Attend the Tale…

Those are the first 3 words of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” but you’ll never hear them in Tim Burton’s adaptation of my favorite musical of all time. Don’t get me wrong, I find much to love in Burton’s Sweeney Todd, particularly Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp. So I was tickled when the spouse brought it home from the video shop the other day. For purely selfish reasons, I hoped that the movie would at long last woo him over to my Sweeney love (especially of the score, which I like to listen to fairly often), but alas, ’tis not to be. This is my version of vintage SNL and Fridays, which the spouse cannot get me to love no matter how he tries. C’est la guerre….

Watching the movie with him – his first time, my second – I noticed how completely shredded the score is. While I didn’t mind the excising of the Ballad the first time, I realized on second watching how much it’s needed. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is a masterpiece, beginning with a dark, scuttling undercurrent in sixths under a reedy tenor’s voice. Strings squeeze in at the top of their registers, almost as spine-tingling as chalk screeches. The music builds. A women’s trio comes in over the men chanting “Sweeney, Sweeney,” then suddenly the entire chorus is relentlessly chanting for Sweeney, the sixths now galloping like the horses of the apocalypse, ending in a disastrous, gorgeous atonal fortissimo chord right out of Schoenberg – and Sweeney rises out of an onstage grave and begins to sing, with the backing vocals so high at this point the sopranos are virtually screaming.

Now that’s theater.

Burton keeps the orchestration, which has its own weird beauty without the vocals, but the sense is missing. Sweeney was the musical where Sondheim went for broke with repeated motifs, which either make his music great fun to listen to repeatedly or, in the case of this movie and the spouse’s novice take on it (which echoes Sondheim’s detractors), a bit maddening and loopy.

So I’m convinced spouse’s reaction is based on the fragmentation of the score, as well as the generally poor singing that plagues the movie. I loved Helena Bonham Carter’s acting, and didn’t even mind her singing all that much other than on the comic numbers, “The Worst Pies in London” and “It’s Priest,” both of which are dreadful and simply don’t work. Why she wasn’t coached to do the full-bodied belting that she does in the severely truncated “God That’s Good” is a mystery; Mrs. Lovett isn’t easy to sing, but the singing doesn’t have to be beautiful to work, just gutsy.

It’s a problem in adapting any play to film. Watching a good play is such an intense experience that you need crazy comic relief; that’s why “Officer Krupke” comes after the rumble in the stage version of West Side Story (Sondheim’s first, of course, lyrics only). On film, the suspension of disbelief is less, and while the characters bursting into song here generally comes off pretty well, it’s not introduced quite so easily as it is in, say, the film version of Fiddler on the Roof (an underrated movie, by the way; Jewison’s understanding of how to make such a schmaltzy over-the-top musical work on film is spot on, pulled off largely by Topol’s beautiful performance). On the other hand, Sweeney absolutely needs comic relief, and probably in all the same places that it does onstage. So maybe more powerful singing from Mrs. Lovett would have done the trick. We’ll never know.

That said, Depp and Rickman’s vocals work just fine, showing that Sweeney is an actor’s piece as much as a singer’s. Depp is the second best Sweeney I’ve seen; the first was Jonathan Nolan, who was extraordinary. (He did the City Opera production in the mid-80s, which was generally great, but not perfect. Rosalind Elias was a great Mrs. Lovett, but the young lovers were awful; they almost always are.) And there are marvelous bits in the movie that couldn’t possibly be executed on stage; for instance, when Pirelli (nicely done by Sasha Baron Cohen) recognizes Sweeney’s razors, or when Mrs. Lovett realizes that young Toby knows too much and he’s going to have to be sacrificed. The “By the Sea” number, generally dreadful onstage, is truly funny in Burton’s version, with HBC mincing about a catatonic Depp. And changing Toby from a weird, overgrown child into a regular child was a great move.

I don’t know why it’s so hard to pull of a musical these days (with the exception of Dreamgirls, which I think is an absolutely great adapation). Sweeney is a much better movie than Across the Universe, and both are better than Evita, but there’s still something just a little too hokey about people singing their way through a plot. (Like Cabaret, Dreamgirls ‘ numbers arise almost entirely in performance situations, so it’s a different kind of deal.) Maybe directors and actors are too conscious of that possible hokiness to commit themselves completely into the audience’s hands. When Rita Moreno snaps her head around in West Side Story right before she belts out, “Puerto Rico, my heart’s de-vo-tion,” you know, and more importantly she knows, that she’s about to sing the hell out of something. Directors now seem to want to ease you into the song as opposed to just saying, yo, it’s time for the song.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that people keep attempting to bring stuff like Evita and Sweeney to the big screen. Neither show is flawless, but both have pretty spectacular cumulative effects. While neither movie is wholly successful, there are some glorious sequences in both. Antonio Banderas, clearly in his element in the over-the-top realm, is sensational throughout Evita, particularly on the razor-sharp “Good Night and Thank You,” and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker belts the HELL out of the Rainbow Tour number; what a treat to hear that voice after so many years. Depp and Rickman do a beautiful job on “Pretty Women,” a gorgeous piece of music that really doesn’t work outside the context of the show, and Depp’s “Epiphany,” always a tough number to pull off, totally works.

I don’t feel a huge lack as far as musicals that never made it past Broadway, but I still love the movie musical genre, and I hope people keep giving it a shot. It may not be possible to pull them off entirely ever again. But….why not try? After all, there are only so many Judd Apatow comedies we can take….

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