Monday, February 12, 2007

We Can't Wait #3 Sweeney Todd

For the uninitiated an explanation and unspoilery synopsis of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's sometimes referred to as a true story, but it's more of an urban legend. In the 19th century a barber slits a lot of throats in London. His accomplice Mrs. Lovett disposes of the evidence in her seedy pie shop. The story has taken on many forms including straight plays, comedy sketches, songs and films but its most famous and celebrated incarnation is the Stephen Sondheim 1979 musical (or opera if you like... much of it is sung through), which starred Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as the titular barber on Broadway. It's this Sondheim classic, one of the greatest musicals ever written, that's being transferred to celluloid even as I type this.

Recent Variety ad marking the start of filming. The film arrives in December 2007

Tim Burton directs his muse Johnny Depp as Mr. Todd (this marks their sixth screen collaboration) and his own lover Helena Bonham-Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Sacha Baron Cohen is Pirelli, Todd's barber rival and Alan Rickman (having a busy year) is Judge Turpin, Todd's true nemesis. The only musical theater vet in the production is 25 year old Laura Michelle Kelly (Mary Poppins from the recent British production of the musical) who plays Lucy Barker. [*a note: in the comments you'll read about musical theater vets in supporting roles --that's good news. But for some reason the IMDB does not yet list them as cast members and still has certain roles as "rumors" -ed.]

My previous posts about Tim Burton's forthcoming adaptation have all gone something like this: "worry worry worry i-love-sondheim worry worry omg-sondheim-is-a-genius worry worry miscasting worry" so I'm turning it right over to my comrades so that I don't repeat myself. Take it away guys...

Lulu: The recent Broadway revival showed just how strong the Sweeney source material is. Specifically, how it's able to be enhanced by the reimaginings of a bold director. Against popular opinion, I'm holding out hope that Burton will make something brilliant and surprising. I don't expect it to be a Sweeney I already know and, frankly, that's what I'm most excited about...

But if the sound mixing's as muddy as Wonka's, we're all doomed.

Gabriel: I've seen the musical in many different ways -- the New York City Opera revival, the video of the 1979 Broadway original, the John Doyle reimagining last year, community theatre productions, you name it -- and I think it is incredibly strong material. It's got a strong story, a powerful score, and almost iconic characters.

Angela Lansbury (the original Mrs. Lovett), Pattie Lupone (revival). Helena Bonham Carter
gets one of the all time best roles in musical theater in the film version.

What Doyle's revival in 2005 proved is that Sweeney Todd has tremendous malleability. I think that Burton's film will really put that malleability to the test, however. How does this brutally British story translate to the Hollywood culture of celebrity...with Captain Jack Sparrow in the lead? How does a musical work with performers who have little or no professional singing experience? Will Sondheim's vision be overwhelmed by Burton's detailed cartoon gothicism? I am hopeful, but I am very unsteady about how it's going to turn out.

Joe: This is one of those times where I embarrass myself in front of the cinephiles: while I had been familiar with the title “Sweeney Todd,” the first glimpse I ever got of any kind of staging of it was in Jersey Girl when Affleck and his daughter performed a song from it at the big talent show thingamajig.

I know!

In my defense, I was never a theatre kid at all. So if you’re looking for a polar opposite of Gabriel’s experience, that would be me. That being said, I am a big fan of Tim Burton, even though I have become wary whenever he chooses to adapt a known quantity, which this is. I love Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, too, and I don’t want to have to knock them for not being able to sing, so they goddamn well better take their lessons seriously.

JA: My exposure's even less than your, Joe; I haven't even seen the Jersey Girl scene you speak of. But I am familiar with the story and the tone of the story and I think Burton could possibly do something really terrific with it, at least in the abstract form it takes in my mind.

And hopefully whatever seemingly insane iteration of Deppness we get works with the material and doesn't distract terribly like I found his Wonka to do.

George Hearns (replacement Sweeney in original B'way run) and Michael Cerveris (revival) as
Johnny Depp plays the murderous barber in the film version.

Nathaniel: I sometimes wish --and I realize that this is because I'm a huge film nerd -- that Hollywood would double up on production costs and let two or three films be shot with the same sets, etc... so that we could see different auterial takes on the same story. I realize this will never happen for about 4 million different reasons but I love Sweeney Todd so much I'd love to see multiple film versions so that I don't have to feel that Tim Burton's (however good or bad it may end up being) becomes "definitive"

Do you know what I mean?

JA: Do I ever! Like, I'd have loved to have seen what, say, Bruce LaBruce did with the same cast and sets as Brokeback Mountain. Ahem.

Nathaniel: OK, folks. Share your history with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or your thoughts about the upcoming film adaptation in the comments. Or just enjoy these Sweeney Todd clips. To your left, the opening scene of the original Broadway production and to your right, Patti Lupone doing "By the Sea" in concert.

Previous Related Articles: Mrs. Lovett on the Casting Couch Helena Bonham Carter gets the role * Cyndi Lauper in Sweeney She's auditioning for Tim Burton * John Christopher Depp ~ Top Five Actors of the Aughts.

previously on "we can't wait"
Evening, #5 Lust, Caution, #6 I'm Not There, #7 Margot at the Wedding, #8 moved to 2008, #9 The Golden Compass,#10 Grindhouse, #11 Bug, #12, Sunshine, #13 Southland Tales, #14 300, #15 Hot Fuzz, #16 Stardust, #17 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, #18 Spider-Man 3, #19 Rendition, #20 The Bourne Ultimatum
Intro -films that didn't make the list

tags: Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp, Stephen Sondheim, Helena Bonham Carter, Patti Lupone, movies, Broadway, adaptation, Tim Burton, musicals,moviemusical


Anonymous said...

Lucy? Don't you mean Johanna? She does have a whole song named after her. Sorry to get all musical theatre snobby on you guys. This movie has got to be my most anticipated/most feared film currently in production. Really hope its a successful translation of the material despite a largely vocally untested cast.

Anonymous said...

Nate -- Great article --

Just a quick correction or perhaps addition: Jamie Bower (Anthony), Ed Sanders(Tobias) and Jayne Wiesner (Johanna) though young and untried in film - all come from strong musical theatre training programs. While it remains to be seen what Depp's vocal skills are - it would appear that Burton has gone out of his way in casting strong singers for his young supporting roles.


thanks. i wonder why the IMDB doesn't update their page. They don't have any of these people and some "rumors" still...


oh and yeah. the sickness. thanks. my bad.

Anonymous said...

Ahh yes... Sweeney Todd.

Top the list off with Eastern Promises at #2 and There Will Be Blood at #1 and I'll be happy as a lark.

Anonymous said...

Spoiler warning: Ok, so here's where I got tripped up, based on the original description it sounded like Laura Michelle Kelly was playing Johanna but now if imdb is to be trusted she'll be Lucy. I'm still kind of skeptical about this as 25 seems pretty young for the character (considering that she's SPOILER ALERT Sweeney's wife who's gone mad and is now the crazed whorish town beggar woman SPOILER'S END). Nevertheless I appreciate you sorting out all this confusion Nate. Keep up the usual great work.

Anonymous said...

Laura Michelle Kelly is playing Lucy (Sweeney's young wife in flashbacks) and presunably with makeup - the "Beggar Woman" for the rest of the movie.

There was some speculation that the "Beggar Woman" portion of the character had been offered to an older actress (Natasha Richardson's name was mentioned) but it does appear now that LMK is playing the role in its entirety.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone else really sad that Neil Patrick Harris won't be in the film? I would've loved for him to play Tobias. I love me some NPH.

Anonymous said...

Not really. NPH's performance as Tobias has been preserved on film already - and Burton went in a very different direction with the role: Ed Sanders is about ten years old.

Anonymous said...

I am so unsure how I feel about this project. I love all the individual components that I know of with a blind passion (Sondheim, Sweeney, Depp, Burton, Rickman, Dante) and yet somehow I can't see a blend of all this wonderfulness in my mind's eye at all.

This has to be my most anticipated film for years, but in a heartstopping "please, I beg you, don't be a disaster" kind of way. I don't think I'm equipped to handle thinking at the end of it all "Oh well, at least it *looked* lovely ..."


felix fixed, oops, the dvd was fooling me ;)

anon I feel much the same way. Only I'm probably less hopeful. Just because Burton's style seems too gothic whimsical for what is essentially a gothic grotesque piece (though I'm sure he'll make it look great)

aaron I love NPH in Sondheim stuff too. I thought he was the best in show in Assassins though he wasn't the TONY nominee. grrrr.

Anonymous said...

Australian Opera is repeating their stunning production of Sweeney Todd of a few years back, and I'll be there to see it again on 1 March at the Sydney Opera House. Can't wait!!!

I'm relieved to hear that singers-that-can-presumably-act have been cast to support the lead actors-that-can-hopefully-sing. Maybe this project won't turn out so bad after all.

Glenn Dunks said...

I want to see this because it's a musical, it's apparently a great musical on stage and the cast is looking good (even though we're not sure if any of them can actually sing).

I think I want to see Hairspray more though. That one looks like it could still be fun even if it is inept. But, I fear, if this one is just a little off then the wheels will just fall and it'll be a disaster ala Phantom of the Opera.

Although Burton does do good gothic, so...

adam k. said...

I really hope this is good. I think it does have a chance. As much as I would've loved to see Meryl Streep, Toni Collette or Imelda Staunton tackle Mrs. Lovett (great choices all of them), Helena will probably do fine. And Depp can do a LOT of things very well. I'm just crossing my fingers that playing Sweeney Todd is one of them. And of course, singing.

And after Dreamgirls ended up pretty blah, I don't know if I can handle yet another widely anticipated musical disappointment.

Though if it's any good at all, Depp will be winning his first comedy/musical golden globe (he will almost certainly be nominated for this; it'll be his 5th nom in a row, and his 8th overall).

I kind of hate, though, how Sweeney is supposed to be pale and British and Depp is olive and lives in the south of France. I guess he was pale enough for Edward Scissorhands, though...

Middento said...

Oh my goodness -- Sweeney Todd is definitely my favorite musical ever. (Heck, the wife even got me tickets to see Christine Baranski play Mrs. Lovett here in Washington during the Sondheim fest at the Kennedy Center!) And yes, I am very much also of two minds here: could be great, could be a fucking disaster. Time will tell.

Anonymous said...

As a Burton admirer, I say that I hate the pressure over him to deliver something worthy of Sondheim. Come on, he has proven to be a great artist himself to not be under the shadow of another artist who expresses in another ... media (?). I just wanted him to make it without music, just like Billy Wilder did in his great Irma La Douce, and nobody could complain about Depp and Carter's lack of musical talent (are you sure about Carter?). If you want Sondheim, go to see a stage production. This is cinema, and Burton knows everything about it to make a masterpiece no matter what material he works on.

(This is gonna be great)

- cal roth

Anonymous said...

Nathaniel, remember that movie you loved, Pride and Prejudice? That WAS NOT Jane Austen, but wasn't it great?

- cal roth


Cal, good point. and i think that was also what Stinkylulu was getting at 'not the Sweeney I know' ---but i guess my biggest worry is that Depp was dubbed for Crybaby. I've said it before but that music is about a million times easier to sing than Sondheim music. If he couldn't even do that...

I love the musical genre itself more than I love anyone in it including Sondheim so I guess I worry all the time about movie musicals because i don't really understand the concept of 'making due' with people who can act but not sing or sing but not act or dance but not sing and sorta act... etcetera

There are many people on this planet who can do all three. And some of them are even movie stars already so the conventional wisdom that you have to go without doesn't cut it. That said: Y'all know I love Depp and you might not know but I also love Bonham Carter... who deserved the Oscar in 97 and proved that she could be brilliant against type in 99.

I'm just worried about the music. And I guess I am grumpy about such things because Sondheim is such an important artist and I wish we had better cultural education in this country because it sucks (even if the movie is great) that there will be many many people who think of Sweeney Todd as a Tim Burton creation after this.

Glenn Dunks said...

It's actually almost such a good fit for Burton that will think it was Burton that made it brilliant (if it is brilliant).

Anonymous said...

I hope that you'll enjoy the looks and talents of Jamie Bower, plucked out of an English public (ie private) school to play Anthony.

He can sing, and by golly, he's got the looks to give JD a run for his money

TootsHodgdon said...

I didn't read everyone's comments, so I may be repeating this, but Johnny Depp had originally gone to LA to be a rock star, so I would imagine he has some sort of musical propensity. And he's got his own band, too. He only took up acting to pay the bills while trying to make it as a rock star. Some people have all the luck.

Anonymous said...

Im laughing my head off
ed saunders is 14 and in year 10 at a school in sussex...