The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.  He trod a path that few have trod.  Did Sweeney Todd.  The demon barber of Fleet Street.Sweeney Todd Film Poster

Finally got around to watching Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street the other night.

It’s one of my favorite Sondheim shows, and I’d been awaiting a film version for years.  Tim Burton seemed like a good choice for director, and the casting of Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp seemed to seal the deal, although I had my doubts about Mr. Depp’s singing abilities.  The main character’s songs had pracitically sidelined the original Sweeney, the amazing Len Cairou, for a decade, and I knew Johnny didn’t have the pipes of a Broadway star.  The big question marks in my mind were Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Pirelli and Mrs. Lovett, respectively.  How would they hold up?

Surprisingly well.  While Ms. Carter is hardly a vocalist, she acquits herself well in the role originated by Angela Lansbury (whose performance in the original show is pretty much her greatest ever, and she played the original Mame).  Mr. Cohen does a fine job as the Italian barber, but does not have quite the sonorous tones required to play the operatic character, which is probably why they eliminated all of the soaring opera-style lines and allowed him to sing in baritone throughout.

The movie itself is a wonderful translation of the stage show, albeit a bit gory once Sweeney begins plying his trade in Act Two.  A film adaptation of a stage musical works if it “opens’ up the world of the original work, and this one works quite nicely.  Whether it’s the arrival of Sweeney and Anthony aboard the ship as they sing “No Place Like London” to the restaging and reimagining of “Johanna,” everything works.  I especially liked the way “A Little Priest,” one of the most delightfully filled with wordplay songs ever composed was brought to life as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney sing about the people outside her pie shop.

The casting of Toby as a young boy (as opposed to the young teen in most stage adaptaions) gives his story and character much more pathos, and although he is no Victor Garber, the young man playing Anthony is quite good.  Timothy Spall is wonderfully slimy as Beadle Bamford.  The whole thing is beautifully sung and acted, but the subject matter–well, it is exactly what you think it is, and it just gets nastier as it heads along.  But the songs–these are some of Sondheim’s most wonderful works, and they shine no matter the setting.

“Not While I’m Around,” “Johanna,” and “Pretty Women,” are all incredible songs. Beautiful, haunting, and poignant.  And all have lives outside of the horror story that is Sweeney’s life.  I’ve sung “Not While I’m Around” in a completely different context, but when it’s sung by Toby to Mrs. Lovett, worrying that Sweeney might do her harm–well, the “demons are prowling everywhere, nowadays” line makes a lot more sense.

The only drawback for me?  The elimination of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which opens the show and introduces the main character (although it is used as an instrumental over the opening credits), and is used by the “chorus” to comment on Sweeney’s actions throughout the rest of the musical.  It’s a sad cut, especially at the end, when the “moral” of the original musical is lost.  What ended as a reminder to all of us to be careful about revenge and forgiveness and bitterness, otherwise we might become “Sweeney” ourselves, just simply fades to black.

But that’s just nitpicking.  The film is wonderful.  Depp is amazing.  Rickman is fantastic as usual, and Ms. Carter, while no singer, brings a tenderness to the role of Mrs. Lovett I hadn’t expected.  So, what should you do?

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.  He served a dark and a vengeful god.  What happened then?  Well, that’s the play, and he wouldn’t want us to give it away.  Not Sweeney.  Not Sweeney Todd.  The demon barber of Fleet Street.

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