Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd

The show was a hit but a film seemed odd

It earned the yen of many men (Sam Mendes and Alan Parker among them)

All of whom never were heard from again

Then Burton took a crack, by God

At Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street!

And here’s the thing: He’s pulled it off. Nearing the end of an uncommonly strong year for American movies, Tim Burton has taken a hallowed classic of the modern musical theater, hemmed in the narrative from well over two hours to well under, cast confessed nonsingers in the principal roles, and somehow managed to make something magical out of it. His Sweeney Todd isn’t a groundbreaking or innovative piece of filmmaking, but it’s as satisfying a screen version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Grand Guignol operetta as I can imagine. And of all the new-generation Hollywood musicals (Chicago, Hairspray, et al.), it’s the only one that succeeds both musically and cinematically. It breathes new life into the genre by dousing it in buckets of blood.

Produced on Broadway during the 1978-’79 season, Sweeney Todd must have felt like a groping proletariat hand under the starched evening wear of the respectable musical crowd, what with all the pederasts, raving-mad beggar women and enterprising cannibals parading across the stage of the Uris Theatre. Then there was Sweeney himself, the vengeful tonsorial terror, enthusiastically declaring “They all deserve to die!” Reportedly, a good chunk of the first preview audience filed out at intermission, perhaps to catch the second act of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (which lost out to Sweeney Todd at the Tonys, but ran for nearly three times as many performances).

Long before he came to the Great White Way, however, Sweeney Todd was a movie star.

Actually, the character’s origins date back to the mid-19th century, when talk of his throat-slitting exploits first appeared in the pages of the Victorian-era periodicals called “penny dreadfuls.” But the story owes its contemporary popularization to British director George King’s 1936 nonmusical film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, immortalized for its aptly-named leading man: Tod Slaughter. Back then, Todd was still just a psycho who robbed wealthy customers of their valuables while his neighbor, the baker Mrs. Lovett, ground up their entrails into her popular meat pies. Then, in 1973, the playwright Christopher Bond (whose text served as the template for Sondheim and Wheeler) endowed Sweeney with a tragic backstory: a beautiful wife, a powerful judge who fancied her for himself, and false criminal charges that earned the barber a dozen years in an Australian penal colony. Thus, from madman to misunderstood antihero.

Now Burton has given Sweeney Todd back to the movies, and the result feels like the ideal cross-pollination of two movie-mad imaginations: his own (with its undying affinity for 1930s Hollywood horror films) and that of Sondheim, a well-known cinefile who has cited Bernard Hermann’s score to the 1945 murderous-composer melodrama Hangover Square as the partial impetus for Sweeney. On its surface, nothing about the world of the film will exactly surprise connoisseurs of Burtonia — the elaborate (and partly CGI), monochromatic sets designed by Dante Ferretti could well have been constructed with odds and ends from the Sleepy Hollow prop warehouse, and the casting has more than a touch of the familiar to it. As the lovelorn Mrs. Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter is so animated, from the tips of her Bride of Frankenstein hair to the toes of her scurrying feet, you’d be forgiven for mistaking her for her stop-motion surrogate from Burton’s 2005 Corpse Bride. And when Johnny Depp, as Sweeney, swings his razor high and shouts, “At last, my arm is complete again!,” well, it isn’t the first time the actor has played a social misfit with shiny metal at the end of his upper extremities.

But familiarity, in this case, doesn’t so much breed contempt as it seems to renew a director whose recent work (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) has verged on the precious and self-plagiaristic. Like the Coen Brothers in No Country for Old Men, it’s as if working with such inviolable source material has reminded Burton of the virtues of classical film storytelling. He shoots the movie almost entirely in close-up, like the silent classics, lingering lovingly (as perhaps only a Tim Burton could) on Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s anemic visages, and by doing so brings out an intimacy in the material that sometimes gets dwarfed on the stage. That’s especially true of the scenes between the shrewish baker woman and the young street urchin, Toby (scene-stealing Edward Sanders), whom she rescues from the clutches of the charlatan elixir-peddler Pirelli (played, in the film’s most broadly comic moments, by Sacha Baron Cohen).

Working with screenwriter John Logan (and with input from Sondheim himself), Burton has also come up with inventive ways of both condensing and expanding Sweeney for the screen — elegantly shortening songs, visualizing flashback scenes that previously existed only in the audience’s imagination, and in the case of the impish first-act closer, “A Little Priest,” showing Todd and Lovett window shopping, as it were, for their choice cuts of meat. Some theater purists at the press screening I attended grumbled that such devices “literalized” the play in an unfortunate manner. I would argue that, while not all perfect, they are what gives the movie its cinematic brio.

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

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