Sweeney's Magical Makeover; Cutting Edge: Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney Todd and His Accomplice, Mrs Lovett Perfectionist: Stephen Sondheim

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Sweeney's Magical Makeover; Cutting Edge: Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney Todd and His Accomplice, Mrs Lovett Perfectionist: Stephen Sondheim


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

AT A screening of Sweeney Todd in Leicester Square just beforeChristmas, Stephen Sondheim stood up in his well-worn grey sweater and advisedthe forty-odd invited friends not to waste time making lists of what wasmissing from the show, "or you're not going to enjoy it at all".

At four minutes under two hours, Tim Burton's movie is more than a thirdshorter than the stage musical and unadorned by any pedigree singer ortorch-song. Sondheim, a hawk-eyed perfectionist who labours long and late overthe scansion of every last syllable, had turned over his finest work to thegothic slashers of Hollywood to do with as they would. He took no active rolein the adaptation yet, strangely, he seemed pleased with the result.

"Think of it," smiled the composer, "as a movie. Don't think of it as amusical." Two hours later, that distinction was resoundingly confirmed.Burton's spartan reduction unfolds the tale as a Victorian epic in which goodand evil interplay in the cesspit of a London that, with its slippery culinaryfashions, could just as easily embrace celebrity cannibalism in our time as itdid in Sweeney's.

Todd, returned from penal exile, is out to wreak vengeance with his barberrazors on the city that sent him down and the judge who raped his wife andstole his daughter.

The narrative is ruthlessly linear, all digressions excised.

This is a tale of obsession, of love and pain and fear and loss, the hearttugged towards the throat-slitting barber (played by Johnny Depp) and his plumpaccomplice Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who turns his victims intosucculent man-meat pies.

Burton adopts a monochrome scenography, reminiscent of his ghost-horror SleepyHollow, to detach us visually from the protagonists even as he deepens ouremotional investment in their fate. As a piece of storytelling, Sweeney Toddthe movie struck even the inner circle of Sondheim purists as a remarkablereinvention.

After the screening, cup of tea in hand, Sondheim himself made a claim soextravagant that I had to ask him to repeat it.

"This," he declared, "is the first musical that has ever transferredsuccessfully to the screen." Before you attempt a contradiction, remember thatSondheim speaks as one who knows. He was Oscar Hammerstein's semi-adopted son,accompanying his trail of triumph from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music, andLeonard Bernstein's lyricist on West Side Story. Yet Sweeney Todd, inSondheim's quiet, non-hyperbolic opinion, is the first successful movie in thepack. What are we to make of that? In strictly categorical terms, he's right.

West Side Story, in common with most Broadway transfers, feels decidedly stagyon screen. And even the wide open beaches of South Pacific and Hitler'sfavourite mountain peaks at Berchtesgaden cannot disguise the suspensions ofplot when someone has to wash a man right out of her hair or teach sevenchildren a diatonic do-re-mi.

At those moments, the craft of movie-making gives way to crowd-pleasingshow-stoppers and the story grinds to a halt. …

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