Stephen Sondheim had little use for movie musicals, even less for movie musicals adapted from stage musicals, least of all for movie musicals adapted from stage musicals of his own. “They’re essentially filming the stage musical,” he explained. “The amount of time spent on a number is the same amount of time spent on a stage number. Very seldom are numbers cut down or reshaped to fit the film.” That said, he was A-OK with the cinematic Sweeney Todd, the score sliced and diced to Tim Burton’s specs, the cast led by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, neither otherwise much in demand for song or dance.
Angela Lansbury, the mother of all Mrs. Lovetts, didn’t like the movie. “No humor,” she sniffed.
For the full flavor of her secret sauce, you might check YouTube for the single-camera bootleg someone shot from the mezzanine in 1979, during the show’s original Broadway run. For superior viewing, watch the live video from Los Angeles, captured three years later on the national tour. There’s Lansbury in all her Tony Award-winning glory, pounding dough and stuffing pies with her invincible musical-hall relish.
True, in place of the monumental set (a legend in its time), you’ll be seeing a portable knockoff. And you’ll have to settle—if you call that settling—for George Hearn rather than Len Cariou as Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, slitting throats guilty and innocent to avenge ancient wrongs. Virtually the entire original cast had moved on by this time. Only two holdouts remained. One was Ken Jennings (no, not the Jeopardy! champion) as the plaintive waif Tobias Ragg, Mrs. Lovett’s mascot, would-be guardian angel, and partner in “Not While I’m Around,” the show’s most poignant duet. The other, as noted, was Lansbury, name above the title, ace in the hole for putting butts in seats.
Here’s part of what the critic Richard Eder wrote about her when the show opened in New York. “Her songs, many of them rapid patter songs with awkward musical intervals and having to be sung while doing five or ten other things at once, are awesomely difficult and she does them awesomely well. Her voice is a visible voice; you can follow it amid any confusion; it is not piercing but piping. Her face is a comic face; her eyes revolve three times to announce the arrival of an idea; but there is a blue sadness blinking behind them.” That’s all still totally on the money. But let’s add a word for her incidental dance riffs: daffy puffs of terpsichorean blithe spirits that knock viewers sideways.
For the most part, Mrs. Lovett’s flourishes whiz right by the “demon barber” who is the sugar in her tea—that’s comedy! As the grim Ricky to her Lucy, not to say the Hannibal to her complicit Clarice, Hearn’s now sullen, now seismic Sweeney Todd charges his juicy but monochromatic part with the paradoxical radiance of a Rothko canvas, black on pitch black.
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii