Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1982) (DVD)
Times are hard in 1846 London and one must make do. So Nellie Lovett adds something extra to the meat pies she peddles on Fleet Street. The secret ingredient: freshly murdered victims of her partner in crime, barber Sweeney Todd. Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim refashions a macabre tale into a musical masterwork in this dazzling performance of the 1979 Broadway hit originally staged by Harold Prince. In her Tony-winning role (one of eight the show earned, including Best Musical), Angela Lansbury plays Nellie. George Hearn turns his stage role of twisted Sweeney into an Emmy-winning triumph. The score coils around itself in ever-tightening spirals. The lines ripple with black humor and madness. Enter Sweeney's tonsorial parlor. Attend the tale.]]>
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Nonetheless, I'm just glad that this incredibly wonderful musical exists - to counteract the perfectly dreadful, humorless movie version.
I saw the original on Broadway at the Uris theater (with Cariou) Since then I've seen 5 other versions. All (with the exception of the movie) were very good. but only the orig left me gasping.
Many who are currently familiar with the tale of Sweeney Todd were introduced by Tim Burton's film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The film was visually stunning, and had some good acting, but I don't think the film adaptation properly captured the tone of the play. Burton's film was a brooding melodrama set in a gothic tribute to the Universal Horror movies, but missed a key point of the play: Humor. This is not a melodrama. In fact, the entire play has a joyous sense of black comedy, and tongue-in-cheek antics which was almost entirely lost in Burton's film (I think it officially left the picture once Sacha Boren Cohen makes his exit...).
Fortunately for all of us wanting a taste of the true Sweeney Todd, Showtime has provided us with a fantastic televised version of the 1982 touring cast starring the always magnificent Angela Lansbury in her 1979 Tony Award winning role of Mrs. Lovett. Replacing Len Cariou as the titular Sweeney is George Hearn, whose performance which is nothing short of being a force of nature. Aside from Lansbury, we also have Edmund Lyndeck (Judge Turpin) and Ken Jennings (Tobias Ragg) returning from the original 1979 production.
Angela Lansbury and George Hearn possess great chemistry as the crazed partners who turn murder victims into meat pies. These two are a perfect pair, and for me George Hearn could be even better than Cariou (of course, I don't have the benefit of being familiar with Cariou's stage presence when he played the role). Hearn is powerful, his voice captures the fury and insanity of a man out for revenge and with nothing left to lose (or, so he thinks...). From the fondness of My Friends, the steady rising, predatory rage of Pretty Women, to the full blown hurricane of fury and insanity that is Sweeney's Epiphany George Hearn's performance is an amazing mixture of subtlety and insanity . Angela Lansbury, of course, is the perfect Lovett, the maker of the "Worst pies in London" while taking the hots for Sweeney, Lansbury's performance mixing overwhelming glee with pure insanity, and LOVING it bringing the right level of manic energy and humor to the duet with Heart "A Little Priest."
As far as the technical side of the production is concerned, the editing and camera work in this show is top notch, standing high above many of the other attempts I've seen to transfer to excitement of a play to the screen. Close-ups are provided when it enhances the mood and never are intrusive, and for the most part they allow us to see the entire stage so that it feels like the viewer is a part of the action. I don't think any other filmed stage production has ever made me feel as involved as this 1982 production of Sweeney Todd.
Sadly this DVD has no bonus features, but with how high-quality the program itself is (if you've seen many recorded shows you'll know many fail to capture the energy of the play) I can accept the complete lack of bonus material (and interview with Lansbury, Hearn, and/or Sondheim would have been nice). If you want to be exposed to Sweeney Todd as it was original staged, or simply want to get a taste of Broadway from the comfort of your own home, I cannot recommend this DVD enough! This is a fantastic introduction to Sondheim's black comedy and Broadway. Short of jumping in a time machine this is the closest one can get seeing this legendary cast, so give it a look. Attend the tale.
Beyond the stellar performance by Angela Lansbury, the role of Beadle Bamford as portrayed by Calvin Remsberg was superb and the harp in the pit orchestra played by Toni Robinson was poetic making the total magnificent.
Although this rendition was merely a film of the stage production, it still seems superior to the recent Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version.
Almost all the voices are equal to Sondheim's brilliant score, which belongs in the pantheon of grand opera. The exception is the girl playing Johanna, whose shrill soprano voice is forced to such an extent that it goes sharp; thus one loses not only the thread of the melody, but also the lilting beauty of the "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" song. As one who loves the audio CD, in which soprano Sarah Rice floats effortlessly through the aria, I was severely disappointed.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast is splendid: especially the Beggar Woman, Anthony the Sailor, and the boy Toby (The DVD edition has more or less toned down the extent of Judge Turpin's perversions, which are blatant in Edmund Lyndeck's incredible version of "Johanna" in the audio CD.). Unfortunately the DVD does not provide the cast list on or inside the box, so I shall have to go back to the end of the disc and see who's in it besides the stars.
Nevertheless, the stars are shining brightly in this dark comic opera over a London that seems more like Paris of the Grand Guignol, the horror spectacle which once sent shivers down the spines of Parisian theatre goers. Even though the horror of the plot is unlikely to thrill the jaded modern audience, the performance of George Hearn certainly will.