Saturday, 7 April 2012

Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton film and stage version)

I am ashamed to say that even though I was vaguely aware of Sweeney Todd I had never heard a note of the musical before I saw the Tim Burton film (but to defend myself this was a couple of years before I had really started to get into musicals). When I saw the Tim Burton film I liked it and later on, when I started to get more into musicals, I became more interested in seeing the Sweeney Todd stageshow. I started listening to the songs on YouTube, and when I heard them performed by professional singers I began to realise just how beautiful the songs really were. Then it was announced that Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton were going to be doing a revival of the musical for the Chichester Festival. I would have been interested in seeing it if Chichester wasn't so far away from where I live and if Michael Ball hadn't been starring as Sweeney. I thought "Michael Ball?! No! He's a great singer but there's no way that he'd be able to pull of playing Sweeney Todd!" But then I saw the photos of Ball and he looked completely unrecognisable as Sweeney. And then the reviews started to come in of the production which were full or praise for the show and of Ball's performance. And then I saw this awesome-looking trailer for the production (see below). When the production got transferred to the West End I decided to see it. I loved it! I've also recently re-watched the film. This post is going to be a review of both the Tim Burton film and the stage version since both are fresh in my mind.

Before I do that though I think it's best to give a quick history of the show. Sweeney Todd was a fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian penny dreadful story called The String of Pearls. This was serialised in 18 weekly parts from 1846-47. It's believed that the story was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. Some have even suggested that Sweeney Todd may have been based on an actual historical character but most historians dismiss this claim. In the original story Sweeney was a barber who killed people out of pure greed and then gave the corpses over to his friend and neighbour Mrs Lovett, who would then make meat pies out of the corpses.

However in 1973, the British playwright Christopher Bond decided to write his own version of Sweeney Todd by turning the story into a revenge tragedy. Sweeney was given a more sympathetic motive for his crimes. Bond's play was then seen by the composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim who many regard as the Shakespeare of musical theatre (so high is his reputation). He loved the story and decided to do a musical adaptation out of the play. The musical would be staged on Broadway five years later with its full title being Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The musical won 8 Tony Awards and was directed by Harold Prince (who would later go on to direct the stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera). The original production starred Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs Lovett. The stage version was then filmed in 1982, which had George Hearn starring as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury again playing Mrs Lovett.

Sweeney Todd is a story about a barber called Benjamin Barker who lived in Victorian London with his beautiful wife Lucy and their infant daughter Johanna. Unfortunetly for Barker a jealous, wicked and lust-filled Judge wanted Barker's wife for himself. The Judge had Barker framed for a crime he didn't commit and sent to prison for life in Australia. Barker then spends the next 15 years in prison before he's finally able to escape and return to London. Barker changes his name to Sweeney Todd and arrives in London with a young sailor called Anthony Hope. Sweeney then learns from a woman called Mrs Lovett what happened to his family after he was sent to Australia. The Judge lured Lucy to his home and raped her. Lucy was so distraught over this that she poisoned herself. Sweeney's daughter Johanna was then adopted by the Judge and is still living with him as his ward. Sweeney then swears revenge on the Judge and the world that has wronged them and is helped by Mrs Lovett... and in the process Sweeney discovers that he loves using his razors for a bloodier task than shaving. Brutal and bloody deaths ensue. In addition to this there's a subplot about Anthony falling in love with Johanna and attempting to rescue her from the Judge. There's also a subplot about a boy called Toby, the abused apprentice of an Italian barber, who begins to assist Mrs Lovett and comes to love her as a surrogate mother.

A film adaptation of the stage musical wouldn't be made until 2007. Originally the film was going to be directed by Sam Mendes, who had Russell Crowe in mind for the role of Sweeney. Mendes then pulled out of the project to work on Jarhead and Tim Burton was brought in as his replacement. Burton - who openly admits to hating most stage musicals - saw Sweeney Todd three times when he was living in London back in the 70s. The music and the macabre, gothic, violent nature of the story really appealed to him. He then approached Sondheim about the possibility of making a movie adaptation of the musical in the 1980s but nothing came of it. When Mendes pulled out of the Sweeney Todd project two decades later Burton offered to direct. You can see why the studio allowed Burton to direct. Most of his films have a gothic look and several of his films have musical numbers (The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride). Burton then approached his long-time friend and collaborator Johnny Depp to play Sweeney. Burton also cast his partner Helena Bonham Carter to play the role of Mrs Lovett. The film got a mostly positive reception from film critics but the reception was more mixed from fans of the stageshow. Some loved the film and others hated it.

The main thing that die-hard fans of the stage version tend to find most frustrating about the film adaptation is the removal of the ballads. The stage version opens with a song called The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (see below). It's sung by a Greek Chorus and is reprised several times throughout the show.

The ballads are one of my favourite things about the stage version. They're genuinely chilling and eerie and they really do add to the power of the show. I get chills when the ensemble sing "Swing your razor wide Sweeney, hold it to the skies, freely flows the blood of those who moralise!" Now that I've seen the stage version I can understand why fans of the stage version were so upset that they'd been removed from the film. Admittedly Burton couldn't have had the ensemble singing directly to the camera. It would have been too over-the-top theatrical and would have looked too silly and stagey for a screen adaptation. But I think the original idea for the ballads could have worked. Originally the ballads were going to be in the film and the ensemble would be playing ghosts. Anthony Stewart Head was going to play a ghost and Christopher Lee (who is a trained opera singer) was going to play another. Now I don't know about you but I think that sounds awesome! But in the end the ballads weren't filmed and Anthony Stewart Head was given a two-second cameo instead. Nooooo! Even if you did think that they would have still looked silly Burton, couldn't you have just filmed them anyway and stuck them on the DVD as a bonus feature?! It would have just been so satisfying to see them! And I see no reason at all why Burton couldn't have kept the ensemble parts in Pirelli's Miracle Elixir and God! That's Good; where the ensemble actors play crowd members who join in and start singing with Mrs Lovett, Sweeney and Toby.

Another common criticism of the film from fans of the stage version is that it's too serious and dark - and that's true. There's barely any humour in the film at all and any humour that is in it tends to be very subtle. The lack of humour in the film is really surprising to me actually since there are other films that Burton has done  - like Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow - that are full of dark humour. But the stage version of Sweeney Todd is much funnier than Burton's film and there's a different atmosphere. It's still a dark show but there's a lot more black humour going on. It's really quite funny in places. The most obvious example of the lack of humour in the film is the Little Priest scene. This song gets a lot of laughs from the audience when it's performed on stage. The actors perform the lyrics as punchlines, with their characters clearly competing with each other as to who can can come up with the best rhymes. However, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter deliver the lines very straight in the film and the funniest lyrics of the song are left out. A newcomer to the musical who was hearing this song for the first time wouldn't necessarily get that the song is supposed to be funny. 

Another example of the lack of humour in the film is the fact that Anthony and Johanna's duet Kiss Me is left out. Kiss Me is one of my favourite songs from the stage version and I think it's a real shame that it was cut from the film. It's a great song! It's cute and funny and it would have been tons of fun to hear in the film! Er, if Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener could actually sing it that is. Also, not having the song in the film makes Johanna and Anthony seem boring and two-dimensional. OK Bower's Anthony might have still come across as boring and two-dimensional even with this song but Johanna definitely loses out on characterisation - and no silly, added scene about how her nightmares are never going to go away is going to make up for it. In the stage version Johanna is a much more interesting character. In the film she just comes across as a sad, quiet and sweet young woman but in the stage version she's also mentally unstable and skittish. This really isn't surprising when you consider the mental state of her parents, that she's been locked up for virtually all of her life, and that her adopted "father" lusts after her. The Johanna-Anthony romance subplot brings some sweetness and light to the Sweeney Todd stage version, but in the film their characters and romance barely get a look-in.

Another thing that I find quite odd about Burton's film is not just the fact that it leaves out some of the humour of the stage version. The film also leaves out the creepiest and most disturbing song in the show, Mea Culpa. I saw a lot of people squirming when I saw it performed live! This song could have worked brilliantly for the film though even if the sight of a barechested Alan Rickman whipping himself and working himself up into a frenzy over his "daughter" may have given me nightmares! Presumably all of these cuts were made to focus the film more on Sweeney.

Overall I may not LOVE Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd film but I do like it. I can understand why some of the long-time, die-hard fans of the stage version weren't happy with it and the stage version IS a lot better than the film. The film is by no means perfect and is very flawed. It's lacking in humour and it narrows the scope by focusing too much on Sweeney's character. If I was already a massive fan of the stage version beforehand the changes that were made to the film might have bothered me a lot more. Having said that though I still think the Sweeney Todd film is one of the better stage-to-screen adaptations that's been made in recent years. The movie is mostly faithful to the stage version and is a good film in its own right.

Burton nails the gothic, Victorian look and the film certainly looks great. The film won an Oscar for Best Art Direction and it was very well deserved. I also love Johnny Depp's bathing costume in the By the Sea scene! :D The By the Sea scene is one of the best things about the film actually. Johnny Depp's costume and his looks of sullen despair throughout are just so funny. Burton definitely builds the tension up in the final scenes too.

Johnny Depp is one of my favourite actors and he gives a great performance as Sweeney Todd. He has a pretty good singing voice too. I was surprised by just how good his singing actually was. Depp is certainly no Michael Ball and his singing isn't Broadway/West End calibre. His voice is lacking in power. His singing is still very good for a movie musical though. I especially love the My Friends scene in the Sweeney Todd film (see below). For me that's when Depp's acting and singing is at its best. He sings so softly and lovingly to the razors and his acting leaves the audience in no doubt whatsoever that his character's mind is dangerously unhinged. Depp doesn't try to make his character likeable in the film. he audience can sympathise with him to a certain extent because of what was done to him by the Judge but there's still no getting around the fact that the character is a demented serial killer. Sweeney Todd isn't a Hamlet or Edmond Dantes figure. Erm, but surely I can't be the only one who finds Depp's facial expressions very sexy from 1:43 to about 2:05? No? I'll get my coat...

But before I do I'll finish my review. Some of the supporting cast in this film do better than others. The kid who plays Toby (Ed Sanders) has a very nice voice and his version of Not While I'm Around is one of the highlights of the film for me. Toby in the stage version is a mentally challenged young man who acts like a child. In the Tim Burton film though Toby is actually a child. I personally like both ideas equally. Interestingly in the stage production I saw it seems that they'd been influenced by the film in this respect. The actor who was playing Toby was a child, or at least he looked like a child from where I was. Sacha Baron Cohen gets the only comic song that is still left in the film (The Contest) and is very amusing as Adolfo Pirelli. Even though Baron Cohen's role is small he still makes a big impression. His singing is very good and he hits an impressively high note at the end of his song. He shows some genuine menace too when he drops the Pirelli act. I definitely approve of the decision to cast him as Thenardier in the Les Miserables movie musical adaptation. The singing from everyone else in this film is merely passable. No-one sings amazingly but no-one sounds awful either. Alan Rickman is brilliantly creepy and vicious as the Judge and Timothy Spall is very good as the slimy Beadle. Spall's just so good at playing slimy characters!

The actors who aren't so good in this film are Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener and Helena Bonham Carter. Jayne Wisener uses about as many facial expressions as Emmy Rossum (so not many) and her singing isn't that great either. Anne Hathaway would have been a much better choice to play Johanna. As for Jamie Campbell Bower, well, I suppose his singing isn't bad but his voice sounds far too girly and effeminate for my liking. I find his long "e"s in Johanna quite grating (I feeeeel you Johanna!) Apparently Bower got very close to being cast as Enjolras in the Les Mis musical movie. Thank Heaven that didn't happen! Like Wisener his acting isn't great either - but maybe if his and Jayne Wisener's characters had been given more depth and maybe if they'd been given more to work with then their performances might have been better.

Surprisingly Helena Bonham Carter isn't that great in this film either. For the record I do actually really like Helena Bonham Carter. I think she's a talented actress and that she has much more versatility than she's usually given credit for. But she's underwhelming in this film. In the stage version Mrs Lovett is a really funny character and she's lively, flamboyant and energetic. But in this film Carter seems almost tentative in the role. She definitely looks the part and she is funny at times but she could have still really done with being more lively. Her Mrs Lovett is very different to the Mrs Lovett of the stage version. Carter's Mrs Lovett seems more sympathetic too which I don't really like. When Carter's Mrs Lovett locks Toby up in the cellar she looks guilt-ridden and as if she's about to cry. But in the stage version Mrs Lovett doesn't give a crap about Toby! She acts motherly towards him but she doesn't really care about him at all! She only wants to save her own skin. Mrs Lovett is every bit as evil as Sweeney. She's the one who comes up with the idea of using cannibalism to promote her business!

Sometimes I do wonder why the fact that the actors aren't especially strong singers in the Sweeney Todd film doesn't bother me more, especially since this is a major problem that I have with the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. And I would have been absolutely hopping mad if they'd cast the Les Mis musical movie with a bunch of untrained singers. I hope that doesn't make me a hypocrite! I think the reason why it doesn't bother me might be because the acting generally makes up for it in this film. Also, in the 2004 movie Emmy Rossum is supposed to be playing an opera singer and Gerard Butler is supposed to be playing a musical genius with the voice of an angel. The singing in Sweeney Todd isn't what it ought to be but the storyline allows them to get away with it more than with Phantom, where being a great singer is an integral part of the plot. And although I do really love Sweeney Todd I'm still not as emotionally attached to it as I am with Les Mis and Phantom.

With all this time I've spent going on about the film I really should move onto the stage version! Well, it was brilliant! Michael Ball was surprisingly excellent as Sweeney. In fact he was incredible! You really do have to admire the versatility of the man as well. He can go from dressing up in drag to play Edna in Hairspray (a very different sort of show!) to playing Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. In this he was moody, menacing, angry, funny... I couldn't believe that it was the exact same Michael Ball I saw playing Marius in the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis! And his singing was awesome too. Ball was singing about an octave lower than he usually sings but he didn't sound like he was straining his voice at all. He was just... great! Ball's best moments of the show for me was when he did Epiphany and the Johanna Quartet. His voice shines especially in these songs. At the end of the Johanna Quartet he held a note that seemed to go on for about two minutes! And Imelda Staunton was just sensational as Mrs Lovett. She was hilarious! She brought the house down when she sang Worst Pies in London and By the Sea and everyone seemed to love her. She was just so lively and funny - and clearly evil! Mrs Lovett is supposed to be the Thenardier of the show. You like her against your better judgement. Ball and Staunton gave the best performances in the show but no-one was bad in this. OK, Lucy May Barker (who played Johanna) was a bit shreaky at times but she was by no means horrible. The ensemble were terrific as well, probably the best ensemble cast I've yet seen. I was looking at the programme and a lot of them have played leads in other musicals. There was a woman who'd played Belle in Beauty and the Beast and a guy who'd played Raoul in Phantom. I had a great time watching the show! My thoughts on the stage show are probably less interesting to read because there isn't all that much I can criticise! The only thing I wasn't so keen on was the 1950s(?) setting that they gave it. Sweeney Todd is just so Victorian and gothic that having it set in the 1950s felt a bit weird. But I'm only nitpicking really. If you can then go and see this show. Even at the far back the views are still really good and the ticket prices are quite affordable.

Now I'm pretty much done with my thoughts on Sweeney Todd. I'll just say that if you can you should definitely try to check out the current production in London before it runs out in September 2012. If not then I'd recommend listening to the cast album for that production that's been recently released. There's also the 1982 filmed production of the stage version (which is apparently very good) and the film, which although flawed, is still very enjoyable in my opinion and well worth a watch. I'd rate the film 3.5 stars and the stage version 5. I'll close my review with some songs from this excellent musical : )

Kiss Me

Green Finch and Linnet Bird


Johanna Quartet

Little Priest

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