January 30, 2008

Losing My Head Over "Sweeney Todd"

The Oscar nominations were announced last week and despite winning the Golden Globe award for Best Musical or Comedy, Tim Burton’s film version of Sweeney Todd didn’t make the cut as one of the five nominees for Best Movie. Johnny Depp, however, did get a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of Sweeney.

There was so much to do over the holidays and so many stage shows to see, that I only recently caught up with the film even though Sweeney Todd is my all-time favorite musical. And now having seen it, I think the Oscar folks got it right. Depp’s characteristically idiosyncratic intensity is a perfect match for Sweeney and deserves to be r
ecognized. But while Burton’s trademark creepy aesthetic also fits the show’s macabre subject matter, it lacks the humor that stage versions have used to leaven the horror of a vengeful man who slits people’s throats and an opportunistic woman who bakes their remains into savory meat pies. It’s a good, even spellbinding, movie. But it has been a great, truly sublime, show.

In fact, the best time I ever had in the theater was back in 1979 when I saw the original production just before Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, as Sweeney
and his cheerfully ghoulish companion Mrs. Lovett, were about to leave the cast. I had never seen or heard a show like it before. And I have never since felt anything like the almost sexual energy that coursed through the entire theater that night. The actors apparently felt it too and began channeling the emotion into their performance. That electrified the audience and its excitement seemed to goad the cast on to even greater intensity. Near frenzy mounted on both sides of the stage lights as the evening went on. I don't know if this happened at every performance but when the final note of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the song that begins and ends the show, was sung that night, the cast, visibly dripping with sweat, broke into applause for the audience and, at that same moment, the entire audience leapt to its feet and literally roared its gratitude. I was enraptured. And I have remained so about what is certainly Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece.

When The Kennedy Center presented its Sondheim Celebration in 2002, my husband K and I jumped on the Metroliner and went down to Washington for a weekend-long orgy of thre
e of the Celebration’s six shows. Sondheim happened to be sitting in the same car, right across from us, and K, a pit musician who has played several Sondheim shows, went over and and said hello and they chatted briefly about the Kennedy Center festival. Sondheim said it was going well. That proved to be a total understatement. We saw Company, Merrily We Roll Along and, of course, Sweeney Todd and we had a magnificent time. Brian Stokes Mitchell made a powerful Sweeney and Christine Baranski was terrifically amusing and even touching as Mrs. Lovett. It was a wonderful production and I hoped it would come to New York so that I could see it again. Instead, in 2005, we got the John Doyle production with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone and a tiny cast of eight other actors, who also doubled as the orchestra. The Doyle production was widely praised for its innovative approach but although I liked Cerveris and LuPone, I missed the sound of a real orchestra and a full-throated chorus.

The movie cuts some of the songs but the music that remains is full-strength (Sondheim’s frequent Broadway collaborators Jonathan Tunick did the orchestrations and Paul Gemignani conducted the orchestra) but while Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett are terrific actors, they are only so-so singers. So I was delighted when I discovered that the Masterworks Broadway series had released a digitally re-mastered 2-disc set of the 1979 original cast album. It’s done up with over a dozen photos from that production, liner notes that include recollections from Victor Garber who played the young sailor Anthony who befriends Sweeney and later falls in love with his daughter Johanna, and two bonus tracks from the one-night Sondheim celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1992 (click here to learn more about it). It’s the kind of stuff that theater geeks love. But you don’t have to be a geek to love this CD. For the music is thrilling, amusing, intoxicating and damn near addictive. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since the CD arrived four days ago. Even when I unplug my iPod, I can’t get the songs out of my head. Nor do I really want to.

And so although, there are new shows I’ve seen—a nice revival of Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride at Altered Stages, a disappointing retelling of The Trojan Women by the Classical Theatre of Harlem —and that I should be writing about, I simply had to share the passion that this theater lover has for Sweeney Todd with those of you who love theater too.

1 comment:

Esther said...

When I first started getting into Sondheim (last year. Ok, I'm a late bloomer!) I watched Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd on DVD, and Sweeney was my favorite of the three. I just found the songs the most memorable. Plus, Angela Lansbury is so great - funny and a bit demented. I did see the Sweeney tour with Judy Kaye. While I liked it, and I'm glad I had a chance to see Sweeney Todd on stage, there's just something about Angela Lansbury's performance that's so perfect.