Twinkle & Shimmer & Buzz

There's been a bit of talk around the film blogosphere about the great Stephen Sondheim lately, spurred by the new trailer for Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd. Kim Morgan wrote about it, doing a lovely slap-down of the "I hate musicals!!" crowd in the process, and Edward Copeland did a nice Todd retrospective a few weeks ago.

I watched the trailer online, and it's...interesting. As Morgan rightly notes, it completely underplays the fact that the film is a musical, which, given the snippet we do get of Depp's singing, might be just as well-- this is the most "operatic" of all Sondheim musicals, with a notoriously difficult score, and Depp doesn't seem to have the vocal range to pull it off. I like Depp, despite the second Pirates movie and claptrap like Finding Neverland and Secret Window, but everything from the kewpie doll smile on his face to the streak of Sontag gray in his hair suggests he's not playing Sweeney Todd so much as "Edward Scissorhands: The Later Years" (insert your own barber/scissorhand jokes here). Alan Rickman looks wonderful as Judge Turpin, despite a bad haircut, and Helena Bonham Carter looks a lot more convincing as Mrs. Lovett than I would've suspected (she's still channeling Bellatrix Lestrange, and it works for her). I cringe at what looks like an expansion of Todd's backstory (its elusive, throwaway quality in the original production-- that we catch only haunting snippets, which may or may not be true-- is so crucial to Todd's madness), and I'm not sure if Burton's visual palette-- an odd mixture of Minnelli-like bright colors and dingy Victorian streets-- is going to come off, but I'll withold judgment until I see it all in context.

In short, a serviceable but cartoonish, Cliffs Notes Todd. Honestly, this is not one of my favorite Sondheim shows. I far prefer Follies, Company, and Sunday In The Park With George, and think the Broadway Todd suffered greatly from the absence of design genius Boris Aronson, whose sets had so beautifully embodied Sondheim and Harold Prince's concepts; there is an emptiness to Todd's Broadway staging that works on an allegorical but not aesthetic level. I also like Hugh Wheeler's adaptation less than the work he did on A Little Night Music, or James Lapine's work with Sondheim in the 80s and 90s (for that matter, I find it less gripping than James Goldman's much maligned Follies libretto. Yes, that's a difficult and devastating wrist-gash of a read, but so's the whole show, so it fits).

So, I'm not gnashing my teeth the way I might if Burton-- who has seemingly let the commercial failure of the brilliant Mars Attacks drain the creative life out of him--got ahold of one of those other Sondheim pieces. But it is a great score, and it was masterfully played by Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in the very fine taped version of the Broadway production (the staging comes from Broadway, although it was actually taped in L.A.), and it really deserves performers who can knock it out of the park, especially since this film version will probably be the one seen by the widest audience (my own dream casting: Hugh Laurie as Todd-- as House proves, he's got that look of comic madness in his eye-- and Cate Blanchett as Mrs. Lovett). That taped stage version is available on DVD, and as Morgan and Copeland did, I would highly recommend checking that version out, if only to get a sense of the show's original conception before seeing whatever changes Burton makes.

In the meantime, however, here are some interesting Sondheim clips to tide you over.

Elaine Stritch singing "Broadway Baby" (Follies), 2005

Dorothy Loudon masterfully interweaving two Sondheim classics at the Carnegie Hall celebration, 1992

Judi Dench, singing "Send In The Clowns" (A Little Night Music) 1996 West End Production

Mandy Patinkin, pondering the sacrifices of art: "Finishing The Hat" (Sunday In The Park With George), 1984

Part One...

...And Part Two of Stritch, again, struggling to record "The Ladies Who Lunch" (as Sondheim looks on, grimacing) in D.A. Pennebaker's great documentary, Original Cast Album: Company, 1970

Yvonne De Carlo, performing "I'm Still Here" (with all the lyrics!) on The David Frost Show to promote Follies, 1971

A lengthy-but-fascinating Charlie Rose interview with Sondheim and James Lapine to promote Passion, 1994


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