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Sweeney Todd: A Massacre of Burtonian Proportions

I’m a Sweeney Todd snob. I’m not sorry. It’s in my top three favourite musicals, and it has been since I was a kid. My father took me to see the original Broadway cast when I was eight years old, and while I am certain that accounted for at least a year of therapy, I’m proud of this. I’ve been in the show twice, seen a bunch of other productions, and I know it like the back of my hand. I’m a snob.

When it was announced that Tim Burton was going to make my beloved Sweeney Todd into a movie, alarm bells went off in my head. I had been a Burton devotee during his early career, but then he went through his Ed Wood phase, and he kind of lost me. If I’m being really honest, I would like to get a restraining order to keep Tim Burton away from other peoples’ stories, especially ones from my childhood. It’s not that he isn’t capable of playing nicely in someone else’s sandbox (Big Fish is glorious, but it’s an aberration), he just refuses to do it. With Sweeney Todd, my worst fears were confirmed.

Todd stands beside his specially built barber's chair, which is straightened out as if its occupant had just fallen through the trapdoor in the floor. Todd is holding the top hat his victim left behind.

Sweeney Todd is an urban legend, originally told in pulp comics in 1846. The musical, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, premiered on Broadway in 1979. There have been other, non-musical versions of it over the years, each with its own variations, but the essential story is the same—Sweeney Todd is a homicidal barber. You come in for a shave, he slits your throat, and then hands your corpse over to his downstairs neighbour, Mrs. Lovett. She grinds you up, bakes you into meat pies, and serves them to an unsuspecting public.

You heard me when I said that there were other versions of the story, right? So it’s not as if the only way to tell it is the musical. And as it turns out, Tim Burton hates musicals. Helena Bonham Carter says so in the DVD featurette. So really, if you hate musicals, and there are ways to tell the story without being a musical, why don’t you just do one of those, Tim? For the love of God, why?

Plenty of people rolled their eyes at the casting, but really, that was one of my lesser complaints. Johnny Depp was fine. He’s certainly not my favourite Sweeney, but he’s also not my least favourite (that honour goes to George Hearn, in case you were wondering—I don’t like Sweeneys who shout too much). I could get behind his David Bowie-esque singing voice. That stupid skunk wig was another story, but I had no problem with his singing. And Helena Bonham Carter has been an idol of mine forever. No, she’s not a strong singer. I’m okay with that, though, since she is a brilliant actress, and, strong singer or not, I still prefer HBC’s Mrs. Lovett to Patti Lupone, who felt the whole role should be power-belted. Did I mention I was a snob?

No, the casting wasn’t the problem. Everything, absolutely everything that was wrong with this film was the director’s fault. And it’s not like this isn’t a musical that lends itself to film. It does, if you do it properly. But Burton’s dislike of musicals was clear from the very first trailer. All the way through, you saw him fighting the medium, and the whole thing suffered as a result.

It’s pretty, I’ll give it that. It’s all goth and dark, as is typical of a Burton film. That’s fine, it fits the story. But I remember when I saw the first trailer, and when they released the number “A Little Priest” early. It’s the finale of Act 1, and it’s where they decide that humans as meat pies will be a really good idea. It’s full of clever wordplay (and foreplay, if you do it right), and the two of them waltz around and giggle as they consider what different types of people might taste like. It’s dark humour, to be sure, but it is a hilariously funny number. Except, Tim Burton didn’t want it to be funny.

Mrs Lovett lounges in Todd's barber chair, while Todd broods out the window

I remember thinking, oh dear, this film is going to be so busy being dark and goth and messed-up that it is going to forget to be the other things that it is supposed to be. Not too many years after the film, I performed this number for a showcase. We played it the way it was meant to be done, and we got huge laughs. After the show, someone came up to me and said that they had only ever seen the film, and they had no idea that song was supposed to be funny. I gave them a hug for having been deprived and sent them away with strict instructions to purchase and bond with the original cast album. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film starts out like it might be okay. It’s a typical Burton opening credits sequence, with lots of CGI blood everywhere. That’s cool, though someone really should explain to his FX team that arterial blood is not the colour of poster paint (this isn’t so distracting in the opening credits, but it gets really annoying later, when you see it actually coming out of arteries and it is still poster paint). There’s Johnny Depp on the bow of a ship, cutting through London fog, looking for all the world like the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean. That’s when you realise the first big “I’m Tim Burton and I’m in denial of this being a musical” thing.

The musical is done as a kind of morality tale, a play within a play, with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” as a framework that is used all the way through. The ensemble singing the ballads are like a Greek chorus, narrating and commenting on the story as it unfolds. Except, not here. While the music remains, the actual ballads of Sweeney Todd are gone. The play within a play motif doesn’t exist. And you know, if I didn’t know what I was missing, I could forgive that. But that’s the least of Burton’s sins.

It seems bizarre that, given how often they had worked together during Helena Bonham Carter’s marriage to Tim Burton, that HBC and Depp should have no chemistry. But they don’t. Sure, Todd is busy brooding over his wife Lucy…15 years ago, a powerful sleazeball called Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) lusted after a guy maned Benjamin Barker’s wife, so he shipped Barker off to Australia for a crime he didn’t commit. When Barker escapes and comes home (and Depp is using that cockney accent that is his comfort zone, though Todd is normally played without one, as if the time away had robbed him of all aspects of his real self), he changes his name to Sweeney Todd, and tries to find out what happened to his wife.

The Judge and his cohort Beadle Bamford invite the unsuspecting Lucy to a party that looks like an offshoot of Eyes Wide Shut, and the Judge rapes her in front of everyone. Lucy loses her mind, and the Judge takes custody of her baby daughter Johanna. He raises her to privilege, which would be fine, except he’s a sleazeball and his feelings toward his adopted daughter gradually become anything but fatherly.

All this, Todd finds out from Mrs. Lovett upon his return. She remembers him from back in the day, and admits to having had a bit of a crush on him. She even saved his razors for him, so he can take back up being a barber, and the fact that Depp and HBC have no connection to each other is fine at first. When he is reunited with his razors, the song he sings, “My Friends”, is the big love song of the show, and he’s singing it to the razors. That’s fine, that’s how it’s written, that she’s supposed to be into him and he’s supposed to be ignoring her.

Todd and Mrs Lovett out in the street together

But the film continues, and while he does continue to brood, Todd and Mrs. Lovett need to bond at least a little bit. They’ve got this unholy partnership, after all, and there are lyrics that suggest that they are sleeping together by Act 2 (which, surprisingly, were not among the myriad of bits that were cut). But no, there’s no chemistry there at all.

She sings a song toward the end of Act 1 called “Wait”, in which she soothes the angsty Sweeney, and counsels patience. It’s a seduction of sorts, with her able to assert some control over this occasionally scarey man. In this, however, it was absolutely pointless. HBC’s Lovett isn’t particularly into Sweeney, she’s into potential wealth and security (and Tobias, though that comes later), and sure, she’ll sleep with him if that helps her get those things. But it’s nothing. Beautiful song, totally wasted. I can’t even use the argument that she sang it really well, because she doesn’t sing anything really well.

Mrs. Lovett’s harmony for “A Little Priest” is wickedly complicated, as is often typical of Sondheim, and she didn’t even attempt it. I had her back, though, and sang her harmony loudly from my seat in the theater. And apparently HBC grew up a Sweeney Todd fan, same as I did, so this should have been an amazing experience for her. I hope she had more fun filming it than I did watching.

A big thing that is horribly distracting all the way through is the fact that nobody can lip-synch. And that’s not the cast’s fault either. According to HBC (the DVD featurette again), they were specifically forbidden to lip-synch as if they were singing. They had to do it as if it was spoken dialogue, and it doesn’t work. A great deal of the book was rewritten, which even further begs the question of why didn’t Burton just do his own adaptation instead of torturing this one? Much of the music is rushed through, while the rest of the pacing is glacial.

Credit where it’s due—when you’re using film, you can show subtleties that don’t read from a stage, and this is where HBC manages to shine, despite her lack of singing chops. Within her first 45 seconds of screen time, I knew things about Nellie Lovett that I hadn’t considered before…and believe me, I’ve put a lot of thought into her. Since she has no connection whatsoever with Sweeney, she bonds with Tobias, the urchin boy who comes to be her assistant, though he isn’t in on the murder pies scam. Normally, Tobias is played by a 20-something, who is a bit simple in the head. In this production, everyone’s age was shifted younger, which you kind of need to do when your two leads don’t look at day over 35 and are hot as all giddy-up.

Todd scopes out something in the marketplace, with Mrs Lovett at his side

So when Tobias is played by a little boy, he doesn’t need to be simple, because he’s young instead, and it works just fine. He idolises Mrs. Lovett, and she develops genuine maternal feelings for him. However, even those feelings aren’t enough for her to choose Toby over Todd. Tobias figures out what’s been going on, and Mrs. Lovett lures him into the bakehouse and locks him in so that Todd can “see to him” as soon as possible. She shuts the door behind him, and we see those beautiful, huge brown eyes of hers fill with tears.

It’s a lovely, human moment for her, and lord knows we could use a few of those. When she tells Sweeney the fate of his wife (that she poisoned herself after the Judge’s assault), we can see in her eyes that she’s not telling him the whole truth. These are moments that are much harder to convey from a stage.

Speaking of Lucy Barker, this film adds insult to injury where she’s concerned. From the very beginning of the show (when done properly), there is this crazy old beggar woman who lurks around, occasionally peering at Sweeney and saying “don’t I know you, Mister?” It turns out that while she did poison herself as Mrs. Lovett said she did, it wasn’t fatal, and she went mad and took to the streets. Todd doesn’t recognize her until the very end, after he’s killed her for getting in his way. His moment of realisation is absolutely heartbreaking, realising who she is and what he’s done. Except here, Burton cut most of her role, so there are hardly any “don’t I know you”s. Poor Lucy. Not only was the character destroyed, but so was the role she was supposed to have had.

The supporting cast wasn’t at fault for the wrongs of this movie either. Alan Rickman is amazing, and him and Depp singing “Pretty Women” could easily be plugged into any stage production and been terrific. Timothy Spall’s Beadle Bamford is wonderfully creepy. Anthony Stewart Head was supposed to have been one of the “Ballad Ghosts” (I guess they had originally planned on keeping the framework with the ballads, and then made the dumb choice to cut it). He’s given a tiny cameo, which infuriates me no end. Do not tease me with Tony Head (especially singing) and then don’t deliver.

I’m not crazy about Anthony or Johanna, but they are young and pretty and get the job done. Sascha Baron Cohen should have been brilliant as the flamboyant con man Pirelli. He’s Todd’s first victim (initially clocked in the head with a teakettle, which would have been cool had it not been a massive stage combat fail, with the teakettle swinging one way and SBC’s head snapping back the other way), and the majority of the role is played for laughs, except when it isn’t. It’s not like SBC isn’t funny, because he usually is.

Sweeney and Mrs Lovett by the sea, in bathing dresses. She is happy, he is brooding.

Burton, however, is apparently a control freak about his comedy, and refuses to have any in that wasn’t his idea. The “By The Sea” sequence, where Mrs. Lovett fantasises about the domestic bliss she and Todd should be having, is the only colourful bit in the film, because it is covered in Burton-vomit. It’s fine, but HBC, like SBC, wasn’t allowed to use full funny potential. Don’t get me wrong, I have all kinds of issues with the film version of the musical Les Miserables, but one of the good things about it was that these two got to be the kind of funny they weren’t allowed to be here.

It’s not as if this film is a complete waste of everyone’s time. I usually tell people that if they are going to see this version at all and are a Sweeney virgin, they should start with this. That way, they don’t know what they’re missing, and any other version they see will be an improvement. And no matter how poorly executed these modern movie musicals can be, if they do decently at the box office (which I believe this one did), that will lead them to make more, and sometimes they get it right (Rob Marshall’s Chicago, for example…his Nine and Into The Woods are another story).

And more people know about this show that I have loved my whole life, and that’s certainly a good thing. And remember, I’m a snob when it comes to this particular show. It had the odd high point, it was pretty, and had Alan Rickman. Do yourself a favour, though, and hunt down the original cast album, if you haven’t done. Len Cariou and Dame Angela Lansbury, directed by the late, great Harold Prince, slayed right out of the gate (yes, I said “slayed” on purpose), and I’m sorry, but Team Burton doesn’t even come close.


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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

One Comment

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  1. Burton supposedly saw the stage version in London while making Batman and had been trying to make a film for years. Kevin Kline was his rumored choice for Sweeney back in the mid-‘90s, with either Julie Andrews or Madeleine Kahn as Mrs. Lovett. Also, Burton was supposed to include the Ballads (was Christopher Lee leading the ensemble); what was reported at the time was that Depp’s daughter got sick during filming, and the delay cost those days of shooting. However, what I also seem to remember being reported is that nobody was happy with the dailies for what *had* been shot of the Ballads. The excuse of Depp’s daughter being sick gave them an easy out for the part that everybody felt was the biggest risk, it would seem.

    After Mary Poppins Returns, I really wished in retrospect that Rob Marshall had made Sweeney Todd instead of Tim Burton. Tim Burton *should* have been a perfect match of auteur sensibilities with source material, and, well, he wasn’t. Rob Marshall would have made a good movie one way or the other. It might not have changed the world the way a *great* Tim Burton-directed Sweeney Todd could have (say, before he became obsessed with Depp and Bonham Carter), but it would have been *good*. Burton’s was… not bad, it just didn’t really work, which the way Burton’s movies are means it didn’t work at all, and worst of all, there’s zero reason to rewatch it.

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