Stream of Consciousness: Tidbits & "Sweeney Todd" the Movie Musical

Okay, so I haven’t written in a spell. (SarahB was quick to remind me of that this afternoon, in a strange psychic moment where I had been thinking it myself). Anyway, the holidays were as mindblowingly mediocre as always but at least work didn’t get to me this year. Customers were actually nice for a change (I’m a Barnes & Noble head cashier for those not in the know). It amazes me to see people smiling and accommodating and not being complete morons insipidly worrying more about the shopping aspect of Christmas (which overshadows everything else; and is likely to remain so). Plus New Year’s. I don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve. I haven’t as a rule. However, I did watch the new documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman on PBS. While it doesn’t present us with any sort of information that isn’t already known, it was fascinating to see all the footage of the original productions of Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack and Mabel, The Grand Tour and La Cage. Wow, the only one lacking footage was Milk and Honey (represented in still photos).

I’ve not been to NY since I saw the revival of Pygmalion last month (stellar presentation; Claire Danes was good, if shrill; Jefferson Mays, Boyd Gaines and Jay O. Sanders were absolutely brilliant); however, I’m attending my first opera at the Met this Tuesday. The Barber of Seville. I am incredibly psyched for it and will try not to go nuts. To add to the excitement, I will be at the first preview of Sunday in the Park With George on Friday. Oh, let the good times roll.

I saw the film version of Sweeney Todd. As it ranks as one of my favorite musicals, I was incredibly wary of a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration of the project. However, as production stills were made available and then clips leaked online – and then that trailer. I knew it was going to be something special. In spite of those purists I know who lamented the vocal quality, the cuts and adaptations between stage and screen; I was completely devastated by the piece. That in itself is mind blowing as I’m usually the purist who cannot concede to change especially in a piece that’s especially close to my heart. I think, too, that part of my enjoyment of the film came from having accepted prior that it was not going to be the stage show but the film version of the stage show. That makes a world of difference from a fan perspective. From the opening Dies Irae on organ to the jovial “A Little Priest” that played out the end of the credits, I was mesmerized and captivated by the stylized direction of Burton and the acting. Depp and Helena Bonham aren’t exactly the sturdiest singers I’ve heard (especially tackling this difficult material). Okay, that’s been established. However, both characterizations impressed me. Depp’s brooding Sweeney made the more operatic moments especially chilling with a gravelly understatement of his delivery; his singing worked, as the lyrics were from a character perspective; carefully prepared and thoughtfully delivered. Carter has come under considerably scrutiny for her vocal performance and her characterization. I am in the belief that she created a wholly original Mrs. Lovett for the screen, understated as well, but also finding something more realistic and human inside; this was made especially evident in her relationship with Tobias (raising the stakes by being portrayed by an actual boy). Her Lovett is less a Dickensian caricature (which is sure a helluva lot of fun onstage) and more a woman who is indeed tempered by desperate times and desperate emotions. I don’t think a performance akin to Angela Lansbury, Dorothy Loudon or Sheila Hancock in the original New York and London companies would transfer well onscreen without some sort of concept or satiric take on the material. Treading new ground, Carter found what little there is of Lovett’s heart; though still a manipulative monster who is essentially the true villain of the piece. As for the violence? I loved it. I’m not big on graphic scenes of people getting chopped up or blown up or slashed away or tortured. I don’t do the “torture porn” movies like Saw or Hostel (besides, the scariest are the ones like Don’t Look Now and Halloween where the director creates sensations of unease and suspense in every shot. Anyway, I digress. The sensationally impressionistic bloodletting had me giggling like a horror fanboy. And though I cringed, I have to say I admired the revision on how the chair disposes the bodies. I sat in the theatre numb after the credits rolled. (An added bonus, the woman behind me got so involved in the story, she gasped an incredibly audible “Oh, no!” when Sweeney threw Johanna into his chair. Anyway, it’s a marvel in its production design (particularly the makeup and costumes); for the first time Sweeney has, for me, genuinely looked like something out of mid-Victorian England. I was okay with the cuts; I was okay with the changes. It’s an adaptation; not a taping of the original Broadway production. Since we already have that available with the national tour of Lansbury and George Hearn, why would we want that replicated on screen? With its judicious and carefully approached preparations, the director, screenwriter and entire creative team worked diligently on respecting the original while finding their own way about it. (A special kudos for the riotous montages of “By the Sea”). Would this Sweeney work onstage? Maybe in a garage in Soho. Probably not. But does it work as a film? Absolutely.

I’ve also since discovered what I adore most about the Hal Prince staging: the very last moment where everyone is robotically exiting the stage during the final ballad reprise and Sweeney goes upstage and slams that door. What a way to end it!

Anyway, kids, go see Sweeney Todd.

Never Forget. Never Forgive.

Though at this point in time I should probably be rehearsing Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major” for a wedding I’m playing tomorrow morning, I had to take a break from the keys for a little while to clear my head. There was simply no escaping those chord progressions (it is the same set of chords repeated in variations for 8 pages). I figure if I know the chords, if I start to zone somewhere in the middle, I can just vamp the same chords and improvise a little. Johann is dead, what’s he going to care? (And from the bridal consultation I had, this girl won’t know the difference. I doubt there have been many brides that have asked ” ‘Here Comes the Bride?’ How does that one go?” I kid you not).

But I digress. I felt it more urgent to express how utterly elated I am at the new theatrical trailer for Sweeney Todd. The first time I saw this, was the 1982 taping starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, preserved while the national tour was stopped in LA. While certain things about that taping are on the awkward side (well, mostly Betsy Joslyn’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”), I knew I was seeing something extraordinary the first time I witnessed “A Little Priest.” I remember I rewound and rewound the video on that sequence about 20 times that night pushing it so late, that I had to watch the second act the following day. Ever since, I’ve been an ardent admirer of the piece (and “A Little Priest” remains my favorite Sondheim song).

I’ve already read that Sondheim likes it, but warns that it’s its own animal. Clocking in at an apparent 105 minutes, I’m not surprised. (And given the innovations of the recent revival, it’s a piece open for lots of artistic freedom and interpretation). I hear a lot of it is sung, about 70% apparently. There’s just basically a lot of buzz that means nothing until the film is released and reviewed. With the first half sounding ominously like other just another Tim Burton film and not Sweeney Todd, I got a little worried. That’s not to knock Mr. Burton, as I adore Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Big Fish, to name a few. It’s clear that the powers that be want to sell the movie before they sell the musical. Considering the amount of money at risk on a musical, one could see how they would try to showcase the Grand Guignol nature of the plot. But let’s face it, it’s a musical. With a lot of music. Finally halfway through there was some relief to see at least something by Sondheim in there, though not enough to my liking. Most especially, I would have liked to have heard a vocal sampling of Helena Bonham Carter‘s Mrs. Lovett.

Depp’s acting looks exemplary and if his singing lacks the gravitas of many of his predecessors in the role, he’s quite scary in the excerpt from “Epiphany.” (His understated gravelly delivery of many of the shows big lines gave me chills). The trailer manages to (efficiently) set-up the entire backstory sung onstage in “The Barber and His Wife.” Alan Rickman is perpetrates his usual villainy as the lecherous Judge Turpin; and also, how nice to see Mary Poppins herself, Laura Michelle Kelly as Mrs. Benjamin Barker.

One thing I noticed missing (and it makes we wonder if there will be a red band trailer to coincide) is any pointed reference to the cannibalistic nature that the Todd-Lovett meat-pie enterprise takes on towards the end of the first act. Though I smiled when they ended the trailer with Lovett’s “That’s all very well, but what are we going to do about him?” with the camera zooming in on the hand sticking out of the trunk.

BTW – Isn’t that a perfect tagline?