Thursday, January 03, 2008

Review: Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd

I like Tim Burton. I really like Johnny Depp. But I love Sweeney Todd, so my only option is to write two separate reviews.

The Film

I'm not good with scary movies; if I didn't know the show so well -- and, I know every line -- I don't think I could have tolerated the suspense and the violence. Even then, knowing full well who gets it, when and how, I spent a lot of the film cringing in my seat with my hands over my eyes. Sweeney Todd is a bloody story, and the great thing about a film version is that you can really show spraying, spurting, gushing, pooling blood (in which Burton here relishes) in ways that would be impossible or, at least, impractical on stage. Film also gives the viewer unique intimacies with the performers and the scene, access to shades and subtleties and inflections that get lost in the theatrical chasm between the lip of the stage and the first row of the audience, let alone the back row of the balcony. Two more things about the blood, and then I'll move on: I thought the opening sequence gave too much away, and the blood was too orange for my taste; I'd have preferred something darker.

Tim Burton was exactly the right director for the film version that has been crying out to be made of this stage masterpiece. His vision of early 19th century London was wholly appropriate, dark and gothic, splendidly squalid, filled to the brim with grimy decadence. Clearly he understood the characters and wanted to serve the original; this is an outstanding adaptation. He even successfully navigated the treacherous comic-relief bits, such as Mrs. Lovett's beach fantasy, which often bogs down the stage action.

It goes without saying that Johnny Depp is a formidable actor. The title role is an exceptional test: it's the rare artist who can summon the bloodlusty rage necessary to sustain the plot and yet communicate it in such a carefully restrained way as to maintain credibility and, therefore, terror. There are few who could approach what he as achieved in his interpretation of the role. Mrs. Lovett presents a wholly different yet similar challenge: how to convincingly portray a generally kind, hapless, hopeless romantic type who nonetheless cooks up (so to speak) the scheme to get rid of Mr. Todd's victims? And again, in Helena Bonham Carter we have an actor of rare ability; I found her performance deeply affecting.

I know I said I like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp; did I mention how much I like Alan Rickman? Talk about your luxury casting. Again, the same challenge presents itself: how to portray a nearly impossibly evil human being and make it both believable and, in a way, pathetic? In the case of Judge Turpin, the answer is simple: use Rickman.

The discovery of Ed Sanders, the young actor who takes on the tragic hero Tobias, is proof that God wanted this film made. Another gift of the film medium is that we can get an actor young enough to convincingly sell innocent, naive courage; in a stage production, where a voice has to carry over an orchestra and the actor has to be available for 8 shows a week, we often get a man in his early 20's who comes off, instead, as mildly retarded. Sacha Baron Cohen can do no wrong, and as Todd's tonsorial rival Pirelli gives a spirited, pitch perfect performance. In the other major roles, Timothy Spall was delectably oily (hmm...maybe I should get away from taste-oriented metaphors) as Beadle Bamford; Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower made sincere efforts, but were both a trifle palid and young for their roles as Johanna and Anthony.

The Music

You have a major problem when the strongest voice in the cast belongs to a 14 year old boy.

I first came across this show when I was a junior in high school; my voice teacher suggested I take a look at the song "Johanna," written for the character of Anthony. It was a dark and stormy night -- no, really -- and I had just gotten home from Tower Records with my cassettes (hey, it was the early '90s). The musical opens with a distant pipe organ, but I didn't know it was supposed to be distant so I cranked up the volume to what seemed normal. Then the dirge was interrupted by the bloodcurdling shriek of the steam whistle, and I nearly leapt out of my skin and soiled myself. Welcome to the uniquely evocative power of Stephen Sondheim's soundworld for Sweeney Todd.

The new arrangement for the film version is marvelous; the recent Broadway revival was brilliant and clever in its reduced vision, yet sorely lacked the bursts of power provided by the original score. The movie reinstates the orchestral splendor to floor-vibrating effect, but I really missed the whistle.

I think they were right to axe the choral passages from the film version, even though "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" was a major sacrifice. Todd is not Oklahoma!, where people suddenly and randomly burst into sweet, plot-collapsing melodies. Todd is operatic -- and indeed, has notably been produced by actual opera companies and was given in concert form by the New York Philharmonic -- and the singing and the bloodshed never stop. For some reason, I think solos and duets succeed in this format where large ensembles and choruses could not. There is no question in my mind that my exposure to Sweeney Todd in my impressionable teens led me inexorably toward real opera: once you learn the dramatic potential in the combination of great singing and great composition, you thirst for it.

Alas, great singing is what was completely lacking in the film version.

While many reviewers noted that Depp is not the traditional voice type called for by the score, at least one claimed his "rock-star tenor" was effective. I beg to differ, and I must say it is a sorry tenor indeed, of any variety, that struggles on notes within easy reach of any bass-baritone worthy of the name. His physical performance -- his eyes, his face, his hands, his overall body posture -- was perfection. His singing was painful; in fact, it was so bad, it significantly detracted from his acting. It was a distraction that ill-served a carefully considered performance.

People who know Sondheim know he wrote with unusual effectiveness for limited voices; one need only think of Elaine Stritch's raucous turn in Company. But he also knew how to write for gifted singers; think of the differences -- and yet seamless compatibility -- between the roles written for Hermione Gingold and Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music, and the music for Carl-Magnus in the same show. Sondheim knows voices, and Sweeney is a singer's role. Yes, it's the exceptionally rare singer who can do the music justice and also carry the part, but that's largely what makes the show so good when it's right. Burton gave us half a Sweeney. Depp's vocalism, while long on Cockney diction, was woefully short on phrasing, musicality, pitch, and the subtle but vibrant and varied shadings of a true singer.

Bonham Carter, with her breathy tone, came off better. Filling the impossibly large shoes of Angela Lansbury, whose voice was expressive and accurate if not oppulent, is a daunting task. Yet Bonham Carter managed to successfully navigate the chromatic complexities of her vocal lines.

I had high hopes for Alan Rickman, since his speaking voice is so resonant and marvelous, but alas, he, too, was underpowered and uncertain of pitch. Sacha Baron Cohen acquitted himself quite nicely of a role that is nearly impossible to sing well. Since he's playing a fraud, anyway, it rather worked well for him that he was faking the more operatic flourishes. What to say of Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener? Any conservatory or university with a music school could field a good handful of good-looking, competent actors who could waltz through Anthony and Johanna's graceful music. What a disappointment to hear their glorious melodies given such short shrift.

At length we come to young Ed Sanders in the oft-under-appreciated role of Tobias. Here is a performer not only fluid as an actor, but innately musical. Every phrase had shape, every pitch had a center, and every tone had vibrancy; this is all the more miraculous considering his tender age. Without disrespect to his esteemed castmates, Sanders put Burton to shame for failing to recognize that there really are singers who can act in this world. And yet, what a near fiasco "Nothing's Going to Harm You" was: one of the few places in the score that cries out for tender, sotto-voce lyricism was sung as though Mrs. Lovett was in the next room, possibly watching television. I am certain this is not Sanders' fault.

Overall? Visual experience: A. Aural experience: C-.


kr said...

I love your writing. Love love love.

Andy said...

Awwww. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

A budding career as the New York Times West Coast reviewer?

DJRainDog said...

Andy, I believe you've found the new tag-line for my blog: "[A]nd the singing and the bloodshed never stop."

Jade said...

*Love* your review. I've been curious about seeing Sweeney Todd for a while... I too love Burton and knew visually the film would be dead-on (no pun intended) but wasn't sure about the singing. I think if I go in with low expectations for the music I should probably enjoy it decently enough. Thanks for the review!

little-cicero said...

I believe Johnny Depp is an admirer of Marlon Brando.

Well, from your review it seems as if he replicated the musical stretch of Brando's career. How long until he gains two hundred pounds and starts hanging out at Neverland Ranch?

Would you consider his musical shortcomings to be comparably forgivable? Did I just modify an adjective with an adverb?

Andy said...

Marlon Brando was a better singer than Johnny Depp. Is Depp's singing "forgivable"? Well...I just couldn't reconcile it. That's why I wrote two separate reviews.

little-cicero said...

I don't know if it was his his habitual modesty, but Brando said in an interview that he had to record seconds at a time because he could never stay in pitch for a minute straight.

From what I saw in the previews Depp seemed to be acting his songs to make up for these shortcomings. Perhaps a comparison with Jimmy Durante would me more appropriate.

Or perhaps I would best get out of the business of comparison altogether. (: Good Night Mrs. Calabash. Wherever you are!