Saturday, December 22, 2007

Missing Applause for SWEENEY TODD

(reflections on the film SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET by Tim Burton, script by John Logan, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. For the record: I saw the original Broadway cast on the day after they wrapped up the recording, 1979; the original London cast, Drury Lane Theatre, 1980; a wonderful small-scale production on a basement stage by Atlanta's Theatre Gael, 2000; the Kennedy Center's "Sondheim Celebration" production, 2002; and a passable production at a local college, around 2004.)

I've always recommended SWEENEY TODD to my students without a qualm. The tale of bloody revenge was redeemed by the excellence -- and fun -- in its telling. Now I've seen the movie, and I have a qualm.

Ecstatic reviews led me to hope that this film would do for composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim what the film of WEST SIDE STORY did for his friend Leonard Bernstein. People would crowd the theatres to see Johnny Depp and come away elated as I've always felt after seeing SWEENEY TODD on stage. At last, the world would understand what I (and a few hundred thousand other people) have treasured for decades.

But, while the stage version ends with a gruesomely funny chorus, warm applause, deep breaths and smiles, the film ends with a very grim, very gorey, very sad final image. Where I saw it in a packed theatre, the audience just shrugged and silently emptied the seats. If the movie is going to be your introduction to SWEENEY TODD, please, don't see it. Wait for the next stage version to come to town.

What's missing? The movie's creative team preserved as much of the original material as any Sondheim fan could hope, and the performers inhabit their roles with conviction, and they hit all the right notes. The roiling dark skies over 1840s London match Sondheim's ominous music with a breathtaking macabre beauty. It's a pleasure to see the stage picture realized, at least, at first. All the jokes are intact, though only scattered chuckles greeted moments that have caused uproarious laughter when I've seen it in theatres.

Here's the main difference, and it's nobody's fault: musicals, even this one, are built to generate goodwill between audience and performers, and that can't happen when the actors aren't there.

For example, on stage, when an actress playing "Mrs. Lovett" sings "The Worst Pies in London," it's a virtuosic and comic turn. She kneads dough, pounds it and rolls it, swats bugs, attends to her customer, all the while singing rhythms and tongue-twisting lyrics that reflect her scatter-brained character. She has high notes, low notes, laugh lines, and, during her final long note, there's a flurry of activity to wrap up one complete pie on the last downbeat. For her efforts, and for the live orchestra that keeps up with her, the audience always breaks into warm applause.

When Helena Bonham-Carter does the same thing, it's all finely timed and flawlessly sung -- but she's doing it for a camera, not for us. It's more cinematography than choreography. The song was pre-recorded; the bugs appear on cue thanks to editing; her hands could be stunt doubles for all we know! Imagine seeing a juggler, not live, but an animated cartoon, and you'll understand what's lacking.

Something else is missing that happens when we applaud for a live cast musical. We tell the performers how they've pleased us, and they acknowledge us by waiting for the applause to fade. So, at the end of every scene, there's this moment when the story and characters are suspended and we all tell each other: this is a play, you're doing this for us, we're grateful. Then we resume the story.

Without the rapport that applause generates in live productions of SWEENEY TODD, its highpoints fall flat. Twenty-eight years after seeing the original cast, I remember chills when Len Cariou as "Sweeney" turned to my section of the audience and pointed his razor at us: "Who sir? You sir? No one's in the chair, c'mon, c'mon!" We laughed because we were startled, and Len Cariou as "Sweeney" seemed to enjoy the effect he was having, while he prowled up and down levels of the stage and exerted his voice to its highest pitch. In the movie, this same moment is performed as a kind of fantasy sequence, and Johnny Depp's voice and expressions and body language are appropriate, and the staging is very good, but his invitation to us is deflected to third persons, men on screen. The medium blunts the impact, kills the laughs, and fails to connect us to the character.

Most disappointing of all in the movie is SWEENEY's most lauded musical number. On stage, it's the end of Act One, and the two main characters mug for the audience in a blackly comic song, "A Little Priest." They perform for us like music hall singers of old, and the song even includes a straight-up vaudeville comedy routine with puns and a rhyming contest. At that point in the show, the audience and the actors are sharing laughter, and it's all in fun. An amazing thing happens: we become complicit with the main characters, being in on their joke, eager as Sweeney for revenge. Every house I've been in has applauded wildly at the end as the couple strike their iconic pose -- knife and rolling pin raised. In the movie, their pose is just an odd image at the end of a mildly amusing song.

More intimate songs, such as "My Friends" and "Wait" fare better. One song actually lands in the movie with even more impact than it does on stage, thanks to a wise casting choice. The song "No One's Going to Harm You" was a relief from all the blood and thunder of the original, a lullabye from "Toby," the childlike adult simpleton, to Mrs. Lovett. In the movie, the character Toby is a tousled boy soprano, and Mrs. Lovett is touched and amused. As he sings more earnestly about how he will protect her, we watch Helena Bonham-Carter's growing awareness that the boy knows too much.

Isolated moments are wonderful; the music is rich and layered as ever; the plot clicks into place like the blood-lubricated gears in the opening credits. Yet, if this movie had been my introduction to SWEENEY TODD, I would never have loved the show. Sondheim has always written his music and lyrics for live audiences, and his work seems out of place on film.

( It so happens that I've seen High Definition live broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions in this very movie theatre, and, tellingly, much of the audience does applaud, and the producers cannily draw us into the performance via backstage shots and interviews at intermission. The effect is very close to that of being in a live production.)

1 comment:

Smoot said...

A panel of Sondheim fans, mostly in the United Kingdom, discussed this posting on their own on-line discussion board. Here's the link: