Monday, December 3, 2007

A Swell Sweeney

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd.

The hottest ticket in Times Square yesterday wasn't for any Broadway show — it was for a special Sweeney Todd screening for the theater community. In addition to the scores of press people, I spied former Jersey Boys star John Lloyd Young, Richard Kind, Roger Rees and his partner, Rick Elice (one of the authors of Jersey Boys), who told me that as a graduate student in 1979 he invested in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. He scraped together the minimum you could contribte ($5,600) and to this day has only made back $5,200.

Oh yeah, Stephen Sondheim was there to introduce the film, and he made a point of saying that it's a film based on a musical, not a movie version of the show, no doubt concerned that Monday morning's All That Chat message board would be filled with posts bitching about cut songs and changed lyrics. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp also put in appearances and gave the crowd a quick wave. "If you don't like the movie, blame us," Burton quipped.

I don't think he'll have to worry. It's a stunning film. I've had most of the libretto memorized since I was 11, and goodness knows I'm not one of those people who adapts to change very well, but even I thought the minor cuts and adjustments were gently and carefully done and enhanced the story for this more visual medium. I did miss the patrons of Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop punctuating their meals with a resounding shout of "God, That's Good," and I was hoping Alan Rickman would get to perform the judge's version of "Johanna," which reveals his inner conflict.

But his Judge Turpin doesn't have any redeeming qualities, which is great, in part because they've added a couple of short but memorable scenes with Anthony and Johanna. And how interesting to see Tobias played by an actual boy instead of a young man with a boyish face. It makes Pirelli's brutality toward him and the final scene especially disturbing.

Sondheim's and Burton's sensibilities mesh wonderfully. The rats scurrying through the streets of London and the roaches crawling in and out of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies are a nice touch. And the way Sweeney disposes of his victims is wonderfully depicted. When he sends them down the chute from his barber chair to the bakehouse, they smack down headfirst on the hard floor. Not something you can have actors do eight times a week onstage unless you have a very good insurance policy.

Burton has great fun with charming numbers like "By the Sea," creating the whole fantasy sequence that Mrs. Lovett describes, and "A Little Priest." Despite looking considerably younger than every other Sweeney Todd's/Mrs. Lovett's I've seen, Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do a bang-up job with their roles. I'm listening to the soundtrack now, and while I doubt it will get as much playtime as the original cast recording or recent John Doyle revival (which I'm writing about for the Ahmanson Theater's program as the tour heads to L.A.), I hope it will introduce scores to newbies to this wonderful score. And I would love to go back and see the movie in a theater filled with patrons who don't know what to expect to gauge their reaction.

As if all this weren't enough, walking out of the theater I spied a poster for Harold and Kumar 2 that shows Neil Patrick Harris riding a unicorn. So nice to have something to look forward to in the new year!

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