Sunday, December 23, 2007

SWEENEY: Second Opinions

So far, I and my friends are the only ones who've expressed anything negative about Tim Burton's film of Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD. I'd be happy to change my mind; after all, I've been looking forward to this movie since 1979. Maybe my outlook was influenced by my friend's reaction to the gore, coupled with the fact that I had excited my seventh grade students about seeing this show. How could I respond if a parent were to ask me angrily, "What made you think that slasher film was appropriate for my child?" For the stage show, that was never problematic.

Here's some writing I've found relating to my qualms, including some comments by Stephen Sondheim himself.

Writing in the Washington Post (12/21/2007), columnist Peter Marks writes, "By excising choral numbers and highlighting the sorrow inside the sordidness of Sondheim's wit-strewn score, Burton invites us into a more intimate communion with horrible yet hummable aspects of human nature." While I worry that the gleefulness in gallows humor is missing, Marks notes the same thing as a strength:
"Helena Bonham Carter [makes] Mrs. Lovett — Sweeney's cannibalistic comrade-in-harms — a woman less comical than, but just as poignant as, the Broadway character Angela Lansbury created 28 years ago." As for the sadness and goreyness, which to me seemed unredeemed by "joy in the telling" (as a religious man, that's important to me), Marks observes that, in "the slightly distorted consistency and color of what oozes out of everyone's necks . . . we are not in the domain here of chainsaw massacres, but art."

Sondheim himself responds directly to my concern about the way that a film musical cannot generate the same rapport between audience and singer as a stage musical can do. He is interviewed on the subject of his movie by David Benedict in an article in the London Observer ("The Singalong-a-Slasher," Sunday December 23, 2007). Sondheim says:

'On stage, generally speaking, the story is stopped or held back by songs, because that's the convention. Audiences enjoy the song and the singer, that's the point. Static action - if that's not an oxymoron - is accepted. It's what writer Burt Shevelove used to call "savouring the moment". That's a very tricky business on film. It's fine if the songs are presentational, as in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-style movie where you watch them for the fun of it, but not with storytelling songs. When the song is part of the action and working as dialogue, even two minutes is way too long.' The interviewer continues: "He's considerably cheered, however, to learn of a test screening in California after which college-age audiences besieged Logan with positive comments along the lines of: 'I forgot they were singing.' [Sondheim exclaims], 'That's exactly what I wanted!'"

1 comment:

Smoot said...

From Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun Times:

"And yet there is an exhilaration in the very fiber of the film, because its life force is so strong. Its heroes, or anti-heroes, have been wounded to the quick, its villains are vile and heartless, and they all play on a stage that rules out decency and mercy. The acting is so good that it enlists us in the sordid story, which even contains a great deal of humor -- macabre, to be sure."