If Sweeney Todd startles moviegoers today the way it did theatergoers in the ’70s, it’ll be less for Burton’s extravagantly stylized bloodletting than for the fact that the story is — unlike most movie musicals — told almost entirely through song. And not just any songs, mind you, but Sondheim’s brilliantly dissonant libretto, where burlesque ditties about cockney resourcefulness go hand-in-hand with soul-crying arias of loneliness, despair and blood lust. That music has been superbly reorchestrated for the film by one longtime Sondheim collaborator, Jonathan Tunick, and performed by a 64-piece orchestra under the direction of another, Paul Gemignani. And as for the singing? It’s neither brilliant nor blasphemous. Sondheim has always maintained that he prefers actors who sing to singers who act, which is what he’s got here in Depp (who lacks the deep-throated bellow of some previous Sweeneys, and who occasionally sounds like an emo rocker when he strains to hit a difficult note) and Carter (who has the most difficult songs, and swallows some lyrics as though they were bits of Mrs. Lovett’s fresh hot pies).
No matter how hard Hollywood tries, it’s folly to think that a second Golden Age of American film musical is ever going to materialize. Broadway has run so dry as a source of original material that it has turned to scavenging Hollywood for ideas, while even the fearless Sondheim has segued into semiretirement. Meanwhile, the pundits are speculating as to whether Sweeney Todd, with its genre ad campaign and distinctly nonmusical trailer, might be the first movie of its kind in many moons that heterosexual males will go to see without fear of being mistaken as gay — a cultural phobia that suggests there are problems facing musicals that no amount of creative talent can abate. Given that, the existence of Sweeney Todd seems all the more cause for celebration. It’s like being Tim Burton and waking up on Christmas morning to find a great lump of gristly sinew in your stocking.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET | Directed by TIM BURTON | Written by JOHN LOGAN, music and lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM, based on the musical by SONDHEIM and HUGH WHEELER, from an adaptation by CHRISTOPHER BOND | Produced by RICHARD D. ZANUCK, WALTER PARKES, LAURIE MacDONALD and LOGAN | Released by DreamWorks Pictures | Citywide