Sondheim Dismembers Sweeney

Ken AshfordTheatreLeave a Comment

Good series of articles in yesterday’s New York Times about the cuts made to bring the stage musical Sweeney Todd to the screen.  For example:

After 20 years of directors and deals falling by the wayside, Mr. Burton and the screenwriter John Logan came along with an idea for retelling the story in more cinematic terms. First, there would be no chorus commenting on the action in song; the singing would be done entirely by the principals. This meant cutting or truncating all ensemble numbers, a major element of the stage production, which had a chorus of 18. Out went “The Letter,” “City on Fire” and two-thirds of “God, That’s Good!” Even the show’s opening number and recurrent theme, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which was to be sung by the ghosts of Sweeney’s victims as the movie progressed, was dropped just before filming. Happily, the song’s “Dies Irae” climax and creepy, buzzing string figures — Mr. Sondheim’s tribute to the film composer Bernard Herrmann — remain as underscoring.

The filmmakers also suggested cutting most of the sunnier songs that offered relief onstage but would be hard to film interestingly or would dissipate the desired atmosphere of unrelenting dread. Out went “Ah, Miss,” “Kiss Me” and “Parlor Songs.” To keep the movie under two hours (the stage show lasts about three) most of the songs that did remain were trimmed by about 20 percent, Mr. Sondheim estimated. In all fewer than 10 of the stage show’s 25 major numbers survived substantially intact.

It’s clear from the articles that Sondheim was instrumental (no pun intended) in making these cuts, and were it not for his blessing, I would probably have reservations.  As he notes, some of the numbers simply would not work on the big screen, lest the film be over three hours long.

It’s not set to open until later this week, but skippy the bush kangaroo (and his wife) saw an advanced screening and enjoyed it:

we think that any concern that the younger generation don’t relate to musicals will be put to rest (pun intended) by this film. because we think that the same audience that loves to watch the splatter fest of rob zombie films will enjoy the gallons of blood flowing in this feel-good film of the holiday season.

tim burton does wonderful things with camera shots, angles and movement, which certainly helps in several of sondheim’s more plodding musical soliloquies …and the art direction by dante ferretti is definitely as much a star as johnny depp or burton-squeeze helene bonham carter.

the london that ferretti creates onscreen is not necessarily historically accurate victorian london, but rather jeckyll-and-hyde jack-the-ripper haammer-horror classic london. and it works thrillingly well.

luckily for the integrity of art, depp, bonham carter and the other cast members (including alan rickman, timothy spall and borat) sing their own songs. luckily for us, they sing not only well, but with passion and great control. we were worried that depp would "talk sing" his way thru this tour-de-force role, but the man can belt it out!

which makes the free-flowing gallons of blood spurting out of the necks of sweeney’s victims in the middle of the arias all the more disturbing. the musical convention of real life stopping while characters burst into song is completely turned on its head, which is both delightful and grotesque. while depp sings about his lost wife and his need for revenge in a stylist, stagey musical approach, the actors who play his victims very realistically shudder and gurgle as blood squirts out of their necks. the result is rather like watching michael myers doing a number from "singing in the rain" as he slaughters everyone in halloween.

Okay then.