Top positive review
398 of 426 people found this helpful
Sondheim's Masterpiece Finally on Film
on December 23, 2007
Although critics have been almost unanimous in their praise of this film, many fans of the show are quite harsh in their appraisal, chiefly for two reasons - one, that the principals are not great singers, and two, the deletion of roughly 50% of the score. I surprised myself in that, having purchased the soundtrack and seen the movie, I am in neither camp, as either of these factors might heretofore have caused me to pronounce most film adaptations of almost any Broadway musical a failure. Instead, I am thrilled far beyond my expectations with this production.
It might not have been so, had I not had so much respect for Stephen Sondheim. As part of the pre-release publicity, he has granted an unusual (for him) number of interviews, and says that he is unequivocally satisfied with Tim Burton's vision. As anyone who appreciates his high level of artistic integrity will agree, Mr. Sondheim would not give praise to this project if he were not satisfied with it. At 77, Stephen Sondheim is considered by many to be the greatest composer in the history of the American theatre, and I have followed him long enough to know that no amount of financial consideration could cause him to declare his endorsement if he were not truly happy with the finished film.
I have listened carefully to what Mr. Sondheim has had to say in those recent interviews, and now understand why so many stage musicals previously transferred to celluloid haven't worked. To begin with, time passes very differently in a theatre than it does on film. That which takes several minutes in a Broadway theatre (i.e. a full-blown production number) is apt to seem like a small eternity on screen. Therefore, the very thing that keeps most audiences clamoring for more in live theatre is apt to make many movie audiences run screaming from the auditorium. Then there is the problem of what Alfred Hitchcock once termed "suspension of disbelief"; that is, in real life, no one ever bursts into song during one of life's dramatic moments, no less accompanied by a full orchestra, and many moviegoers who are accustomed to a certain amount of reality therefore find musical films particularly hard to take. Thanks to some of the theories on musical film voiced by Mr. Sondheim in the past week or so, I finally understand why so many previous attempts to film Broadway musicals fall flat - in short, the theatre and film are two entirely different mediums, with two entirely different audiences. Although many theatre lovers, myself included, would be happy to sit through an entire musical transferred to screen exactly as produced on stage, most movie audiences demand something different. And something different is what they surely get with Sweeney Todd.
Then there is the score. Tim Burton has said that he has been a fan of Sweeney Todd since its original run. I believe that, as disappointing as it is for many fans to accept how much of the score has been cut, it was probably even more agonizing for Mr. Burton to decide what pieces to remove. The original ran over three hours, and at least 75% of the story was sung, making Sweeney Todd one of the few genuine operas to ever come out of Broadway. The film runs only 117 minutes and, judging by the length of the soundtrack CD (a mere 72 minutes) easily 40% of the score has been removed, chiefly the ensemble pieces. Mr. Burton apparently judged (probably correctly) that the choral numbers which worked so well on stage, although containing some of the wittiest lyrics, would be clunky and ponderous on film, and he made the prudent (if, I'm sure, difficult) decision to let them go. This is likely to be the sorest point for many fans of the show. And had I not been paying careful attention to Mr. Sondheim's recent interviews, I may not have been able to get past that point myself.
But what has been excised is more than compensated for in Mr. Burton's sumptuous visuals and careful attention to detail. Although Mr. Sondheim has made changes to the lyrics, resolving previously problematic portions of the score and actually improving it, it's amazing how much of what is left of the score is faithful to the original. Though it's a tragic story, Sweeney Todd remains in essence a dark comedy, and many of Mr. Burton's finer touches, especially the staging of the musical numbers, have enhanced the story to the point where I have hardly missed the deletions, and I speak as someone who has loved this piece in almost all of its previous renderings.
And I admit that, although he has never been a particular favorite of mine, Johnny Depp is a revelation. Without detracting from previous interpreters of the role (especially Len Cariou and George Hearn), Mr. Depp's evocation of the character is so fully fleshed out, and so filled with genuine pathos and sympathy, that I was able to immediately excuse the fact that he is not a seasoned vocalist. Besides, to reiterate a point made earlier, this is not Broadway, and there is no need for his voice to reach the back of the house. If anything, the fact that the principal characters are not great singers actually enhances the realistic feel of the film. It is also a pleasure to have both Toby and Anthony (not to mention Joanna) played by actors of the appropriate age, and hear accents that actually invoke pre-Victorian London.
In the end however, the real star (to me, anyway) is the superlative score by Stephen Sondheim. I am not amazed that some feel that there are no "memorable songs" in the score. Good music should be subtle; the absence of "catchy tunes" that one will whistle on the way out of the theatre is only indicative to me of the high quality of the score. Anyone who is previously unfamiliar with Sweeney Todd who doesn't "get it" is urged to purchase the soundtrack (the full version, with the complete libretto included) and follow along with the words and music as the songs are sung. The first thing you will realize is (as with any of Mr. Sondheim's works, whether they be in a film, the theatre, or any other medium) how incredibly witty and sophisticated his lyrics are; on first listen you are apt to miss most of his delicious wit. His use of the English language, his clever rhymes, and above all, his intelligent, deft semantics will amaze anyone who cares to take the time to listen. There are reasons why so many consider Sondheim the foremost composer of the theatre, and so many intelligent theatergoers hang on his every word. But just as important as his words (and I have always admired Sondheim's ability to use words above all else that I treasure in the world of musical theatre), you will find, especially if you listen long and hard enough, that his delicate, subtle music will, in time, work its way into your heart and conscience as some of the most beautiful music ever composed. This is NOT top-forty pop music, the type that is so often mistaken for excellence in theatre these days. In his ballads especially, Sondheim writes genuine, heartfelt gorgeous melodies; that is, real music. Once you open your heart and mind to Sondheim's glorious words and sumptuous airs, you may just become a fan for life.