Home > Reviews > SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET – Stephen Sondheim

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET – Stephen Sondheim

December 21, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The resurgence of the Broadway movie musical in recent years, off the back of Award-winners like Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls, and this year’s popular Hairspray, is a pleasing one indeed, at least from my perspective. Classic musicals from the golden age of Hollywood, however much they may be considered passé today, were nevertheless hugely enjoyable escapist entertainments, and often introduced a number of showstopping ballads into public consciousness – and making stars of the singers in the process. Whether the new adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd will have the same popular impact remains to be seen – the story is perhaps a little to outlandish to truly cross over – but, from a purely musical perspective, it is an absolute masterpiece.

Originally written for the theatre in 1979, Sondheim’s deliciously sinister work follows the fortunes of the titular (but wholly fictional) serial killer, whose life and murderous exploits in Victorian London have been written about, and performed, since the 1840s. The story centers on the character of Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), a talented barber formerly known as Benjamin Barker, who returns to England from the penal colonies in Australia where he spent fifteen years on false charges made by the nefarious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who coveted Todd’s young wife Lucy. Todd learns from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a virtually destitute baker whose meat pies are the worst in London, that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the Judge, and that his daughter Johanna – who Todd has not seen since she was a baby – is now the ward of the same Judge. Incensed by the injustices of the world, Todd and Mrs. Lovett (who has fallen in love with him) vow revenge, and the two become conspirators in a plot which results in mass murder and, unknown to the unlucky patrons of Lovett’s shop, cannibalism…

Sondheim’s play swept the 1979 Tony Awards, and quickly became one of the most popular and well-loved Broadway shows in years; considering the dark world the work inhabits, it is only natural that director Tim Burton should be the one to bring it to the big screen. His penchants for arresting visuals, highly stylized set and costume design, and operatic emotions are a perfect match for Sondheim’s twisted tale of lost love and vicious vengeance. The music, of course, is the cornerstone of the production, and it is here that Sweeney Todd excels. Younger film music fans, especially those whose tastes do not extend towards Broadway, are likely to be unfamiliar with Sondheim. Despite his unparalleled stage success, his film work has been limited to titles such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1966, Stavisky in 1974, Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1981, and one or two TV adaptations of his musicals, so for many this will be their first exposure to him, and his work.

One of the first things you notice about the music for Sweeney Todd is how seamlessly it incorporates so many styles and rhythms: everything from light jazz and faux Italian opera to Viennese waltzes and full-blown romantic arias, all performed by a large symphony orchestra and given voice by a talented cast. The opening piece, “Main Title”, is actually all score, an insidious theme punctuated by portentous chords from a pipe organ and a large choir which eventually develops into a thrusting, tumultuous orgy of strings, brasses and thunderous percussion. Sondheim’s music was adapted and re-orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, one of Broadway’s foremost practitioners, and the resulting sound is immense. There are other orchestral cues in the film which do not feature on the soundtrack CD, most of which were adapted from Sondheim’s original material by English composer Alex Heffes.

The idea that Burton would employ non-singers – Depp, Bonham Carter, Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen – in five of the eight major roles in the film must have been worrying to begin with, but they all acquit themselves with aplomb. Johnny Depp is a revelation as Todd, imbuing his vocal performances with a definite sense of menace, but also a reflection of a tortured soul, a man whose life has been desperately wronged. Although he is essentially singing in a variation of his Jack Sparrow accent from Pirates of the Caribbean, his voice is gravelly, with an almost punk-rock inflection at times, which somehow suits Todd’s introverted, anti-social persona. His first words, in the opening “No Place Like London”, drip with sarcasm, and as he goes on to describe his city as “a hole in the world like a great black pit, filled with people who are filled with shit”, you can almost taste the bitterness oozing from his tongue. Conversely, the lush, almost dreamlike “My Friends” is sung with romantic intimacy by Depp, who just happens to be singing his eternal proclamations of love to his precious silver cutthroat razors, while unknowingly shunning Mrs. Lovett’s affections toward him. His tour-de-force, however, is the stunning “Epiphany”, in which Todd declares his intention to exact his vengeance on the world at large. The strident, dramatic orchestral performance, and Depp’s intense, vicious vocal performance is truly amazing. As Depp rampages through the streets around his shop, whispering threats at random strangers, growling “I want you bleeders”, you finally witness his transformation from wronged husband into full-blown psychopath.

Helena Bonham Carter, as Mrs. Lovett, is more idealistic, and gets the all the best sung lines, even if she does deliver them in a strong and authentic Cockney accent which may well be unintelligible to non-Brits. Her performance of the sprightly “The Worst Pies in London” is breathlessly desperate and hilariously funny, while in “A Little Priest” she cheerfully contemplates the potential culinary delights of various members of London society while dancing a waltz with Sweeney. At the other end of the scale, she seeks to soothe Todd in “Wait”, almost as though she knows that once he starts down his murderous road her dreams of a life with the man who ignores her will be over; similarly, “By the Sea” has an almost child-like enthusiasm, a last-gasp attempt to woo her love which is both funny and sad. Even though it’s one of the most visually amusing parts of the film, with a man like Todd, you know that her desire for a quiet life by English Channel will never come to pass.

Sacha Baron Cohen, best known to international audiences for his comedy creations Ali G and Borat, is one-note in his role as the charlatan hairdresser Signor Pirelli, but nevertheless adopts a fun and flamboyant Italian accent and a brings sense of theatricality to his song, “The Contest”. Timothy Spall’s song, “Ladies in Their Sensitivities”, drips with toadying acquiescence on behalf Beadle Bamford, and employs some interestingly off-kilter rhythms and harp solos, making it one of the most musically interesting, if brief, songs in the score. Alan Rickman’s resonant baritone picks up the flow in “Pretty Women”, eventually developing into a wicked duet between Rickman and Depp as the latter attempts to calm the former with observations about the nature of the fairer sex while preparing to exact his bloody revenge. The brief recapitulation of the “My Friend” theme here is beautiful and chilling.

The four trained vocalists are Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, Edward Sanders and Laura Michelle Kelly who play Anthony, Johanna, Toby and the Beggar Woman respectively. Kelly is the best known of this quartet, having been acknowledged as one of London’s West End’s rising stars following her acclaimed stage performance as Mary Poppins in 2004. Ironically, though, hers is the smallest of the four parts.

Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are the center of the film’s central sub-plot about the former a ship-mate of Todd’s who begins to court Judge Turpin’s ward Johanna, not knowing that it is Todd’s long-lost daughter. Wisener’s cut-crystal soprano voice is given prominence in the lyrical “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, the song which first attracts the attentions of young Anthony, sitting reading below her window. His response, the longing “Johanna”, has hints of modern American jazz in the musical construct, especially in its use of swooping clarinets. The Johanna theme becomes a recurring musical element as the score reaches its zenith, taking on a whole new life when Depp takes over the lead vocal, lamenting the fact that he is unlikely to ever see his forgotten family again, as he unceremoniously cuts the jugular of customer after customer and dispatches them with sanguine fountains and a sickening thud down the basement below. This wonderfully depraved juxtaposition is another one of Burton and Sondheim’s genius touches.

Young Edward Sanders, as London hawker Toby, has two standout performances of his own: the duo “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “God, That’s Good” are buoyant sales pitches, touting both Pirelli’s piss-and-ink hair restorer and Mrs. Lovett’s questionable meat pies with a gleeful disregard for truth in advertising. His best, however, is the innocently earnest “Not While I’m Around”, in which he naïvely expresses his affection for Mrs. Lovett and his misgivings about Todd, unaware that in doing so, he is putting his life in jeopardy. Mrs. Lovett’s knowing response, despite singing the same words, has a whole new meaning: the pretty melody is skewed by a warped solo violin performance, turning the innocuous lyrics into a callous, echoing siren-song, beckoning the boy to his death. The “Final Scene” brings everything together into a grand guignol celebration of the macabre, with six of the major characters all performing their signature melodies, all punctuated by enormous, dramatic orchestral blasts. The finale runs for 10 minutes, and by the time Todd and Lovett’s duet reaches it pinnacle, with Lovett desperately begging for her life and Todd growing increasingly deranged, the drama is utterly compelling.

As you can clearly tell, I thought Sweeney Todd was magnificent, musically, lyrically, and by all the performers. Sondheim, Burton, Depp, Bonham Carter and Tunick are all to be congratulated for taking a Broadway sensation and transferring it to the big screen without losing any of its passion, intensity, or intelligence – and actually, in some cases, making it better, notably in terms of the size of the orchestral ensemble performing the score. As Sweeney Todd is not an original work, and contains no new songs, it will be ineligible for musical recognition by the Academy Awards, and as such will also not feature in the Movie Music UK Awards in 2007. Had it been original, however, it would unquestionably have been the score of the year.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Opening Title (3:30)
  • No Place Like London (5:32)
  • The Worst Pies in London (2:23)
  • Poor Thing (3:09)
  • My Friends (3:48)
  • Green Finch & Linnet Bird (2:16)
  • Alms! Alms! (1:16)
  • Johanna (1:57)
  • Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir (2:00)
  • The Contest (3:37)
  • Wait (2:39)
  • Ladies in Their Sensitivities (1:23)
  • Pretty Women (4:27)
  • Epiphany (3:17)
  • A Little Priest (5:15)
  • Johanna (5:42)
  • God, That’s Good! (2:47)
  • By the Sea (2:20)
  • Not While I’m Around (4:12)
  • Final Scene (10:20)

Running Time: 71 minutes 50 seconds

Nonesuch Records 368572-2 (2007)

Voice Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jane Wisener, Laura Michelle Kelly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Edward Sanders.

Music composed by Stephen Sondheim. Conducted by Paul Gemignani. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Additional arrangements and additional music by Alex Heffes. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson. Edited by Michael Higham. Album produced by Michael Higham.

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