Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Sweeney" is to die for

By Tony Buchsbaum

Movie musicals are back, and for a while there it looked like they wouldn't be. A few years ago there was Chicago, which took in buckets of dough and snagged a Best Picture Oscar. And then last year there was the amazing Dreamgirls, for which Jennifer Hudson snagged a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. And now comes one of Stephen Sondheim's most popular, and most often mounted, musicals, Sweeney Todd, for which the advance word is nothing short of spectacular, with notable huzzahs for Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and director Tim Burton.

But my mission here isn't to tell you how great the film is (I haven't seen it). Rather, I'm here to tell you how great the soundtrack is.

This, of course, is not the first time Sweeney has been recorded. There's the original 1979 Broadway Cast Recording, which was fairly recently remastered and reissued, there was a highly-regarded concert version recorded in 2000 at Lincoln Center, and there was a 2005 Broadway revival in which the actors all played musical instruments in addition to acting. (Sounds strange, though the reviews were great.)

This Sweeney, though, is different. Stephen Sondheim himself has stepped up to sort of reimagine his own musical, not changing it so much as allowing it to live as a film animal rather than a stage animal. He deserves a big standing O for doing so. Whole songs have been cut--including what is essentially the title song, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"--and others have been trimmed (if not, somewhat appropriately, chopped). What remains is a streamlined Sweeney recrafted for the screen. Burton's vision is not what has ever appeared on Broadway; it is not simply a filmed stage show. Rather, he has Burton-ized it, inserted his fave actor in the title role, and gone to town.

The music is sometimes heart-stopping, and not just because the orchestra is a big one. This is big, important music, and it comes across loud and clear on CD. From the opening credits music (an adaptation of "Ballad"), you know this is a movie of power, of dark themes. The music almost sounds vengeful.

But then the singing starts, with all its references to blood and slaying and revenge and death. There's lighter fare, love songs and funny songs, but this ain't no vapid musical. Nor is it a message piece. This is love and death (especially death), through and through.

The soundtrack features just about everything. In "No Place Like London," Sweeney and his friend Anthony muse about the city: Anthony's vision is lovely, Sweeney's version is bleak and black. In "Worst Pies in London," Mrs. Lovett works too hard to make meat pies that are nothing short of a health hazard. "My Friends" finds Sweeney rediscovering his barber's knives, grooming tools he will turn into weapons. My favorite song, "A Little Priest," finds Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett musing about the taste of pies made from the men whose throats Sweeney cuts in the barber's chair. (Did I mention there's a cannibalistic throughline here?)

My only complaint is Bonham Carter. She's been a dependable, sometimes brilliant actress, but in recent years she's pretty much remained a Burton staple. Here, though charming, she shows a weakness: her singing voice. Can she hit Sondheim's notoriously difficult notes? Yes? But her voice is thin, her delivery a bot forced and breathy. Her Mrs. Lovett may be acted well, but her gusto, her robustness as a character, is missing in the music. You want someone, I think, whose passion matches Sweeney's own: unbridled, unrepentant, unpleasant. As it is, this Mrs. Lovett sounds more like sweetness gone evil in the name of love.

But then, maybe she's a metaphor for the whole bloody musical.

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