casting, I assumed maybe it would be based on the earlier non-musical play.

I'm actually a fan of Burton's work, but most of his choices since Ed Wood have been questionable at best.
 
Like you, I regard Sweeney Todd as Sondheim's crowning achievement, and a near-perfect work of musical theater. The best production I ever saw was the 1989 York Theater Company revival, starring Bob Gunton (best know as the hypocritical warden in The Shawshank Redemption) and Beth Fowler - I was fortunate enough to see it performed in a gothic cathedral, the deliciously named Church of the Heavenly Rest (morbid and apropropos) before the production transferred to Circle-in-the-Square on Broadway. Susan Schulman's expert staging illustrated just how wonderfully creepy Sweeney could be when done on an intimate scale, as a chamber musical - perhaps something that suits the show better than the epic approach favored by Harold Prince. The televised version is a wonderful resource, particularly since it preserves Lansbury's iconic performance from the Broadway original, but the physical production is prosaic and the quality of the acting variable, to say the least (Betsy Joslyn's aggressive trilling, florrid gestures and bulging eyes make for one of more truly bizarre "ingenue" performances I can recall having seen). John Doyle's recent production, which favored austerity over excess as a means of creating tension and dread, represented an intriguing re-interpretation of the material, although the element of humor that distinguished pervious productions was sorely lacking. Patti LuPone, sad to say, was a major liability - I'm not sure how it's even possible to drain all the funny out of "The Worst Pies in London", but somehow she got it done.

Like everyone else, I'm not expecting too much from the Burton film version. Looking on the bright side, at least he cast actors who can actually act, even if they're not particularly well-suited to their roles. Bonham Carter certainly wouldn't have been my first choice, but Nicole Kidman or Gwyneth Paltrow as Mrs. Lovett would have sent me over the fucking edge.
 
Josh R.: but Nicole Kidman or Gwyneth Paltrow as Mrs. Lovett would have sent me over the fucking edge.

I heard a rumor that Jessica Lange was considered for the role, since she had worked with Burton on Big Fish. That would have sent you into the Earth's core, Josh, and then flying out of a volcano somewhere!

I thought Doyle's reimagining was interesting more from a staging and technical perspective than a performance one. I had fewer problems with LuPone than you did.

I'm sorry I missed the York Theater's Todd usage of a church, easily the second creepiest use of a church in NYC (the first is still The Limelight).
 
This was one of the first professional things I ever did (I was just one of the escaped lunatics...nothing big). I love Sweeney Todd, although I did have more than my fair share of nightmares during the rehearsal period. That's an awful lot of blood, you know.

I think the hammering of "Send in the Clowns" is a bit unfair; in the context of the show, when sung unsentimentally (if that's possible) it's quite moving. I do think that the mother's song "Liaisons" beats it hands down. I saw it sung by Phyllis Curtin, an old Met star, in her last ever performance. Well into her seventies, and crippled with arthritis, she delivered a masterful, moving performance.

I agree that Paltrow or Kidman as Mrs. Lovette would have been a horribleness to grim to contemplate, but I can't get excited about Bonham Carter either. Dawn French might be scary. Well, of course she's scary, but appropriately so in this role.

It's a shame Pirelli is not being done by a real singer. It has a scad of high C's and really requires a talented tenor. Which I don't think Borat is...
 
I can't remember where I heard the story but supposedly when Ingmar Bergman saw the original B'way production of A Little Night Music, after he saw Hermione Gingold perform "Liaisons," he reportedly turned to Sondheim and said, "Boy, she really knows how to fuck the audience, doesn't she?" He meant it as a compliment.
 
"Boy, she really knows how to fuck the audience, doesn't she?"

I'm glad you clarified that. It sounded like Bergman was implying that her singing was so bad that the audience was getting fucked by listening to it. Coincidentally, the exact same words were overheard during a Yoko Ono concert.

I think the hammering of "Send in the Clowns" is a bit unfair

I'm the one swinging Odell's Silver Hammer at Send In the Clowns. Ed just wants me to hit Judy Collins with it. I saw that Liz Taylor movie with her singing it. Was that in context? If so, the song still stinks. I'm with you on Liaisons though.
 
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Edward,
A fellow Sondheim fanatic-- hurrah! I actually prefer both "Follies" and "Sunday In the Park With George" to "Sweeney Todd," but I do like the show, and really enjoyed your post. Like you, I shudder at the thought of the Burton version (when i showed the Lansbury version to a class on musicals last spring, I said much the same thing you do here: "See it now, before it gets messsed up!" Some of the supporting roles (Anthony Stewart Head, Alan Rickman) are well-cast, but the leads? Yeesh. I would've cast Hugh Laurie as Sweeney-- I'm not sure how much better he can sing than Depp, but he's got the right gleam of madness and humor in his eyes. And maybe Cate Blanchett as Mrs. Lovett?

Actually, how about a film version of Follies? I know they just did an Encores revival in NYC with Donna Murphy and Victor Garber-- now there's a cast!
 
Follies might be my favorite Sondheim score, but I think the score is stronger than the book. I've only seen it performed once, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in N.J. in the 1990s and it was great. The cast even included Ann Miller and Eddie Bracken. I've never heard him sing, though I know he has a rock band, but I always wondered what kind of Sweeney that Russell Crowe would make.
 
Ah, Laurie and Blanchett would be wonderful in Sweeney Todd; they'd be able to hit the dark comic tones perfectly. Perhaps someday. Has Anthony Stewart Head ever played Sweeney? That, I'd love to see.

Regarding "Send in the Clowns," I don't think it was ever meant to be the standard it is today. As others have said, it really only works in context (and Liz Taylor's version doesn't count, as she's really not acting with anyone else in that movie) and doesn't stand on its own at all. There are several stronger songs in Night Music: "Liaisons," of course, but also "Every Day a Little Death", and the real eleven-o'clock number, "The Miller's Son."

A film version of Follies would be great, but it will never fly. Sadly, the demographics of both cast and audience are too old.
 
I'm not sure if he can sing, but I think Willem Dafoe would make an outstanding Sweeney. He just has that look and darkness to him.
 
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