|Posted by TheGreatEscapist on July 25, 2012 at 7:35 AM|
About a week ago I re-watched the stage version of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd", starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury.
I was reminded why I loved it, and why I felt disappointed with Tim Burton's feature adaptation.
Going into a little history, Sweeney Todd was a character of urban legend in Englad, a barber who killed his customers and the bodies were turned into meat pies. Over the years there had been books, plays and movies about the character, and in 1979 Stephen Sondheim adapted the legend into a musical with a "Count of Monte Cristo" take on the story.
I got a basic gist of the plot when I heard Tim Burton was going to make it into a movie. (I was still a high school senior then.) And, believe me, I was looking forward to it.
I bought the playbook from a Barnes and Noble, and I rented the DVD of the stage production. Knowing what I was in for made me even more excited about the movie.
And so I went and saw the matinee with my dad, and as I was leaving the theater I didn't know how to feel.
Back then the two big things that bothered me the most were Mrs. Lovett and the omission of the Greek Chorus.
Overall I didn't like Helena Bonham Carter's performance as Mrs. Lovett. Throughout the film she just looked... sleepy. There's no other way to put it.
What I liked about Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett was that her warped cheeriness made a great contrast to Todd's obsessive brooding. I was hoping Bonham Carter would be something like a nineteenth-century Harley Quinn; demented, evil, but with a cheerful attitude.
And after having seen Bonham Carter act like a monkey in Burton's remake of "Planet of the Apes", I know she is capable of being silly. In interviews about "Todd" she said that it was Tim's idea to downplay her character so drastically, and I think it took away a much needed sense of humor.
And then there was the lack of the chorus. In the play there was a chorus of singers who acted as sort of narrators to the story, chiming in a key moments singing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd".
With a film adaptation, I expected that the chorus would be used as a framing device, like maybe the story was told in flashback and people were reading about the case of Sweeney Todd in the newspaper, or maybe the tale of Sweeney Todd was an urban legend passed around by word of mouth, or the story took place within the page of a Penny Dreadful (stories of dread that cost a penny).
There was another song that was omitted entitled "Kiss Me", in which the lovebirds Antony and Joanna frantically devise their plan of escape and marriage. I missed that song very much because it was funny; it made the lovebirds look silly. It was like it was acknowledging their flighty foolishness of their Romeo and Juliet-esque romance without being too harsh on them.
However I have since learned that, unlike me, Tim Burton is actually NOT a fan of musicals. As much as I like his work, there are times when I can say Tim Burton is a foolish man.
Although there had been material removed from the play as well. In the original production there was the wicked Judge Turpin's version of "Joanna", in which he grows more and more tempted by his lust for the young lady, and he in turn whips himself as punishment for his evil thoughts. While I can understand removing that scene for reason of time and pacing, I liked it because it goes more into Turpin's character. He's still a creep, but we see that there's some internal conflict between his righteousness and his desires. In fact, it's like a prototype of one of the best villain songs ever, "Hellfire" from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".
Quite frankly I think what really bothers me about "Sweeney Todd" as a movie is how depressing it is. I remember after leaving the theater I felt so down that I couldn't finish lunch (for obvious reasons).
Part of the reason I don't care to go to the movies nowadays is because I think a lot of studios and filmmakers seem to abuse the rights we've acquired with the downfall of the Hays Code; to use sex, violence, obscenities, etc. in film... Like digital effects in movies, just because we can use them doesn't mean that we should. The afternoon after seeing "Todd" I thought I was going to become a vegetarian by the end of the week. (I didn't, by the way.)
The play, on the other hand, wasn't as visually gruesome. Like the many darker children's stories like Hansel and Gretel, we are only given the bare idea of cannibalism, we're not told or shown in detail of what Mrs. Lovett does to the carcasses after Todd slits their throats, and I say all the better.
What I loved the most about the play was that it looked like the actors were having fun. George Hearn as Todd had more than one moment where he actually laughed, especially in the "A Little Priest" number when he and Mrs. Lovett were making jokes and puns about the people they'll eventually sell as food.
The play goes into themes of cannibalism, cold-blooded murder, child abuse, and other unsavory things. When you're going to bring so much gloom to the table, you probably ought to bring a sense of humor along with it so it can go down easier.
And in the play there was a lot of overacting, not unlike old melodramas. It was a lot more fun to watch. Knowing who was casted for the supporting actors in the movie, I thought I was in for a real treat. But just about everyone was downplayed to the point where I forgot that Sacha Baron Cohen can play the clown, that Timothy Spall could play comical, and that Alan Rickman can be snarky.
I was hoping for something like "Beetlejuice"; a lot of dark humor and a twisted sense of fun. I was really disappointed with "Sweeney Todd" in that regard.
Now I'm not say I despise this movie or that it's bad; if anything I'm saying that it's not one of my favorites. I can see why folks like it, and it has its strong points too.
As per all of Tim Burton's films, the visuals are just beautiful.
And I've heard some criticism about the actors's singing, and while nearly all the actors are not professional singers, I think they did all right. Granted, all of us fangirls just came to see Johnny Depp sing, and he's got really nice pipes, but I think all the other actors did rather well. (Every time I've watched it I always applaud wildly when Sacha Baron Cohen hits that last high note.)
See, I have a rule-of-thumb when judging performances of non-singers: "If they can carry a tune without sounding like a dying moose, they pass."
But my opinion is still in favor of the play. I fell in love with the musical for its melodrama and for its sense of humor, and as a fan of Tim Burton I was disappointed in the movie.