Tim, Johnny, Helena and Sweeney, alas…

I so wanted to like it. I saw the original cast on stage in Boston and it was an evening that changed my life, at least in terms of what I might have aspired to in creating music theater.

Tim Burton has such a unique style and that he even wanted to tackle “Sweeney” made me cheer. Another production! And Johnny Depp’s ability to create an intense and nuanced character excited my imagination, though I couldn’t imagine how he would manage the vocal aspects of this very operatic score. Well, “special effects” are usually visual effects, so maybe a creative director like Tim Burton will figure out an audio equivalant. Or maybe Johnny will concoct a singing style that will emerge from his characterization of Sweeney and make him even more sympathetic and give voice to his deep rage at the injustice that ran in the streets of 19th century London.

I was bothered immediately when the brooding, dark organ prelude played behind the Warner Bros trademark and the shimmering image of the WB studio lot. Why not show those, then begin with a dark screen and that music? I tried to let Burton do what he felt he needed to do make the transition from stage to film, but I kept seeing mistakes and harmful omissions. It kept reminding me of “Nightmare Before Christmas” and especially “The Corpse Bride”, with their coy ghoulishness, especially whenever Helena “sang”. “Sweeney” is only tongue-in-cheek in the “Try a little priest” scene. (Which was pretty effective though I wish they had not cut any of the song.)

All of the voices were recorded so closely that it sounded as though the microphone was placed between their teeth. The singing was not happening in the same “space” in which the actors were moving and speaking. The music, so central to Stephen Sondheim’s creation, here it seemed as though it was piped in and not intrinsic to the drama.

Much of the vocal performance was sort of pop style, with lots of swooping into pitches and innocent-sounding unsupported tone. Anthony was a wimp. Johnny Depp went to a raw voiced, rocker sound early and had no where to go for “I’m alive at last, and I’m full of joy!” or the lament over the dead Lucy. The tenor range seemed just wrong for Sweeney. (The woman singing Joanna redeemed “Green finch and linnet bird” for me, however. Though the staging of it missed the whole point of the song! Jeesh! “Uh, Steve, we thought we’d just leave out that part and not bother with the girl and bird in the cage parallel, okay?” “Uh, well…okay. I guess…how much am I getting paid for this? Oh…sure…whatever…”) I don’t get it.

I could make a long list, but there were two things that bothered me the most and leave me with the opinion that the movie is a failure. The first is the nonsequitur that occurs when Joanna is in danger of being murdered by Sweeney and he lets her go. Something was out of order in the stage action as adapted here, I think, and it seemed awkward and very unthrilling when Sweeney just let her go. (I recall holding my breath in terror when I saw that scene on stage, and was relieved when she escaped.)

The second was the bloodletting of Sweeney at the end (’way overdone!!!) and the omission of the ballad at the close, because in one lyric, the point of the story is made: it’s not about cannibalism, much less about copious amounts of very fake looking blood, the story is about revenge in the face of social injustice. “No where to run, no where it hide, isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” Revenge is shown to be a most compelling motive, especially in a situation as unjust as was portrayed in the story, but it is a WMD and revenge easily involves the innocent and creates more injustice and does nothing, really, to set things right.

Forget the movie, find the original cast soundtrack - it works as audio theater. Or find the video that was made of the original cast production. Or come see it when we stage it with the Tusc Phil…someday… “Oh, Mr. Burton, sir, if you please, can you spare 50 grand?”

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