A "musical thriller" that swept Broadway's Tony Awards almost three decades ago has final made it to the screen. Appropriately, the film version of the macabre operetta is directed by Tim Burton and stars his frequent collaborator, Johnny Depp. Alan Silverman has a look at Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The ghostly figure emerging from thick fog shrouding a London dock has been through a hellish journey: an escape from prison and a rescue at sea. But it is not quite a joyful homecoming.
At the dodgy end of Fleet Street he finds the faded barber pole still hangs on the doorway above Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop; but gone are the loving wife and beautiful daughter from whom he had been ripped away by a jealous judge.
So begins a murder spree as gentlemen and dandies flock to Sweeney Todd's barber chair, only to be dispatched by a slice of his razor. As the bodies pile up, Todd and Mrs. Lovett come up with a plan: grind them up, bake them into pies and serve them to her unsuspecting customers.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street took Broadway by storm in 1979. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim says, of all the filmmakers who wanted to make a screen version, Tim Burton, with his penchant for the macabre, was the ideal choice. "I knew it from the time he came to me 20 years ago that he really loved the story. That was the first thing: he likes the story and he likes the musical. He's not a particular fan of stage musicals, but something about this spoke to him and I absolutely trusted that. He didn't have to be persuaded about the story. He didn't want to change the story. He wanted the story just the way it was. I was also enthusiastic about some of his movies, but the real point was that he loved the material," he says.
Director Burton says it felt to him like the old-fashioned gothic horror films that he enjoyed as a kid. "You take away the voices and it's like a great old movie score. It's a melodramatic story, so to me, if you took out the music it would lend itself to one of those old horror movies that we've talked so much about for years," he says. "It is very cinematic. And the music ...when you listen to the soundtrack, you get the story by the music and we just thought that was a cool way of doing it: not have 10 pages of dialog, somebody sings, another dialog, another song ...you know, keep it musical. I thought that was a real strength of the piece."
Burton wanted his friend Johnny Depp for the title character; but could he handle all the complex music?. I had absolutely no idea if he could sing," says the director. "He said he thought he could do it, but I strangely had absolutely no fear of that whatsoever. I worry about a lot of things, but I strangely did not fear that at all and he exceeded my expectations, so I was very lucky."
"Like Tim was saying, he didn't know if I could sing, likewise I didn't know if I could sing," says Depp, who adds it was a challenge. I had a feeling because of my background in music that I could hit a note or two, but I didn't know if I could sustain a note. I really didn't know if I could pull it off. That's why I said to him 'I think I can do it, let me go off and try some stuff.' So I went into a buddy's studio - like a little garage studio - and started to record the songs, just to see if I could get over the initial fear. I did that and started to get a bit more confident; but the idea of me standing in front of a guy at a piano singing scales ...my instinct said this is wrong. It doesn't matter if you know how to sing, just sing. That's what I did."
For Sweeney Todd creator Stephen Sondheim the film succeeds because of the acting, not necessarily the singing. "I'm interested in storytelling. What I like about song writing is songs used to tell a story. That's why I don't write songs apart from theatrical pieces. I like songs that are part of a dramatic texture and therefore I like the scenes to be acted. I want to follow the story and that means you lean on the actors. I'm used to what I would call 'untrained' singing and if any of the leading roles in the film had been cast with a professional 'Singer,' then it would have been out of balance and I think it would not have worked so well. But they are all merely actors who are musical. That's why I think it works so well," he says.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street also features Helena Bonham Carter as pie-maker Mrs. Lovett. Alan Rickman plays the nefarious Judge Turpin with Timothy Spall as his henchman, Beadle Bamford. Sacha Baron Cohen also appears as the rival barber Pirelli who becomes "Sweeney Todd's" first victim and Mrs. Lovett's first tasty ingredient.