ATTEND THE TALE, by Rich Paschall
Benjamin Barker is wrongly accused of a crime and sent away from England to a prison in Australia. His beautiful wife is taken by the judge to be his own and his daughter is adopted by the same judge. Mrs. Lovett makes meat pies and her shop has fallen on hard times. Anthony, a sailor, picks up Sweeney Todd, who is adrift at sea. All of this is just for openers.
Todd returns to Fleet Street and his former home, where he encounters Mrs. Lovett. The sailor comes across the beautiful Joanna, daughter of Todd (Barker), locked in her house by the evil judge. Of course, Anthony falls in love with her beauty as seen from the window and with her voice. The Beadle does the judge’s dirty work, which includes keeping people away from his ward.
There are two versions of the musical thriller available on DVD. One is the Tony and Emmy award-winning stage production with original lead performers. The 1979 Broadway smash of the gruesome tale was recorded for television in 1982, starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn as Sweeney Todd. Hearn had replaced Len Cariou in the original stage production. Lansbury won a Tony award for her portrayal while Hearn picked up an Emmy.
As experienced theater performers, these two knew how to fill the house with their dynamic interpretations of Lovett and Todd. They had to be both evil and somewhat sympathetic. Todd is out for revenge and Lovett is doing her own conniving as well. Some of the nature of her evil is immediately apparent. She not only has designs for Mr. Todd, she also sees a way to improve the sale of her meat pies by getting some fresh meat. If that needs further explanation, I will let you see one of these productions.
The music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim. The composer of many Broadway shows has mixed a variety of styles here to score big, not just with awards, but with a long running show. It is proof that a gruesome tale can mix drama and comedy, love and evil, revenge and murder with music and come out a winner. It is this show that intrigued a young Tim Burton, who would bring us the movie version 25 years later.
In 2007 the film of the Sondheim musical was put together by a director who knew how to bring such a dark setting to life. Featuring most of the Sondheim score and original script, Burton was able to use film to bring more variety to the settings and more blood to the tale. The gruesome revenge tale was certainly now more…uh, gruesome.
The most obvious surprise served up by the director was the casting. Johnny Depp is present as the Demon Barber. Helena Bonham Carter is Mrs. Lovett. It certainly was easier to have some sympathy for the situations of these characters when they are portrayed by the well-known and well liked stars. The immediate question, however, was could they sing their parts.
Alan Rickman (Severus Snape in Harry Potter) is the evil judge. Timothy Spall, who also appeared in many of the Harry Potter films, is the Beadle. Sacha Baron Cohen is Adolfo Pirelli, the rival barber and con artist from early in the story. His young assistant, Tobias Ragg, is played by a small man with a tenor voice in the theater production, but is played by 14-year-old Ed Sanders in the film. This is an important change as it more accurately fits the character.
Gone from the movie is the Greek chorus offering warnings to the audience and an admonition to:
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
It is a cautionary tale for which you are being advised, but the Burton film saw no need for The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. The song works well as a theater device and is used throughout the play. With the movie being able to give you a stronger visual, you should not need the warnings of the chorus.
Also gone is the song “Kiss Me.” You never see in the movie version that the lovers Anthony and Johanna have actually met, while they spend enough time together in the play to do a musical number. Gone too is the “Wigmaker Sequence.” The explanation from Todd to Anthony on how he will rescue Johanna is almost completely missing.
These omissions along with shorten versions of songs leave the movie at 116 minutes while the television production of the play did not cut anything and runs 139 minutes. The play does add in an “Intermission” so you can go to the refrigerator or wherever.
While it is no surprise to say that the crew of Broadway veterans delivered on their songs, you may wonder about the movie cast. Sondheim himself retained a right of refusal on casting choices for the main parts.
Though he feared a rock interpretation by Depp, he was pleased with the audition singing of the mega star. Helena Bonham Carter sent a dozen audition tapes to Sondheim. As she was Tim Burton’s partner at the time, they wanted no hint of nepotism.
Cohen also auditioned extensively and is said to have sung just about everything from Fiddler on the Roof. Alan Rickman, a stage and screen veteran, delivers on the singing of the judge. The duet of “Pretty Women” with Depp rivals anything you may have seen on stage. Having teenager Ed Sanders sing the Toby part adds the poignancy the stage version may miss.
Depp claims never to have sung publicly before, yet he delivers as a brooding, vengeful Todd. Although Bonham Carter picked up awards for Mrs. Lovett, I find her song performance without life. I guess it would naturally suffer against a comparison with Lansbury.
Both productions have features to recommend. Purists of theater productions will opt for the Lansbury/Hearn portrayals. Those in favor of better effects and star power will enjoy the movie. In either case, be sure to “attend the tale.”