THE BACK PAGES

Knocked up and blown clean away

Brian D. Johnson December 31 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Knocked up and blown clean away

Brian D. Johnson December 31 2007

Killing them softly

A lot of people will be going to 'Sweeney Todd' just to hear Johnny Depp sing

JAIME J. WEINMAN

film

Does a movie musical need actual singers? No. After all, MyFairLady starred Rex Har rison and Audrey Hepburn. Put it another way: does a

movie musical need actual singers if it con tains almost nothing but singing? Director Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, opening Dec. 21, will test that theory. The score by

composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim has so much dif ficult music that it's often compared to an opera, but Burton has cast the picture with non-singers, starting at the top with his wife, Hel ena Bonham Carter, who sings her numbers in a small, breathy voice, and Johnny Depp, who has com pared his singing to "the mating call ofa rutting stag."

If recent musicals like Hairspray and Enchanted have revived the appetite for movies with people who can sing and dance, Sweeney Todd is a different type of musical—one aimed at people who aren’t necessarily into musicals.

The people involved with the film all agree that it’s not supposed to feel like a musical. Burton has said that he doesn’t care for musicals but has always been fascinated by Sweeney Todd, which uses singing (but almost no dancing) to tell the old English horror story of a barber who cuts his customers’ throats and makes them into meat pies. Mike Higham, who produced the music, explains Burton’s controversial decision to eliminate all chorus parts (which relegates the play’s theme song, The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, to orchestral background music) by saying that Burton “didn’t want it to feel like a Broadway show.” He adds that Burton’s approach “helps stop people from bursting into song, which is a big curse, and puts a lot of people off.” Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays the stock melodrama figure of the young romantic lead (and turns in one of the best pieces of singing in the love ballad Johanna), says that the lack of trained singers creates an advantage

over a normal musical: “Every character is different in the way they sing, whereas on Broadway, it could end up being sung all the same way.” Sweeney Todd is not even being advertised as a musical: the current theatrical trailer eliminates the singing and sells the piece as a Victorian mad-slasher tale.

Sweeney Todd has always been a haven for people who don’t like traditional musicals, even before Burton got his hands on it.

The stage show, which premiered in 1979 and has been revived frequently ever since (including a current production in which singers play instruments onstage), was one of a series of in-your-face musicals from Sondheim and director Harold Prince, who sought to tackle subject matter and techniques that hadn’t been thought appropriate for musical theatre. Following a Kabuki-style musical (Pacific Overtures), Sweeney Todd was a “musical thriller,” a bloody horror story in song. With its ambitious score and Prince’s symbolic Industrial Revolution production theme, it managed to present itself as an arty work of theatre, even though it incorporated the clichés of melodrama. Len Cariou, the Canadian actor who played the title role in the original production, says the key to its success was that, in spite of the elements of tonguein-cheek comedy, he and co-star Angela Lansbury (not a trained singer but an experienced musical-theatre performer) treated it “like it’s Jacobean tragedy. It may have all the trappings of melodrama, but it’s not.”

Though Prince split up with Sondheim soon after Sweeney Todd and did more commercial work—including The Phantom of the Opera, a user-friendly variation on Sweeney Todd’s brand of dark semi-operatic musical theatre—Sondheim has kept writing long songs that are built more on insistent repetitions than flowing melody, and that are so closely tied to stage action that they can’t be turned into pop hits. In the process he’s spawned a loyal cult following among peo-

ple who see him as an avantgarde hero. Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, came to prominence as a Harvard undergraduate when he praised Sondheim for rejecting the coventions of Broadway and “letting the music add new levels of meaning to a sophisticated libretto.” A chunk of the audience for

any Sondheim show consists of people who aren’t big fans of other musicals.

That means the

reasons for bringing Sweeney to the screen are different from

the reasons for adapting a glitzier show like Hairspray. Most movie musicals are

showcases for performers, be it Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or the cast of Hairspray (which went for stars who

were also singer-dancers, like Christopher Walken or Zac “High School Musical” Ef-

ron). But Sweeney Todd is a showcase for

Tim Burton and his

interest in outcasts

from society: Depp’s Sweeney is a nastier version of Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood.

Burton and screenwriter/producer John Logan have kept the story and song list very faithful to the stage play, and they clearly respect Sondheim’s score: in a time when the show is

often done without an orchestra, Burton has kept the original orchestrations byjonathan Tuniek (expanded for an 80-piece orchestra). Yet the finished product reflects Burton’s sensibility all the way, from the stylized production design to the quirky special effects—including gallons of effects-generated blood.

With a performer-based musical, the producers would look around for actors with a

proven ability to sing; here Burton cast Depp and Carter because he always casts them. And for a Burton project, they’re appropriate; their singing of the dazzlingly rhymed cannibalism comedy song A Little Priest (“We have some shepherd’s pie peppered / with actual shepherd”) is grimmer and quieter than Lansbury and Cariou’s, because Burton has replaced the show’s broader approach with his own brand of gruesome fairy tale. Most film musicals succeed or fail based on

the performances of the individual numbers; Sweeney Todd is more like a non-musical in that it’s more important for each number to fit the director’s approach.

That also explains why none of the actors are dubbed. Dubbing used to be common practice; the most successful movie Sondheim has been involved with, West Side Story (he wrote the lyrics), dubbed most of the cast, and the last time Depp appeared in a musical,

Cry-Baby, director John Waters had him dubbed. But apart from the fact that today’s gossip machine would tear apart any star who had someone else sing for him, Sweeney Todd wouldn’t work with dubbed singing—not just

Dubbing used to be common practice in films, but today’s gossip machine would tear apart any star who had someone else sing for him

because most of it is sung, but because it aims to make the songs feel more like sung conversation than show tunes. Higham says that it was in recording their songs that the actors arrived at their characterizations: “It started with six weeks in the recording studio; they were discovering the character.” Bower agrees that singing the songs helped him play the part the way Burton wanted: “You’ve got to be the character that you’ve already been when you sang the same lines.”

Oddly enough, the movie may be getting better publicity than it would have had with real singers. The announcement that Depp would sing his own songs led to a lot of media

coverage, much more than musicals usually get in the months before they open. At first the reports focused mostly on the controversy over whether Depp could sing (“Doubts Whether Depp Can Cut it As Sweeney Todd,” read a London Times headline); coverage then shifted to encouraging reports that he was better than expected. Even Len Cariou approves of Depp’s performances of the numbers Cariou introduced on Broadway: “For the film it’s fine. You couldn’t ask him to do it on stage, but he carries the tunes.” All these stories have given the movie an unexpected source of appeal: people will be going to hear whether Depp can handle the music. Higham, who thinks that the audience for the film will largely be “fan-based” (fans of Burton, Sondheim, and of course Depp), adds that it may benefit from “an element of curiosity: people will want to know what Johnny sounds like when he sings.” One might wonder if this non-musical approach might defeat the purpose of doing a musical. The stage production may have been anti-traditional, but it did include some show-stopping numbers and plenty of comic relief. The movie is so obsessed with not feeling like a musical that it occasionally feels drab; when Depp croons softly in the midst of Burton’s desaturated colour scheme, even people who aren’t musical fans might get a little nostalgic for the brighter colours and more assertive singing of a traditional musical, or even the stage version of Sweeney Todd.

But the most important question about a movie musical is not whether it pays enough attention to musical values, but whether it works. It remains to be seen whether Burton’s approach to Sweeney Todd will succeed at the box office, but it’s already working for test-screening audiences: advance reaction was good enough that the studio decided to move up the release date to the busy Christmas season. And though Sondheim’s songs carry the story, the filmmakers are hoping for the kind of reaction Higham has seen so far: “A lot of people have said this to me when they watch this film for the first time, that it didn’t feel like watching a musical. Which I think is probably the biggest compliment.” M