I am a Sweeney Todd geek. I’m not entirely sure why I begged my parents to take me to the original Broadway production in 1979 with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, but I did and it was a major event in my life. That was the first time the power of theater was really brought home to me, even though I’d dallied in acting a bit. But that was just childish egotism… and this was art. Scary, loud art. I loved it.
Fast forward four years and my one of my best friends in high school was similarly impacted and has spent his life ever since following his dream of writing for the musical theater. This was, at the least, positive reinforcement that what I’d seen and felt was real. And Stephen Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd is now generally recognized as a pinnacle of the art form.
When the revival opened in New York in 2005, I tried to get to it on & off for nearly two years, finally seeing it a month before it closed in 2006. The sparse staging was everything I’d hoped for, with perhaps a greater commitment to playing up the base insanity of all the characters. Michael Cerveris, formerly of Bob Mould’s band, was a perfect Sweeney, physically scary and singing with gusto. Unfortunately Patti Lupone was off as Mrs. Lovett that night, but her understudy, Judy Kaye, later to own the part in the touring production, was suitable.
The revival came to ACT in San Francisco in 2007 and I had to go again. Twice. Suffice to say, I was not bored.
So I approached Tim Burton’s filmed version with Johnny Depp in the title role with trepidation. A non-singer, too young(?), too small(?). I was also afraid that Burton wound sand off all the edges and turn it into a goth-light entertainment: from mythic fury to fanciful fairy-tale.
- Really, I never should have feared about Depp. He’s one of our greatest movie actors, and a huge part of that greatness comes from the physicality he brings to his roles. His physical and psychological intensity never wavers, his motivations coming across straight & true. In truth, he is not that different size- and age-wise from Len Cariou and George Hearn, who were the Sweeneys in the original 1979-80 NYC production.
- The play had to be cut a bit for length and they correctly got rid of the deadest bits — the numbers that skate by on the stage for their cleverness but add little to the story.
- Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall make great bad guys, though having seen Rickman in Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix earlier in the week made me think he was coasting a bit.
- The attention to detail on the sets & costumes is amazing. Just stunning.
- Helena Bonham Carter, on the other hand, is completely overmatched by the material. She doesn’t have the energy or the voice for the part. There’s also a critical component of insanity that’s gone missing from her performance. Mrs. Lovett, after all, is a woman who’s remained obsessed with a missing wannabe boyfriend for 25 years, and when he miraculously returns she starts disposing of corpses in the grossest possible way on his behalf. Carter, on the other hand, doesn’t communicate much more than “lovelorn.” It just doesn’t work.
- Similarly, the casting of the peripheral “good guys” is just awful. Anthony is a vigorous young sailor returned from years at sea; here he’s an Emo pretty boy that looks like he couldn’t lift anything, much less help raise a sail. Johanna barely registers at all. Weirdly, Tobias is converted from near-insane abused teen to peppy All-American do-gooder, straight out of Leave It To Beaver (plus a drinking problem). The last in particular makes the end of the story arc a tough sell.
- Much comment in the previews & reviews about the violence, but where’s the sex gone? Granted pedophilia isn’t something that sells a lot of tickets, but this is the core of The Judge’s evil, the motor for the whole plot. Rickman’s Judge simply becomes a “cruel dude” rather than the deranged figure that he is in the play. I guess the musical number where The Judge masturbates to the thought of his teenage ward would be a bit much for most audiences, but we’re already at an R rating with the violence. This just makes the producers look cowardly. (See also: The Golden Compass)
On the whole, though, I’m pleased that this great work is being brought to so many and that perhaps it will make potential audiences less averse to attending musicals.
The Original 1979 production
- See it on YouTube! George Hearn (the second Sweeney) and Angela Lansbury are featured. Recommended: “Sweeney Todd 05,” which includes Pretty Women and Epiphany
- New York Times review of the original 1979 production: “The musical and dramatic achievements of Stephen Sondheim’s black and bloody “Sweeney Todd” are so numerous and so clamorous that they trample and jam each other in that invisible but finite doorway that connects a stage and its audience; doing themselves some harm in the process.”
The 2005 revival and its touring offspring
- The score as it was meant to be heard: The 2005 revival with Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone
- SFGate: Bloody Good Show (Background on the 2005 production and its appearance at ACT in 2007)
- SFGate: Review: ACT’s trimmed ‘Sweeney Todd’ holds its own